The Speakeasy – Backroom Casinos Of The Early 20th Century

Posted: April 22, 2020

Updated: April 23, 2020

  • Flapper Girls, Tommy Guns And Gin Served Up In China Cups 
  • Backroom Casinos Features Frequently In The Speakeasy Movie
  • Dirty Rats Top Of The World Whilst Gambling Takes Backseat

The prohibition era is an endless fascination for Hollywood. Perhaps it is the traumatic implications that draw them back time and time again. A lack of alcohol is an anathema to most moviemakers. Their portrayal of this era then is awash with backroom casinos, police raids, and gangsters. Gambling merely exploiting another moral vice for entertainment. Online betting sites in the US like Bovada are today far more open of their affairs, so let us pry open this can of film.  

The speakeasy, an underground club for drinkers when it was illegal to drink, is common on the silver screen. It harks back to a thumbing of authority and sits alongside alcohol as a coconspirator. The smashing of gaming tables every bit as part and parcel as casks of hooch broken open. Whilst some of these famous movies attempted to show the price of this illegality, many of them did not. The backroom casinos of Chicago and elsewhere ever given a glamour all of their own.

Nowhere is this more true than in Rick’s Café Américan. The idle mix of a cocktail bar, music venue, and gambling establishment easily acceptable to audiences. The backroom casinos of the era of gangsters created a trope so simply copied. Smothering it in the charm of Humphrey Bogart was, however, not enough. In Casablanca Rick manipulates gambling to save a young lady’s virtue, the illegality of it instantly tempered. Like using US gambling laws for a novelty wager. Even corruption was merely for laughs.  

Johnny Hooker 

  • “Your boss is quite a card player, Mr Kelly, how does he do it?”
  • “He cheats.”

Backroom Casinos A Long Way From Modern Bovada 

The emollient Rick, however, is just a shadow of the gangsters that ran such venues in the US. In Casablanca competitors buy each other out, in Chicago, they gun each other down. The shooting up of a rival’s establishment common and perhaps most amusingly satirized in Bugsy Malone. The backroom casinos in the US then are an addition to the prohibition tapestry rather than the main feature. Perhaps indicative of precisely how much more profitable alcohol was than even this ever providing vice.

Backroom Casinos
Moments from The Speakeasy, the American comedy from 1919 – Image source: Mack Sennett Comedies / Paramount Pictures via Wikimedia Commons

So the harsh nature of gangsters in the 20s rather precluded the audience from getting what it wants from gambling. It denied tales of risk reward management and ultimate victory. It is probably why The Sting stands out. Of similar era and featuring many a backroom casino and bookies this gave the audience what it wanted. Paul Newman and Robert Redford ripping off Robert Shaw in a manner that would give online sportsbook sites in the US like Bovada palpitations.

The Sting Sees Cinema Glorify Cheating Once Again

Once again cinema displays scant regard for fair play in these backroom casinos and illicit card games. The genre applauds cheats and rewards conmen, glamorizes them, and makes the heroes. That the tables in Casablanca are rigged bothers no one. That they manipulate racing results in The Sting is wholly unimportant. The speakeasy movie had other evils to demonstrate. From White Heat to Angels With Dirty Faces or even the Godfather it greed that was punished, not gambling.

Captain Louis Renault

  • “I’m shocked. Shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”
  • “Your winnings, Monsieur.”
  • “Oh, thank you very much.”

Almost an aside none of these speakeasy movies would be the same without the backroom casinos. Their presence gives a texture that would otherwise be absent. Today the human desire to gamble is sated by a bet on sports in the US at the likes of Bovada. In the 20s and 30s, it was something only on offer alongside the illegality of drinking. Represented sometimes as the lesser of evils, and sometimes seen only in passing like the reflections in the sheen of Sam’s piano.

Read more about gambling in cinema’s different genres.

We take a look at the backroom casinos so often featured in the speakeasy movies of prohibition and the early 20th century.

Click here to visit the Bovada Sportsbook to relive the speakeasy vibes online

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