In speaking about the movie industry Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures once told entertainment reporter Ezra Goodman that "it's not a business; it's a racket."
There's little doubting Cohn's characterization after reading Hank Messick's 1973 book The Beauties and the Beasts which rather convincingly alleges the pervasive role of the Mafia in early Hollywood. Mob money apparently financed many studio companies in the 1920s and 1930s according to Messick. For example, Columbia Pictures originally was owned by New Yorkers Harry Cohn, his older brother Jack, and Joe Brandt, and in 1932 the Cohn brothers allegedly obtained a $500,000 loan from Genovese mobster Abner "Longie" Zwillman from New Jersey to buy out Brandt's shares. Credit was tight during the Depression years but the mob still was flush with Prohibition cash, and Messick details several juice loans Hollywood moguls allegedly took from mob loansharks in order to survive the lean years.
The mob wasn't simply financing Hollywood. In the 1930s and 1940s it apparently exploited numerous other angles according to Messick by which to profit from the movie industry including taking over International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee and Moving Picture Operators, consolidating control over theater chains, and owning talent agencies. The Mafia even had its man Johnny Roselli installed as a "labor conciliator" in the Hays Office which was established to ensure movie content did not offend American morals. During this time Warner Brothers was putting out gangster movies such as Public Enemy starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow, and the movie studio supposedly kept Chicago mobsters on the set as film consultants. As Messick writes: "Show business isn't unique in being corrupted, but show business has been a key conquest of the fast-buck boys." The Beauties and the Beasts also explores the mob's development of Las Vegas, and how it seemingly used its talent pool such as Frank Sinatra as performing shills to attract degenerate gamblers to their casinos.
The Beauties and the Beasts relies upon extensive documentation including corporate records, investigative reports, trial testimony and other authoritative sources, and the necessary scholarship sometimes can be a tad dry. However, Messick also titillates with some tabloid-like stories including the love triangle between Genovese mobster Longie Zwillman, bombshell actress Jean Harlow and MGM exec Paul Bern. Messick writes that Harlow would beg for Zwillman's manhood during their passionate affair, and in contrast her subsequent marriage on July 1, 1932 to Bern never was consummated because he was impotent with "the penis and testicles of a boy before puberty." Harlow was livid on her wedding night upon the shocking discovery about her husband's shortcoming, and Messick teases with some theories about Bern's supposed suicide two months later.
Hank Messick was one of the early writers to widely expose the Mafia, and his first book The Silent Syndicate was released in 1967. Messick made some enemies for his investigative work, and as the book jacket to The Beauties and the Beasts puts it: "As a crime reporter he has often been threatened by gangsters, offered bribes (one was for $250,000), indicted on trumped-up felony charges, and was once assaulted by a crooked cop." Messick died in 1999 from autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome, and "although his illness robbed him of most of his sight, Mr. Messick wrote his final book, Razzle Dazzle (1995), largely from memory and dictated it to his wife" according to his obituary by John Harney in The New York Times.
Further reading that may be of interest: