SOUTH BEND, IN — On the sunny morning of June 30, 1934, George “Baby Face” Nelson and his trigger-happy band of bandits blasted their way into Merchants National Bank. The resulting bloodbath soaked the sidewalks.
Numerous witnesses, bystanders, and hostages took bullets, including Nelson himself, who wore a bulletproof vest. Homer Van Meter, Nelson’s partner, shot a traffic cop dead. During the ensuing manhunt, Nelson executed two state troopers.
The Merchants Bank Heist was the last robbery committed by Nelson and that particular gang, which many historians believe included Pretty Boy Floyd. After that, the Chicago native replaced his recently gunned-down longtime associate John Dillinger as Public Enemy No. 1.
Death came to Nelson in the manner with which he robbed banks throughout the 1920s and ’30s: brutally, bombastically, and in a blaze of wild gunfire that came to be known as the Battle of Barrington.
On November 27, 1934, FBI agents tracked Nelson, his wife Helen Gillis, and henchman John Paul Chase to Barrington, Illinois, a small town just outside Chicago.
Agents Samuel P. Cowley and Herman “Ed” Hollis initiated a firefight with Nelson while they were all driving on Highway 12, with the two cars exchanging rounds. As Nelson’s vehicle slowed to a crawl from a shot to the water tank, he pulled into North Side Park.
Explosive combat followed. Nelson mortally wounded Cowley and Hollis, but not before they plugged him nine times using a shotgun and a Thompson submachine gun.
Remarkably, Nelson survived long enough to make it to a safe house, where he expired. An anonymous tip then led the authorities to Nelson’s body, which lay wrapped in a blanket outside a church. He was 25.
With the passing of Baby Face Nelson the homicidal bank robber, the legend of Baby Face Nelson — the larger-than-life Depression-era outlaw — was born.
What follows are six combustive examples of how pop culture has immortalized the famously nicknamed criminal who — just like his pal Pretty Boy Floyd — actually hated being called “Baby Face.”
BABY BUGGY BUNNY (1954)
Director: Chuck Jones
Cast: Mel Blanc
One of Warner Brothers’ funniest and most fun-to-quote Bugs Bunny cartoons, Baby Buggy cartoons (“Oh, FIN-stah BAY-bee!”) pits the heroic hare against Baby Finster, a dwarf bank robber who disguises himself as an adorable infant. Every time Finster causes some new mayhem, Bugs can’t help but melt when he gazes into Finster’s irresistible baby blues. That changes, however, after Bugs catches the wee one in his care shaving, sporting a tattoo, and puffing a cigar. [Looney Tunes Wiki]
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Mickey Rooney, Carolyn Jones, Cedric Hardwicke
Mickey Rooney effectively crazies it up in the title role of Baby Face Nelson, a taut, speedy film noir directed by the great Don Siegel (Dirty Harry). Even better is Carolyn Jones (Morticia from TV’s Addams Family) playing Helen Gillis, aka Mrs. Baby Face. As a direct follow-up to Siegel’s 1956 masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Baby Face Nelson met with bad reviews upon release, but it has since been rediscovered and won over numerous champions. [TCM]
Director: John Milius
Cast: Warren Oates, Cloris Leachman, Richard Dreyfus
Writer-director John Milius’s Dillinger stars the monumental Warren Oates in the lead, and it also provides a breakthrough role for young Richard Dreyfus as Baby Face Nelson. The movie compresses real-life time sequences for plot’s sake, but that hardly diminishes the impact of an electrifying recreation of The Battle of Barrington, where Dreyfus fires with everything in his arsenal. [Twenty-Four Frames]
BABY FACE NELSON (1996)
Director: Scott P. Levy
Cast: C. Thomas Howell, Lisa Zane, F. Murray Abraham
Eighties heartthrob C. Thomas Howell looks too old in the title role of the made-for-Showtime shoot-’em-up Baby Face Nelson. Still, he admirably makes the most of this lightweight, way-loose-with-the-facts remake of the 1957 Mickey Rooney version. It’s an odd choice to portray a cold-blooded killer like Nelson as a hero who operates by a strict code of ethics, but it doesn’t make for an un-entertaining B-flick, either. [IMDB]
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Michael Badalucco
Joel and Ethan Coen’s mad, mirthful musical O Brother, Where Art Thou? casts George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as escaped chain gang convicts who undertake a comic odyssey throughout the Depression-era south in pursuit of buried treasure. Among the crazily colorful characters the trio encounters is Michael Badolucci as Baby Face Nelson, who memorably makes it clear how much he really cannot stand his nickname. [Mental Floss]
PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum
Public Enemies chronicles the battle of wits and wills between Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI Agent hellbent on bringing the gangster to justice. British actor Stephen Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) proves formidable in the supporting role of Baby Face Nelson. Unsurprisingly, writer-director Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Heat) fashions the saga into a cool, stylish, and impactful experience. [Slate]
Main photos: George “Baby Face” Nelson [FBI]