Family Business: The Godfather as Business Allegory

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The scope of Frances Ford Coppola’s gangster opus The Godfather is large, not only in its fairly cyclical nature and trilogy format, but also for the way it views the United States of America. In the first entry of the trilogy, Coppola draws a detailed map of the United States as a capitalist enterprise, where nearly every action any character takes is under the guise of one thing (family loyalty, masculine coda, etc.) but is merely another action taken by the business. Its enormous scope notwithstanding, Coppola paints an intimate portrait of a family business, keying in on the specific nuances of the family business. Business is booming.

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America, America

Out of the thick, suffocating darkness comes the words “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” Spoken by an Italian American immigrant seated directly in front of Don Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) desk, Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) pitches to the eponymous Godfather the desire to find justice for his daughter to receive a semblance of justice after she was raped and left for dead. Despite the intentional melodrama of the story, the manner in which Bonasera pitches this idea, and the response he received from the Don, is not unlike asking the bank for a loan. Essentially, this is what occurs; the Don agrees under the condition that Bonasera will be called upon later for a favor.

This scene seems to articulate the ideas of the film twofold: it first establishes the United States of America as a capitalist enterprise, with Bonasera remarking that he has made his fortune in America. The American Dream is possible, yet continually illusive in one way or another. With Gatsby, it was at the cost of love and a soul, and for Bonasera, the underlying darkness of the American Dream is nearly the same kind of seediness. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby attained his nouveau riche status by illegally selling alcohol; in Coppola and novelist Mario Puzo’s film, the Corleone family has achieved their status through bribery, extortion, and running the casinos. In another, perhaps slightly more obvious manner, the Godfather is like a banker, taking into consideration Bonasera’s “credit score” so to speak and finally agreeing upon a loan. That is how the family business operates.

Geographically, though, Coppola makes a point to cover the transactionary content of the film in the United States. Although Michael Corleone is (Al Pacino) at one point flees to Sicily, this is to escape the business. What the Corleone Family are, arguably as well as the rest of the Five Families, is a corporate institution that must continue to gauge the effect of various “crops” often with respect to their geographical whereabouts. The Corleone Family operate in New York City, with the politicians, press, and police in their pockets. They have covered their bases, making Manhattan their turf as much as possible. Boundaries are present and hell breaks loose if they are crossed. When Michael considers the advantages of moving out to Las Vegas, there is particular consideration taken when thinking of the location. The Corleone Family, like any other organization, are aware of the business motto, “Location, location, location.”

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The Family (as) Business

With location, one must consider competing businesses, and that is precisely what much of The Godfather entails. If read as an allegory of the market system in the United States, each family represents their own business, specializing in one “crop” or another, whether it be casinos or narcotics. With the latter in mind, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the adopted son of Don Corleone, suggests to the family that drugs are the future of the system and it would be wise for them to get in on it while they can. He arranges a meeting with the drug lord Virgil Sollozzo. The dialogue of the meeting is written with the intent of creating a scene between the investor and the person who wants the startup. Sollozzo requests $1 million with a guaranteed return of up to $5 million. It is ostensibly a meeting that, though it does not end in the Corleone Family getting in on the monopoly on narcotics, does suggest a certain amount of amicability. It is a loan proposal which is pleasantly rejected. However, a rival family, the Tattaglia Family, has already gotten in. In this scene, then, it is important to understand that the operations of the family seem to be exactly the same as any other kind of business. The steps taken for a business to invest in something and to follow through with it are the same that occur in these crime families.

Fascinatingly, though, any action taken within the family, however subtle or overt, thus is a representation of an action that the business has taken, both internally and externally. Members of the family are not defined by their blood ties exactly, but by their loyalty to the family, and that loyalty translates as loyalty to the business itself. A majority of the family members have specific roles within the factory an influence its operations and the direction the family goes: Vito Corleone is the Don, ostensibly like a CEO; Sonny Corleone (James Caan) is an underboss, next in line to be Godfather; and Tom Hagen is consigliore, the right hand man, advisor, and essentially COO.

The roles these men play within the universe of the film are not limited to the operations within the business, but they seem to work almost as external limbs wherever they go. Their names and roles are known by most who are associated in similar enterprises, and, even as a foot soldier of the Don, one becomes infamous and respected because of those roles. The relationship between the Mafia and standard venture jargon, even the term “boss”, is telling in how similar they are.

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Crimes and Misdemeanors

With every action being important to the longstanding appearance and legacy of the business, it is fair to say that the action taken comes from the business. When Tom Hagen by proxy gives a studio head in Hollywood a “deal he [can’t] refuse”, such a deal and decision was made by the head of the family, thus having a critical impact on the legacy of the business as a whole. It is of a business nature, specifically because this strategic move impacts how someone will make money, in this case Sinatra-esque crooner Johnny Fontaine.

At attack on another business is merely a way to engage in market warfare. The way the families interact with one another, fighting for the most power and turf, is the same as two rival companies fighting for the same thing and trying to outdo the other. Playing dirty is not above the families just as it is not above Apple to take a low blow at Microsoft.

Although members of the family often act impulsively or under the guise of loyalty, loyalty in and of itself is part of being part of the business. Acts of revenge against another family, such as the assassination that Michael takes part in against NYPD Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo, are in part revenge, but reflect more on the desire to destroy a monopoly on a business crop. As aforementioned, earlier in the film, Sollozzo tried to make a deal with the Corleone Family by trying to persuade them into buying into his heroin business, but they refused realizing he was protected by another family. Although the Don is nearly killed and a war amongst the families is almost started, the war itself is one for the most power and has little to do with personal aspect of the crime. The business transcends the personal. Indeed, it’s nothing personal, just business.

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Power Play

Market allegory or not, the undeniable fact about how the world of The Godfather works is that it does so on the concept of hierarchy. Power is addictive, so much so that the man who initially wanted to live without the business, Michael, is drawn back in to evolve into a ruthless boss. In any form, power is addictive.

The way that power manifests itself in The Godfather is often through a surprisingly traditional means: capitalism. Capitalism, in its most reductive and palatable form, is an economic system based on product and production, trade and industry. It is also dependent on other marketers to fail, should they not be able to meet the standard of any of the aforementioned properties. The Family Business is thus reliant on other families failing to meet those same standards. Once a family has the most on their side in terms of industry, and a number of corrupt puppets, the business is a success.

There is a supposed masculine coda within the realm of The Godfather, and while its origins may primarily be a combination of social conditioning, traditional Italian-American family and Catholic values, this masculine ideal is much more connected to the business operations than one might initially assume. Don Vito screams at Johnny Fontaine’s indecisiveness on becoming an actor or staying at home with his family not only because of the traditional male role he must play, but because that role almost directly reflects, or at least by proxy, the establishment that the Corleone Family runs. This is a fixation on power, specifically masculine power. If one person is seen as weak within the business, especially someone as publically recognized as Johnny Fontaine, then it would be “bad for business” and poor for the reputation of the family.

Many of the roles of power within the family belong to men, reinforcing masculine stereotypes, but seems to be somewhat necessary for the way that the Corleone Family, and the rest of the Five Families for that matter, want to run their business. As this film takes place in the mid-1940s, such stereotypes are unsurprisingly. The women’s roles in the film are reduced to wife, sister, and mistress, and the de facto doubt that a woman could not handle being involved in the business, as evidence by Michel’s hesitation to tell his girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) anything, seems disturbingly prescient for the way women would be seen in the workplace. IN The Godfather, power is still male dominated.

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The longevity of Coppola’s The Godfather is not only a testament to the mastery of craftwork within the film, but also to the relevance of its subject matter. Although it is far too serious and realistic to be seen as a satire, it is nevertheless a disturbing and biting look at how industries within the United States achieve their goals. Unlike many films within the gangster genre, The Godfather is like the opposite of anachronistic: its themes and examination of ideals are both still relevant and unsettlingly still applied to business ethics. The market is rarely an egalitarian place, and that is seldom as present as it is in The Godfather. One thing is for sure; business is booming.


3 thoughts on “Family Business: The Godfather as Business Allegory

    Alex Withrow said:
    April 30, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    This is a truly great essay, my friend.

    “In another, perhaps slightly more obvious manner, the Godfather is like a banker, taking into consideration Bonasera’s “credit score” so to speak and finally agreeing upon a loan. That is how the family business operates.”

    I thought that was a brilliant point on your part. It put your entire piece into context for me. Very, very well said.

    I’ve honestly never thought about The Godfather in the way you’ve described, but I loved your take on it. Makes me view the film in a whole new way. Well done!

      Kyle Turner responded:
      May 2, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks so much, man! So glad you enjoyed it!

    deanphooper said:
    May 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Reblogged this on The Godfather blog.

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