#8: The Godfather: Mob Historian Breaks Down "Opening Scene"


We've reviewed and broken down the opening scene of The Godfather, looking at it from all angles including behind-the-scenes commentary, actor and director commentary, historical perspectives, and we've also brought in additional scene context from Mario Puzo's book of the same name.

Episode Transcript


Hello everybody and welcome back to another episode of The Member’s Only Podcast. I am your host Jacob Stoops, and I’m a long-time history buff and mob aficionado.

And today’s episode is going to be quite different from previous episodes in that we’re bringing movie content into the fold for the first time – which I’m personally stoked about doing! Going forward, in addition to biographies, I’d plan to begin incorporating movie and TV inspired content into this channel as a good way to mix things up from time to time.

So before we begin, let me give you an idea of what to expect in these types of videos. In the case of today’s video, I’ll be reviewing only a single scene and providing commentary, and the focus will be on providing my opinion, tidbits of information from the books these movies are based on, some behind-the-scenes information, and so on.

I’ve been inspired by channels like Vlogging Through History and ReelHistory and have really enjoyed their format, and my hope is to bring the same level of knowledge and information to the mob genre’s most classic movies and TV shows over time.

And for today’s episode, we’re reviewing my favorite movie of all time, The Godfather. More specifically, we’ll be breaking down the Opening Scene.

I’m absolutely stoked to be watching and sharing my favorite movie with you, and I’m sure if you’re interested in this genre this is likely near or at the top of your list as well, so hopefully you enjoy my commentary. And of course, don’t forget to mash that subscribe button to help this channel continue to grow!

Alright, let’s get started.

The Opening Scene:

The first thing movie watchers will of course hear when beginning this movie is the iconic score along with the opening credits. These songs, while you may not exactly know the names, are instantly recognizable and beautifully woven through the entire movie.

The song playing during the opening credits is entitled “The Godfather Waltz” and was composed by Nino Rota, who went on 10 of the 12 songs you’ll hear within the film including the other popular song entitled “Love Theme,” but also known as “Speak Softly Love.” Nino Rota was a prolific Italian composer, pianist, conductor and academic who is best known for his film scores and it’s worth noting that The American Film Institute ranked Rota’s score for The Godfather number 5 on their list of the greatest film scores.

It’s also worth noting that Francis Ford Coppola, the famous director of this movie insisted that Mario Puzo, who of course wrote the book, had his name included ahead of the movie name.

In a forward written for the book, The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola says “I’ve pretty much said all I have to say about The Godfather and, giving credit where credit is due, have made it clear in the past that Mario Puzo did the “heavy lifting” on this project, which is the reason his name appears before the title. My unique value to the film was gained due to my Italian-American upbringing and familiarity with New York Italians in the way that they spoke, their style and particular ambiance, as well as their priorities.”

And of course, the Godfather was produced by Paramount Studios and if you haven’t started watching The Offer on Paramount+, I highly recommend it. Not that it’s entirely historically accurate, but it will give you a window into the well-publicized difficulties that this movie had being made ranging from significant studio interference to actual backdoor mafia involvement.

So this original shot with the Undertaker Bonasera has its genesis funny enough from a place you wouldn’t suspect. The original plan was to jump right into the wedding scene, but after asking a friend his opinion on the first few pages he’d written in the script the friend suggested a stronger opening – citing the strong opening from the movie “Patton” which Coppola had also recently directed.

And as a result, you get Coppola’s choice to begin with the more striking scene of Bonasera the undertaker coming to the Don on the day of his daughter’s wedding to ask a favor. And of course, the early feedback from the studio was that the scene was too dark. However, the darkness actually works in favor of setting the stage for the film in terms of the light and the dark, the underworld, and then the cuts to the wedding which were of course light and energetic.

The cinematographer of the movie was a man named Gordon Willis who was known in the industry as “the prince of darkness” for his mastery of sparse lighting and accentuation of shadows, which made him famous and highly sought after in an era that leaned toward bright light and primary colors. Coppola’s goal was to paint this movie with darkness.

Of course this begins with the amazingly ironic line “I believe in America…” which speaks to the fact that this “good” man came to America and did well for himself. But in his time of need, the laws that he’d believed in, which were supposed to protect him, have not only failed him, but left his family in some degree of ruin. And it’s for this reason that he comes before Don Corleone, who he believes is a personal with enough power to solve his problem, since the legitimate authorities have left him no recourse.

The actor who plays Bonasera, Salvatore Corsitto, had previously done some small theater work, but had not really done anything significant and was discovered during an open call. Interestly enough, this is also how Abe Vigoda, the actor who played Tessio, was also discovered.

In the book, the story begins with three scenes all being sort of interwoven together. The first story is that of Bonasera who as we find out has endured a terrible situation in which his daughter was assaulted and brutalized by two “well-to-do” young men. He is standing in the courtroom as these two young men and their rich parents stand defiantly and while ultimately the boys are convicted, the judge suspends the sentence and they walk free. This of course puts Bonasera over the edge and he nearly loses it right there in the courtroom, but ultimately resolves to get his justice by going to the man he ultimately fears, Don Corleone.

The other stories in the book are related to visits that you see interwoven throughout the rest of the wedding scene. One is of course that of famed singer Johnny Fontaine, whose tramp wife has essentially left him and whose career is going down the shitter. The other is of the local baker whose daughter wants to marry the baker’s apprentice Enzo, but needs help keeping Enzo from being repatriated back to Italy due to his status as a captured Italian soldier residing in the United States.

And of course all three of these short tales end with the person realizing they need to see the man who can solve all of their problems and cure all their ills. The man who can help people both big and small, the man with all the connections, which is of course Don Vito Corleone.

And here we go, our first real shot of the great Marlon Brando! Of course there is a lot of information out there on just how Paramount didn’t want Brando in this picture and wouldn’t take him on unless he essentially worked for free while also signing a waiver to essentially account for any costs associated with his behavior on set.

Brando of course at the time was considered box office poison after a series of major box office bombs in the 1960’s including One-Eyed Jacks and Mutiny on the Bounty. And what does Brando do, only goes out and nails the role which takes his already legendary career and launches it into the stratosphere.

The really interesting thing is that Brando’s real life career was actually kind of similar to the movie career of Johnny Fontaine in that he was down and out but then got back on top by landing the perfect role.

Brando of course rose to fame in the early 1950’s for his roles in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) as well as On the Waterfront (1954), which ironically about union violence and corruption among longshoreman as a result of the Mafia. He would go on the be named to TIME’s Magazine’s “Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.”

Now of course the scene stealer here is the cat. And the famous myth is that Marlon Brando is the one who picked up the cat, but if you listen to Coppola’s director’s commentary, Francis was actually the one who saw the cat running around the studio, picked it up and tossed it into Brando’s lap. And of course Brando who loved animals immediately took the cat and it kind of became an iconic part of the scene. Technically-speaking, the cat’s purring presenting some problems as it drowned out Brando’s dialogue which had to be dubbed into the film during post-production.

What they don’t tell you in the movie, but you get the subtle hints, is that Don Corleone has left Bonasera to last of these three somewhat serious meetings – even though it’s shown first in the film. This is because the Don is somewhat pissed at Bonasera, who has essentially shunned him for most of their time knowing each other out of fear of being associated with a criminal element and having his good name besmirched or being forced to get involved himself.

And of course now it’s ironic that he needs the Don to solve his problem when he wouldn’t previously give him his friendship despite the fact that they were more than closely acquainted since Vito’s wife was Godmother to Bonasera’s daughter. He didn’t need a man like Vito, until he did. But that is part of the essence of how the Mafia worked in those days, both protecting the neighborhood from the higher powers that be while at the same time preying on the very people it protected.

You can see the contempt on the Don’s face during part of the scene, but they don’t outright come out and say it. Now in this part of the book, you are also watching the Don operate from Tom Hagen, played by the great Robert Duvall’s perspective.

When Bonasera somewhat out of turn pushes past some of the Don’s dismissals, even offering to pay him money, and the of course the greatest insult occurs when Bonasera leans into the Don’s ear and asks him to murder the two young punks in order for him to take his vengeance.

This request is met by about the coldest dismissal possible and a sign that Don Corleone is deeply offended when he gets up and walks away from his desk. He in fact says it outright in a voice that according to the book was like “cold death.”

In the movie, this is the first time that you there are others in the room – that being Hagen who visibly cringes and Sonny Corleone, played famously by James Caan, who is now shifting around nervously and turning front the window to pay attention to the goings on in the room for the first time.

And he agrees to help Bonasera only when the undertaker pledges his “friendship,” which in reality is Bonasera to some degree selling his soul to the devil to get what he wants.

And now of course I know what you’ll say, calling the Don the devil might not be the right way to characterize things, but when you consider that Bonasera is actually asking for murder – that comes with a price. And as Vito said, the price to be paid later is a favor.

And as the book says, Bonasera better be ready to come through when the Don needs him or he’ll surely pay the price, and as we know the Don will eventually call in that favor.

When it comes to giving this thing to Clemenza, the Don is of course ordering retaliation on the young men, but not outright murder as he says. In turn, the reliable person that Clemenza assigns this to is actually Paulie Gatto who comes off as a conniving weasel in the movie but is actually a fairly well-respected soldier in the family.

The reprisal actually happens off-screen and you never actually see it, but if you read the book you’d have a lot more respect for Paulie who sets up the two young punks and along with some help beats them systematically into a bloody pulp without actually killing them.

So this is the contrast that you have in this story. On one hand, a beautiful wedding and a beautiful family story featuring a principled and respected family patriarch. On the other hand, a crime boss ordering vicious reprisals and even murder to maintain his seat as the top mafioso in the country. It’s this exact contrast throughout the film that makes it what it is, and this plays a part I think in the media’s fascination with the mob and the tendency to romanticize it.

One of the smallest lines in the book that I think has a significant impact that they don’t come out and say is that the Don is looking for a successor and that he was highly disappointed at Sonny, his eldest son’s, lack of attention during this particular day. In fact, after this day the Don believed that Sonny was hopeless, didn’t want to be instructed and could never actually be the Don, or the head of a family. This meant that Vito would have to find someone else as after all, he wasn’t immortal.

And of course the closing to this opening scene is that back and forth cuts between the wedding and the inner-office shots of the Don and of course his consigliere, Tom Hagen, moving back and forth between celebrating Connie’s wedding while also receiving the very serious group of guests being paraded into the office the make various requests.

The Corleone family sets up to take a picture, but Vito ultimately squashes it as his youngest son, who is at the moment the black sheep of the family, isn’t present. And of course this theme of Michael being “different” while also “his father’s son” will carry throughout the rest of the movie in many ways.

In this fact, these family dynamics, personalities, and temperaments would have massive consequences of the Corleone family, and when you think about it, the seeds for the ultimate destruction of the Corleone family have ultimately been laid well before the first frame of the movie, we just get to watch it play out.

And this is where we’ll stop for today. Next time we’ll go ahead and pick it up at the scene immediately after this one and we’ll just sort of keep with the running commentary intersected with the actual scene itself!

In Closing

As I’ve said, going forward, in addition to biographies, I’d love to continue incorporating movie and TV inspired content into this channel as a good way to mix things up from time to time.

As always, I really appreciate the support and (if you’re on YouTube) please let me know what you thought about this episode in the comments below.

Also, please mash that Subscription button on YouTube and hit the notification bell so you know when I’ve posted a new episode.

If you’re listening to the audio version of the episode, I’d appreciate it if you’d rate the show in order to help it grow. Although I’m not super active on other platforms, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Until next time, gratzie!

Jacob Stoops, the host of The Gangland History Podcast

Jacob Stoops

Host of the Gangland History Podcast

This podcast sits at the intersection of my life-long love for history, my love of mob movies, my now decades-long fascination with the Mafia, as well as my passion for content creation.