The place is Chicago. The time is the era of Prohibition. The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison. A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance. Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks. When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones). Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon). Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.
While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized. The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him. While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit. (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.) In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang. The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader. Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber. Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career. In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.
Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie. Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house. B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.
Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson. Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.