We started the course with punishment, the brutality of the justice system. This week we’re going to look at the other side of the coin: crime, in the form of the most infamous of the early ‘30s gangster pictures, Howard Hawks’s Scarface, a vibrant, depraved, funny, take on the life of one Alphonse Capone. Gerald Mast points out that “when Tony Camonte lets go with his new machine gun into a rack of pool cues, or the O’Hara gang shoots a restaurant to smithereens, they are murderous children having ‘fun,’ one of the most important words in Hawks’s critical lexicon.” Camonte is in business, sure, and the money is pouring in, but just as important he’s having the time of his life.
The 1920s were over with a vengeance when preparations began for Scarface in November of 1930, and by the time of its release in July of 1932 Prohibition’s days were numbered and Al Capone, the gangster di tutti gangsters, was already in prison for tax evasion, where he would wither away physically and mentally from syphilis. The diminutive Capone casts a long shadow over the first wave of gangster pictures, particularly in Little Ceasar (directed by Mervyn Leroy) and Scarface, which both star Jewish actors playing the Italian mobster. The other entry in the troika of best-remembered gangster movies from this period, The Public Enemy (directed by William Wellman), starred Irish actor James Cagney as Tom Powers, an Irish hood. Doherty points out that the gangsters of the ‘20s were immigrants—they were Irish, Jewish, Italian. Identifying them as foreign helped fuel a sort of denial, a sense that their evil was not American but a malignant import from other shores.
Maverick producer and multimillionaire Howard Hughes really did get screwed by the censors on Scarface, though it was made almost three years before strict Code enforcement began in July of 1934. It seems to have been bad timing as much as anything else. Had Scarface been produced a year earlier, before Little Ceasar, The Public Enemy, The Secret Six, Beast of the City, and other gangster films had inflamed not just the usual forces of moral outrage but the law enforcement community as well, perhaps it wouldn’t have come in for so much attention. Matters were compounded by Hollywood’s hostility to Hughes, who was hated by the studio moguls for showing up in town one day and having enough money and determination to get movies made his own way, outside the confines of the studio system.
Hughes insisted that he was trying to tell it like it was—that the public needed to see the truth about the criminals and how corrupt law enforcement allowed them to flourish. Hughes’s protests might have been mostly self-serving, but they were plausible. As a newspaper reporter in Chicago during the ‘20s Ben Hecht had witnessed plenty of gang business; then when he was writing the silent proto-gangster movie Underworld in 1928 he palled around with more gangsters, so he knew where the bodies were buried, you should pardon the expression. Scarface did depict real events like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and others that had shocked the nation during the gang wars between Capone, Dion O’Bannion, and the other Chicago mobsters battling for bootlegging turf. The political corruption created by Prohibition was certainly a factor in the rise of the mobs and in their ability to carry on murdering each other and innocent citizens in the streets until Prohibition ended.
Hughes came to believe that he was the victim of a conspiracy, a viewpoint shared by biographer Todd McCarthy. Hughes really did make repeated concessions to demands by the Hays Office, but in the end, having added a pious prologue about how crime doesn’t pay (de rigueur for gangster movies), changed some characterizations, cut speeches, scenes, and characters judged too inflammatory, softened the implications of Tony’s incestuous attraction to his sister Cesca, and even changed the ending to avoid depicting Camonte as heroic even in defeat, New York’s censors rejected the film outright anyway. At which point the livid producer stopped cooperating. After all, he had played ball (sort of) and delayed release of his movie by some months, shot expensive retakes and additional scenes, and it got him nothing, not even the satisfaction of ending up with the movie he had wanted to make.
So he withdrew the altered version of the film and released the original in New Orleans and other cities without censors, where it cleaned up at the box office and got glowing reviews. After making a very decent profit he withdrew the film from domestic circulation, and until his death 40 years later you stood a better chance of catching it in Paris than anywhere in the U.S. And he swore he would never again bow down to censorship. He was as good as his word, and for the rest of his career he fought tooth and nail to make his pictures his way and to be as big a thorn in the censors’ side as possible.
Mast points out that “…Hawks’s flavorful dialogue sounded as if it were uttered by human beings, not orating actors. The affected, stilted diction that marred so many early talkies was entirely absent. Dialogue in Hawks’s films would always suggest the feel and flavor of spontaneous conversations rather than scripted lines—he in fact not only permitted his players to improvise but deliberately hired players who would and could.”
Most sources report the tale with little sympathy for Hughes, casting the Hays Office as doing their best under tough circumstances, dealing with serious pressure from individual censors (New York and Chicago among them) and to a cumulative hostility on the part of law enforcement, which was sick of being portrayed as ineffectual, as well as the “moral guardians” who believed that gangster movies and their glamorous depiction of life on the wrong side of the law was turning kids into criminals (just as bad girl films were supposedly turning women into sluts).
Even with the changes, though, Scarface is hot stuff. As Gerald Mast wrote, “Scarface remains simultaneously one of the most brutal and most funny of gangster films—‘as vehement, vitriolic, and passionate a work as has been made about Prohibition,’ in the opinion of Manny Farber.” By the time we see the final shot, the Cook’s Tour sign that says THE WORLD IS YOURS above Camonte’s body, sprawled on the street, and THE END with the movie’s last X, every major male character has gone down in a hail of bullets.
Look for the Xes: The X-shaped scar on Tony’s left cheek becomes a recurring visual motif, and there is at least one X onscreen demarcating the film’s many killings. How many killings are there? Count and see what you come up with.
Hawks said he cast Raft, who had never acted before, knowing that Raft’s impassive quality and sartorial style would add a lot to the movie’s atmosphere. Raft liked the idea of becoming an actor and was willing to work for next to nothing. Hawks gave him the coin flipping routine to help him with his nerves..
Ann Dvorak, who plays Cesca, came as Raft’s date to a party at Hawks’s house. Dvorak was just 18 and wanted Raft to dance with her. She tried to lure Raft onto the floor with a seductive come-hither dance, and Hawks knew she was exactly right for Cesca, who is also 18. It was Dvorak’s first film, too, and she brought a high-strung intelligence and natural quality to the part.
The bowling alley: Cinematographer Lee Garmes rigged the single bowling pin with a wire so that he could get it to stand after the others fell, teeter, than finally fall just after Gaffney (Boris Karloff) has been gunned down in the crowded bowling alley, just after writing an X on his scorecard.
This was Muni’s first major film role—it was shot before I Am a Fugitive…, and Muni’s preparation for the role was up to his usual standard. He would arrive at the studio hours before shooting to run lines. Hawks had Muni cut his Italian accent in half, and again in half, and once more. Hawks didn’t want Tony Camonte to read as a foreigner, just to have a hint of his Italian roots.
Look for specific lines and actions you think would have outraged the censors and brought unwelcome attention from the Hays Office.
Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, by Gregory D. Black
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy
Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema
World Film Directors, Vol. 1 1890-1945, Hawks entry by Gerald Mast