Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials #51: SCARFACE (1932)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.


51. Scarface (1932)

A murderous thug shoots his way to the top of the mobs while trying to protect his sister from the criminal life. Starring Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, and Boris Karloff. Based on a novel by Armitage Trail. Screen story by Ben Hecht. Dialogue & Continuity by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett. Directed by Howard Hawks (and Richard Rosson). Distributed by United Artists.

“Italian mob leader Big Louie Costillo is killed by Tony Camonte, setting off gang wars over the control of Chicago’s bootlegging business. Under orders from their boss Johnny Lovo, Tony and Guino Rinaldo terrorize South side bars to maintain it as Lovo’s territory. Afterward, they go on a several month long shooting spree, killing innocent bystanders as well as intended victims. When Tony kills O’Hara, the North side boss, Lovo becomes scared. Poppy, Lovo’s mistress, visits Tony, and he shows her the neon Cook’s Tours sign outside his window that has become his slogan: ‘The World Is Yours.’ Tony takes over the North side, and goes on another shooting spree. On Valentine’s Day, seven gangsters are lined up in a garage and shot execution style. After Tony kills the last of the big gang leaders, he goes to the Paradise Club, where he sees his sister Cesca dancing with a man. In a jealous rage, Tony takes her home and beats her.

“Then, when he leaves, he is chased by unknown gangsters. Both cars go over the side of the road, but Tony survives. When he finds out that Lovo set him up, Tony and Guino kill him, then Tony and Poppy hide out in Florida for a month. While they are gone, Guino and Cesca fall in love and marry. Tony returns to find Guino in Cesca’s apartment and kills him before she can explain that they were married. A short time later, the police surround Tony’s apartment, and he and Cesca fight them off until she dies of a gunshot wound. Finally, Tony surrenders after his room is inundated with tear gas and he cannot stand to be alone. At the last minute, he makes a dash for freedom, but is gunned down by the police and dies under the Cook’s Tours sign.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

The third and most violent feature that finishes up the “Holy Trinity” of Pre-Code gangster films, Scarface is as much an engaging picture as it is a fascinating tale of movie-making during that era. Produced by Howard Hughes for United Artists and directed by Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht’s thinly veiled take-off on Al Capone — the most famous gangster of the period (and whose thugs did some investigating before the film was released and he reportedly came to like it) — continues the trend begun in Warner Brothers’ sensational Little Caesar (1931) and furthered by their outstanding The Public Enemy (1931). These pictures followed, and to some degree humanized, the plight of a criminal protagonist — whose life was inherently glamorized, despite the consuming violence that inevitably led to a tragic end. But just as The Public Enemy built upon Little Caesar by elevating its hero’s simultaneous menace and appealing moxy, Scarface represents another upping of the figurative ante — with greater violence, more explicit sexual scenarios, and a bolder attempt at exploring the complications that stem from having a truly detestable lead, whose position as a narrative’s anchor naturally yields investment and understanding, in spite and in the face of his abhorrent amorality.

By the time the picture’s over, there’s really no other place for this type of story to go; the frequent killings, the sinister sexual implications, and the ongoing mitigation of humanity (for the sake of exploring humanity — but ours, not the characters’) has essentially killed of the appeal of the gangster genre. (MGM tried to do this earlier with their self-righteous and equally sensationalistic The Beast Of The City.) So, from then on, gangsters would mostly be stock types who enlivened other stories — seldom anchoring their own as they did in these three films… But if the nature of this art/entertainment forecasts the end of a subset of an already brief period in cinema history, the behind-the-scenes maneuverings also shared some culpability. One of the great myths surrounding Pre-Code films is that there was no censorship. Actually, there was — in fact, the famed Hays Code, though not strictly enforced until the summer of 1934, was written in early 1930. We call the films released between these dates “Pre-Code,” even though it’d be more accurate to call them “Ignored-Code.” And every picture in this period, even the least salacious, were forced to do battle with boards and moral crusaders (some national, many localized) over content, especially when it came to the gangster flicks, which developed political implications during this early Depression era.

You see, Scarface is part of the aforementioned “Holy Trinity,” but it was actually so far removed from its predecessors – by nearly a year, in fact. Hawks completed the film and it theoretically could have been released in July 1931, fresh off the fumes of the spring’s The Public Enemy, in the heat of the genre’s fascination with these characters, and well before MGM’s seemingly pro-law-enforcement rebuttal. Yet the picture spent at least eight months on the shelf as various groups and figures imposed desired changes to combat objectionable material — the violence, the Capone similarities, the depictions of Italians, the incest allusions, and the allegedly heroic ending. Hawks and Hughes acquiesced and did extensive reshoots — making the lead less likable (and with no condoning from his mother), toning down his relationship with his sister (whose morality was also made more sound), and giving the character a far bleaker ending: execution. Additionally, a preface was added that attempted to tie the film together with current gun control efforts, giving it a relevance that, to some, appeared noble. But the release was slow-walked, so the pair took matters into their own hands and released their initial version in the spring of ’32 — after coercing approval from the censors (by threatening to sue), and only ceding a few points — small tweaks, that revised ending for a few disapproving markets (like New York, Chicago, and Kansas), and an occasionally-used subtitle that alleviated the sexy simplicity of Scarface — Scarface, The Shame Of The Nation.

The picture was a smash success, although the trend from which it organically arose had ended. Today, it’s really not a 1932 film, but a ’31 film, and looking at it this way makes it more favorable, for we can better appreciate the strength of the cinematography, the keen symbolism, and the genuine grit that emanates from the text, the look, and the performances. Speaking of the latter, Scarface is the best acted of the Trinity, if only for Paul Muni’s exceedingly believable portrayal of Tony Camonte. While Robinson had weight and Cagney was magnetic, Muni simply does. He’s the big asset here — aside from the commercially exciting Capone parallels — while the rest of the ensemble is capable, including George Raft as Tony’s best friend, who dies at the hands of the former in a fit of jealous rage, Karen Morley as the boss’ tart (whom Tony longs to enjoy), Boris Karloff as a rival mobster, and Ann Dvorak as Tony’s vampy sister, in a role that would launch her as a Pre-Code leading lady. Now, much has been written about the clearly incestuous tint to the brother-sister dynamic. But I think this relationship is just one in a series of unhealthy, and sexually charged, associations for Tony. (For instance, there’s an odd dynamic between Tony and Raft’s character, whom the former calls “Little Boy.”) They all add up to a twisted mentality, one that seems to be less pat and easily explained than Rico’s, but certainly and more deliberately off-putting… not like Tom Powers.

As for the picture itself, I think it hammers home its message of excessive tragedy, which seeks to de-escalate the natural glorification that comes from Tony’s centripetal position, through an abundance of darkness, death, and misery — all of which overstimulates the viewer and makes it a harder film to enjoy than, for instance, The Public Enemy (1931), which had more leeway because of its reliance on the electric presence offered by its star (Cagney). Scarface is all character — or rather, character that’s used to tell the story that this tiny genre was made to tell: Capone’s, or someone very like him. It’s the point to which the Gangster Picture was building all throughout 1931. And as mentioned, now that it crescendoed — not always amiably, but certainly effectively — here, in Scarface, Pre-Code films could move forward, finding other ways to challenge the censors… and with means, I think, more artfully humanistic, socially conscious, and less deliberately shocking. (Well, for a while anyway…) So, Scarface, which was famous enough to get a 1983 remake, deserves to be an essential simply for its importance to the genre and the era. But it’s good, too — well-made, compelling, and thematically concise.



Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Frasier!