A gritty, groundbreaking masterpiece that helped shape American cinema
In addition to presenting entertaining classics, this blog also aims to give readers a sense of how these films reflected their times and helped shape cinema, and a glowing example is this week’s film, “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation”, whose impact can still be felt today. Clouded in controversy upon its release, “Scarface” is perhaps the greatest example of a very short-lived film genre – the pure gangster film. The Hollywood Reporter hailed it “a masterpiece” and the National Board of Review chose it among their Top Ten Films of the year. Largely considered one of the best gangster films ever made, The American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 6th Greatest Gangster Film of All-Time, and the influential Cahiers du cinéma included it as #98 in their list of the Top 100 Films of All-Time. “Scarface” is a highly entertaining and important film that still carries a meaty wallop.
It takes place in 1920s Chicago and centers around “Tony Camonte”, the muscle behind bootlegger boss "Johnny Lovo”. “Tony” terrorizes the South Side of the city to make "Lovo" the self-appointed president of its illegal booze business. Encouraged by a neon sign outside his window that reads, "The World Is Yours”, “Tony” sets his sights on becoming the big boss himself, not only of the South Side but also the North, and the film follows his violent rise. In addition to “Lovo”, other characters involved include his sister “Cesca”, his mother, his literal partner in crime “Guino Rinaldo”, the gangster’s moll “Poppy”, and various mobsters, cops, and newspaper reporters. All in all, we are given a very human portrait of a power-hungry psychopathic killer told in a bold and artful manner. This intensely charged story touches upon ever relevant themes such as greed, excess, power, and status. And like many classic films, it contains speeches and situations that could easily serve as headline news today (I guess humankind doesn’t change much and history does indeed repeat itself). Never fear though, it’s not completely grim. Humor is interspersed throughout, and “Tony” is filled with personality.
Besides being completely entertaining, this early sound film holds an interesting place in time – both cinematically and historically. It was made right on the cusp of an industry becoming adept with its newly found use of sound. Silent films had been around for over three decades, and by 1926 began to hit their artistic peak. Then in 1927 came “The Jazz Singer”, the first feature-length movie with synchronized dialogue, and it landed like a bombshell, forever changing movies. By 1930, all studios stopped making silent films. After decades of silent films, one cannot underestimate the impact sound had on audiences and cinema itself. My grandmother, who grew up during the silent film era, told me on many occasions how shocking it was to see an actor’s lips move and hear their voice for the first time. People were stunned in disbelief.
The impact of sound unwittingly steered cinema’s future into a different direction. Silent films were becoming artistically poetic, using visuals in often abstract ways to tell stories and elicit emotion. Synchronized sound created a push and desire towards duplicating reality. Two film genres began to flourish in the early days of sound: the movie musical and the gangster film. One could now see and hear someone sing and tap-dance in a musical, or hear gunfire, breaking glass, screeching tires, and explosions as they happened in gangster films. Sound made these films comes alive with a level of realism audiences had never experienced. “Scarface” came at the cusp of this changing time and is a stellar example of how sound can heighten the reality of a film. Not only does it let us hear the actual gunfire (and yes, they used real machine guns and bullets), but under the brilliant direction of Howard Hawks, sound is also used in non synchronized ways to enhance the feeling that the city is unsafe. One example is when we see a barrel crash into a building and hear an unseen woman's scream. That simple sound makes it feel there are people living behind every wall and door, and that everyone in the film is in danger, seen and unseen.
It's important to note that "Scarface" was made during prohibition and the Great Depression. From 1920 until 1933, prohibition constitutionally banned the production, manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US (which my grandmother said was one of the worst things ever to happen in this country). It gave rise to an illegal bootlegging industry soon run by organized crime, creating an increase in gang violence and criminal activities. Notorious gangsters emerged, the most famous being Chicago's Al “Scarface’ Capone. There was a pervasive feeling of desperation and suffering, and (other than MGM) all of Hollywood's studios were losing money. Sex and violence helped draw bigger audiences to the box-office, including the red-hot gangster film.
To take advantage of this popularity, millionaire film producer/director (aviator and engineer) Howard Hughes set his sights to make the most realistically gruesome gangster film ever made. After producing five films (including the 1930 blockbuster “Hell’s Angels” which he also directed), he bought the rights to Armitage Trail's novel “Scarface” (which was inspired by the life of Capone), and hired Ben Hecht to write the screenplay and Howard Hawks to direct (writers Fred Pasley, W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin and Seton I. Miller also worked on the script). Hecht and Hawks decided to base the main characters in the film on Al Capone and Renaissance Italian family, the Borgias. When learning about the film, Capone’s henchmen visited Hecht to ask him if he was sure he wanted to make a film about Capone. A former tough newspaper writer, Hecht wasn’t flustered and even reportedly convinced some of them to be consultants on the film. At one point, Hawks met with Capone in person (and Capone is said to have loved the film).
As stated in the film’s preamble, “Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence”, and Hecht based the violence in the film on actual events (including the 1920 murder of gang leader James "Big Jim" Colosimo, the 1924 murder of crime boss Dion O’Bannion, and even the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre). In the novel “Scarface”, “Tony” had an incestuous relationship with his sister “Cesca”, which was toned down for the film but is still intimated. Albeit tame by today’s standards, the relentless violence in this film with its showering of machine gun bullets, plumes of gun smoke, innocent victims, and bullet holes in windows and walls had never before been so vividly portrayed onscreen. True to Hughes' wishes, "Scarface" became the most realistically grisly and violent film made to date. But that came with a price. Though the film was completed in 1931, it would take a yearlong battle between Hughes and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) before "Scarface" would ever hit theaters.
Since 1922, the MPPDA was formed as Hollywood's answer to censorship, headed by William Hays. With the coming of sound, religious groups put more pressure on the industry to present moral entertainment, and in 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code was formed with Hays as its president (The Code would commonly be referred to as the Hays Code). From its inception, if a film didn't follow their guidelines, The Code would try to prevent it from being made, delay its release, or lobby to remove scenes. At the same time, newspapers kept gangsters' names and photos in the headlines which many felt helped glorify them to the public, and there were those who were against gangster films for the same reason. But studios and others felt it was important to show the public what was happening and expose the immoral and violent lives of mobsters.
The Hays office worried that “Scarface” glorified "Tony", and demanded edits and changes from Hughes, which he made to get the film released (including filming a new ending, which I'll speak about in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section, for after you've watched the film). The new version and its new ending still didn’t pass the New York or Chicago censors, so Hughes fought back and courageously showed his original version to the press, the only change being the addition of a preamble. The press lauded “Scarface” with praise and many stated it was the best gangster film of all. Even so, the film was banned in several cities and states in the US, as well as some countries around the world (it opened in Chicago nine years later to record breaking crowds). Although one of the most talked about films of 1932, its limited showings caused it to perform poorly at the box-office.
Gangster-type movies had been around since the early silent days, and Josef von Sternberg's 1927 silent masterpiece “Underworld” (also written by Hecht, who won a Best original story Academy Award for it) is usually named the first official gangster film. As mentioned, with the coming of sound the gangster film thrived, and because “Scarface” was the most controversial among them, it became one of the major films that pushed Hollywood to strictly enforce The Production Code in mid-1934 (you can read more details about The Code in my post on the Pre-Code classic “Red Dust”). With The Code’s enforcement, excessive violence and sex (among many other things) were now banned from US films, putting an end to the short-lived gangster film genre.
Out of the great number of gangster films made between the widespread use of sound beginning around 1929, and the enforcement of The Code in mid-1934 (a period referred to as Pre-Code), three films, “Little Caesar”, “The Public Enemy”, and “Scarface”, were so powerfully daring and original that together they established the gangster film as a genre and created a new type of antihero. They inadvertently created the blueprint from which all subsequent gangster films (including those of today) were made. Pre-Code gangster films almost always centered around a person (often an immigrant) who rose from poverty to attain the American Dream by immoral and violent means. Set in a large, foreboding metropolis, prohibition, clothes, cars, guns, and nontraditional sexuality permeated these films. With the enforcement of The Code, the genre shifted to include films about the FBI, detective stories, and later film noir. A return to gangster films came in the late 1960s, and “Scarface” itself was remade by Brian De Palma in 1983 starring Al Pacino as "Tony (Montana)". That film, one of a few successful remakes in cinema, went on to become a cult classic and was voted the 10th Greatest Gangster Film of All-Time by AFI.
“Scarface’s” direction by Howard Hawks is nothing short of perfection, enriching what could have easily been just another gangster film. In addition to his above mentioned use of sound, he fills his frames with eye-catching compositions and presents action in unobtrusively intriguing ways. Take the film’s opening shot for instance. It begins with a closeup of an eerily lit "22nd Street" sign (representing the intersection of 22nd Street and Wabash Avenue in Chicago, the site of many Capone’s actual crimes), follows a man carrying a sandwich board from the street into a party hall, shows us the film's first murder, and ends as he leaves the hall. It all happens in one smooth three and a half minute shot, with beautiful camera moments filling the frame, capturing glorious compositions. As with the rest of the film, we don’t see the actual murder take place, but from all the visual and sound clues Hawks provides, we know exactly what happened. It is a bold and cinematically exciting way to begin any film, and Hawks never lowers the artistry from that point to the final shot. One can see the heavy influence of German Expressionism in that opening shot, and Hawks uses hints of it to color the entire film with shadows, high contrast lighting, and even venetian blinds – all a precursor to the visual storytelling used in the film noir crime movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
After a successful run directing silent films, Hawks directed his first sound film in 1930, “The Dawn Patrol”. Hughes felt "The Dawn Patrol" copied his own film "Hell's Angels", so he sued Hawks. It was during the lawsuit that Hughes decided to make "Scarface", and he thought Hawks would be the perfect director. Both golf players, one day when Hawks was about to play, Hughes sent a messenger telling Hawks that Hughes wanted to play with him, and if he'd agree, Hughes would drop the lawsuit. They played, and by the end of the game Hawks agreed to direct “Scarface”. It became his third sound film. Hawks would become one of Hollywood's top directors, and three of his other classics already appear on this blog, "Bringing Up Baby", "His Girl Friday" and "Red River", the latter two of which you can read more about the life and career of Howard Hawks. Just click on the film's title.
Howard Hughes was so dismayed by the censor troubles with "Scarface" that he stepped away from Hollywood, returning about a decade later to produce and direct the 1943 controversial western, "The Outlaw". He directed just two films ("Hell's Angels" and "The Outlaw"), and produced twenty six, including "The Front Page", "Cock of the Air", "His Kind of Woman", and his final film, "Jet Pilot" in 1957. Beginning in the late 1940s, he had an on again off again relationship with the movie studio RKO Pictures Corporation, having a controlling interest, selling it, buying the company, selling it, becoming Chairman of the Board, and then retiring from films. Also an aviator, Hughes was a pilot who set many aviation world records (including the airspeed record, and the fastest time flying around the world), and also founded the Hughes Aircraft Company. With a private life cloaked in mystery, he never married but reportedly had affairs (or not) with actresses such as Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, and Faith Domergue, and there are multiple biographers who claim he slept with men as well. He is perhaps best remembered for being eccentric and reclusive, and has been portrayed in many films, including Martin Scorsese's 2004 film "The Aviator”, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Howard Hughes died in 1976 at the age of 70.
If you are watching the films on this blog, you should recognize a few actors in this film. First and foremost is Paul Muni who gives a compelling performance as “Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte”. “Tony” is a man with a dangerously unquenchable appetite for power and material wealth, and Muni brings an abundance of colors to this man. “Tony” is one despicable character (and AFI voted "Tony Camonte” the 47th Greatest Movie Villain of All-Time), but we never hate him. Muni’s Italian accent comes and goes, but his intensity and depth are changeless. Because of Muni’s weighty talent we always see what “Tony” is thinking, regardless of the words he speaks. An example is when “Lovo” tells “Tony”, “I ain’t afraid of anybody”, and “Tony” responds with the words “Sure, you're not. That’s a crazy question, ey, ‘Johnny’?”. From his expression and the way he speaks, we know he thinks “Johnny” is afraid. It’s Muni’s level of complexity that keeps this film wholly engrossing. Muni had appeared in two films in 1929 (including his film debut in "The Valiant" which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination), but neither film fared well at the box-office so he left Hollywood for Broadway. An agent spotted him in a play and suggested to Hawks he play “Tony”. Hawks gave him a screen-test and then the part. Muni’s starring roles in both "Scarface" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" (both in 1932) brought him stardom, and he soon became recognized as one of filmdom's greatest actors of his day. Paul Muni appeared in several more classics, including "The Good Earth", a film already on this blog where you can read more about the life and career of this fine actor.
Another actor you might recognize in “Scarface” is George Raft who plays “Guino Rinaldo”, or as “Tony” calls him, “Little Boy”. Before “Scarface”, Raft was a struggling actor, and he spends much of the film tossing a coin without looking at it. But he does it with such a quietly cool, strong presence that his coin toss became iconic and he became a star. He also comes off as sympathetic (for a gangster), and is wonderful in his final scene. Evidently, Raft didn’t think he was a good actor, so he invented the coin flipping as a distraction. A poor kid from Hell's Kitchen, New York City, George Raft began as a dancer and was a boyhood friend of real-life gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and knew many other gangsters as well (there were always rumors Raft was a mobster himself). Raft previously appears on this blog in the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot”, in which he pokes fun at his coin flipping. You can read more about the life and career of George Raft in my post on that comedy classic.
A third actor who appears in a previous film on this blog is Boris Karloff who plays North side boss “Tom Gaffney”. You might not recognize Karloff here, for his previous appearance was immortalized wearing full makeup as “Frankenstein’s Monster” in the original classic 1931 horror film “Frankenstein”. Because of delays around censorship, “Scarface” was actually filmed before “Frankenstein” but released a year after it. Karloff only appears in a handful of scenes but more than holds his own. He was criticized at the time for trying to do an American accent (in reality he had a slight British accent), but (like Muni) his acting is so strong, any problems with his accent don’t seem important. You can read all about the iconic Boris Karloff in my post on “Frankenstein”.
One new face to my readers is Ann Dvorak who plays “Francesca ‘Cesca’ Camonte”, “Tony’s” sister. With bedroom eyes and a desire to be wild, Dvorak gives “Cesca” the full-blown energy of a flapper in heat. Her vigor is in great contrast to everyone else in the film, helping make things that much more interesting. This film serves as Dvorak’s best remembered role.
Ann Dvorak was born in New York City to silent film actress Anna Lehr and director and actor Edwin McKim. After her parents divorced, she went to Los Angeles with her mother and appeared in three silent films beginning with the 1916 film “Ramona" when she was five. After a break for school, Dvorak signed with MGM and resumed a film career, appearing as a chorus girl in features and short films, and also working as an assistant choreographer. Her friend, actress Karen Morley ("Poppy" in "Scarface") introduced her to Hughes, who signed her, and cast her as “Cesca", after which Dvorak began getting starring roles and female leads, often in Warner Brothers’ films, such as "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain", "The Way to Love", and "Three on a Match". She signed with Warner Brothers in 1932, who began grooming her for stardom. But also in 1932, she married "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain” co-star Leslie Fenton, and the two disappeared to Europe for a year on honeymoon. When she returned, her career never recovered, and she left Warners in 1936 and remained independent. Her last film was 1951's "The Secret of Convict Lake", after which she appeared in a handful of TV shows, retiring in 1952. Other films from her approximately 90 credits include "'G' Men", "The Return of Jesse James", "Bright Lights", and "Merrily We Live". After divorcing Fenton in 1946, she married twice more, including a second marriage to actor/dancer Igor Dega. Ann Dvorak died in 1979 at the age of 68.
Karen Morley plays “Poppy”, the no-nonsense gal excited by danger. A gangster’s moll, she knows how to use what she’s got to get what she wants. It’s made clear in her first scene, as she discretely sizes up “Tony” while plucking her eyebrows and powdering her neck, dressed in lingerie. She knows he’s looking at her exposed leg, and leaves it uncovered. Morley gives “Poppy” an interesting toughness and sarcasm that’s fun to watch, as she fearlessly pokes fun at “Tony” and plays hard to get.
Iowa born Karen Morley was adopted, and she and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was thirteen. She caught the acting bug after taking an acting class, and joined the Pasadena Playhouse where she was discovered by film director Clarence Brown. That led to her becoming an MGM contract player, where she had roles in such notable films as "Mata Hari", "The Mask of Fu Manchu", "Dinner at Eight", and "Scarface". She left MGM in 1934 to become independent, and as a result began to work less. In the 1940s she appeared in a few Broadway shows. In 1947, Morley was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC (which I talk about in my "High Noon" post), and because she refused to answer questions, was blacklisted. After two more films, her career was over. She returned to acting in 1973, appearing on three TV series, with her last being an episode of "Police Woman". Other titles from her 46 films include "Pride and Prejudice", "Kentucky", "Our Daily Bread", and "The Littlest Rebel". She married twice, first to film director Charles Vidor, and later to actor Lloyd Gough (from 1972 until his death). Karen Morley died in 2003 at the age of 93.
This week’s film is a captivating look at a time gone by, both in cinema and in history, and it represents the best of a genre that lasted only a few years. Enjoy the ever so enjoyable, “Scarface”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Another example of Howard Hawks’ innovate direction is his use of the “X”. At the time, when newspapers featured photos of crime scenes, they would mark an “X” where the body was found ("X marks the spot"). Hawks took this motif, and carried it all throughout the film, often marking someone with an “X” who will soon end up dead – such as the “X” made by the straps on the back of “Cesca’s” dress, the “X” made from light on walls behind “Tom Gaffney” at his hideout or to denote a strike at the bowling alley before “Gaffney’s” death. Even the scar on the face of “Tony” is an "X". There are “X’s” everywhere.
One of the Hays Office’s major concerns about “Scarface” was that “Tony” was too sympathetic and not being punished severely enough for his crimes. The film was reedited to make him less kind, and a new ending was filmed to make him look cowardly and with a stronger death. In the alternate ending, “Tony” spinelessly hands himself over to the police, is sentenced to hanging by a judge, and then hanged. Because filming had wrapped by this point and Paul Muni was back on Broadway and unavailable for reshoots, the new ending was filmed from his point of view, so we never see him, only what he sees. If you happened to watch “Scarface” on the 2021 BluRay release, included on it are both versions of the film, as well as both endings.