This Time on Greenscreening
Scarface (1932), directed by Howard Hawks
Synopsis: A murderous and nearly-insane thug shoots his way to the top of the mob while trying to protect his sister from the criminal life.
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Before it was a poster of Al Pacino on every other college dude's wall, Scarface (1932) was the quintessential gangster film and one of the best films of the early sound era.
The 1983 film is a spiritual remake; don't expect mountains of cocaine or Little Havana. Instead, this Scarface is a loose biopic of Al Capone, while he was still alive and at large, and it recreates several real-life events, including the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. If you've seen the 1983 film, you'll recognize some echoes in the original.
While Scarface wasn’t the first gangster film, it was arguably the first to reach a level of cinematic artistry. It includes most of the markers of the gangster film: the ratatat of tommy guns, an Italian immigrant protagonist in the Big City, who starts as a small-time hood and rises through the ranks of the underworld, using any means necessary to consolidate power and wealth and to stay one step ahead of the law, whose obsession with a woman threatens to cause his downfall, and who ultimately goes out in a blaze of glory.
The film's director, Howard Hawks, became one of the most influential American directors, as he worked across the studio system and made classics in every major genre during a 40+ year career. A different Howard (Hughes), produced the film.
The gangster film genre emerged during the early Great Depression, partly as a reflection on the public’s fascination with high profile crime (organized crime during Prohibition, and bank robbery gangs in the Depression), and partly driven by studios’ need to entice audiences to go to theaters after the economy crashed.
Gangster films were gritty and violent from the very first days, centering on criminal antiheroes. These films were often fairly sympathetic towards criminals, and glamorized their wealth and carefree flaunting of the rules. Because of this, gangster films offered a powerful form of Depression-era escapism, in which audiences could vicariously break the rules and take advantage of the system. Gangster films were also a form of social commentary, as they portray a corrupt and unjust social order which left the poor, immigrant protagonists of the films with little choice but to seek fortunes outside the law.
Many of the biggest stars in Hollywood history got their start in early gangster films, including James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Playing gangsters allowed actors to be the hero and the villain simultaneously, and embody an alluring kind of danger.
Much like the protagonists of gangster films, the genre enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of American film, and soon the authorities cracked down.
Hollywood was facing growing calls for censorship after the invention of sound. Studios attempted to placate state-level censors by creating an agency to oversee the content of films. This agency developed the Production Code, which would eventually dictate what content films could show for over 30 years.
But the gangster film genre flourished during the time between when Code enforcement was lax - kind of like Prohibition for the film industry. Pre-Code Hollywood was a fascinating time when the Seven Deadly Sins were front and center. Across genres, characters engaged in all forms of debauchery on screen.
Scarface is also notable because even though it predated the formal adoption of the Production Code Administration, it didn't escape the censors, who demanded reshoots and the addition of a subtitle, "The Shame of a Nation," lest people think the film was too sympathetic to Tony Camonte. Like several other films we've looked at previously, the original Scarface is lost to time and only exists in moviegoers' imaginations. But based on the quality of the version that remains, it's likely the original was an even greater masterpiece.
The gangster film remains a popular genre, having gone through several cycles of reinvention and resurgence. Unsurprisingly, this tends to occur during disruptive economic times. But it’s not just American Cinema; every major national cinema has its own take on the gangster film. Over this series, we’ll see many direct influences throughout time and around world cinema, from film noir to the French New Wave, to the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s, and in the work of contemporary directors ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Park Chan-wook.
Scarface, The Hays Code, and American Movie Censorship
Films and the First Amendment
In 1913, the State of Ohio passed a law creating a board of censors to regulate which films could be distributed within the state, and making it illegal for anyone to exhibit an unapproved film.
A film studio (surprisingly, not Thomas Edison’s) sued the state, arguing that the law violated the First Amendment free speech protection. The case went to the Supreme Court, with the Court ruling that motion pictures were not protected by the First Amendment.
A few important notes from the ruling: the Court declared that motion pictures were business ventures solely created for profit, more like the circus or theater than the press or a vehicle for public opinion. Additionally, the Court’s decision expressed the belief that movies were popular and influential, and could potentially be used for evil purposes.
It’s worth noting this decision was written the same year as Birth of a Nation was released.
This Court decision had tremendous implications for film censorship and regulation for almost half a century. Almost immediately, states began appointing film censorship boards.
A Series of Scandals
Earlier in the series, we discussed the studio IMP turning the spotlight on stars, and Charlie Chaplin rocketing to stardom. One of the issues with stars cultivating a persona on screen is that as the press became interested in covering stars, they undoubtedly uncovered scandals.
The Roaring '20s opened with a few scandals that shook the movie industry to the core.
The silent comedy star, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, was accused of rape of an actress who attended a party of his, and who died a few days later in the hospital of peritonitis. The press embellished some details of the investigation, turning the story more and more sordid. Though Arbuckle was exonerated, studios shelved his films and his career never recovered.
In early 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his home in Los Angeles. The crime was never solved, and quite a few of Taylor's mistresses and former business associates were investigated and accused, so naturally the press had a field day speculating about what might have happened.
Finally, one of the biggest stars of the early 1920s and a sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino, was found guilty of bigamy in 1922 because he had remarried too quickly following his divorce. The state of California annulled his marriage. The press spread rumors about why his marriage had been annulled and linked it to an alleged previous stint as a gigolo.
In just two years, Hollywood had given the public plenty of reason to believe that it was full of charlatans, miscreants, and criminals.
Scandals weren't limited to Hollywood. Major League Baseball saw its biggest scandal in 1919. Several members of the Chicago White Sox agreed to fix the World Series, accepting payments in exchange for underperforming, ensuring their team would lose. The fallout from this scandal was swift and severe. Major League Baseball appointed its first commissioner to clean up the sport: Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former US District Judge and all-around super serious dude. One of Landis' first acts was to uncover the scandal and punish the White Sox players; he banned them for life from Major League Baseball, and forced them to play on a farm in Iowa in the afterlife.
Landis gave Hollywood studio heads an idea. Perhaps they could use a commissioner of their own.
Will Hays and the Production Code
The year after Landis joined the MLB, Hollywood appointed Will Hays president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The goal of the MPPDA was a method of self-censorship, to get around some of the complexity of dealing with individual state censorship boards. Additionally, Hays would help the studios rein in some of its stars’ excesses, or at least give the appearance of wholesomeness.
Hays was a Presbyterian Elder, campaign manager for Warren G. Harding, Postmaster General, and one-time Chairman of the Republican National Committee. He had enough similar pedigree to Landis for Hollywood to hire him.
Over the next decade, Hays implemented measures to regulate the content of studio productions. In the mid-20s, Hays introduced a series of recommendations to help studios avoid censorship by the various state boards.
Hays collaborated with a Catholic trade magazine publisher and a Jesuit priest to generate a list of recommended “don’ts” and “be-carefuls,” called the Production Code.
The Code was designed to promote wholesome values and to avoid the movies running afoul of public opinion. Keep people paying for tickets at the rate they were in 1930 (90 million per week).
The don’ts ranged from prohibiting profanity, nudity, and drug use to more repressive policies like depictions of “perverted sexuality,” white slavery, ridicule of clergy, and miscegenation. The Be Carefuls listed subjects that filmmakers should approach with caution, to prevent vulgarity and ensure good taste; these subjects included the depiction of the American flag, weapons, murder, torture, having too much sympathy for criminals, cruelty to animals, showing a man and woman in bed together, and the portrayal of law enforcement officers.
While the Studios agreed to support Hays in the early days of the MPPDA, he couldn’t force studios to make changes. Studios had final say over whether to make the requested edits. Additionally, Hays had a small office, and could barely keep up with Hollywood’s production growth.
The Studios didn’t have a lot of incentive to make changes, either. Remember, in the days of Edison's studio, Hollywood had learned to give people what they wanted. And while off-screen scandals tainted stars' images and killed business, people would go to see films that stirred controversy, as they had with Birth of a Nation. People in the 1920s and 30s were much more socially progressive than the Victorians, and Hollywood both reflected and influenced more open attitudes.
When the censors let a fairly controversial German film, The Blue Angel, get released without cuts, the studios had license to ignore the Code and push the limits.
In 1929, just as Hollywood stopped producing silent-only features, the stock market crash kicked off the Great Depression. The national mood (if not the global mood) soured and became fairly jaded and cynical. Many people questioned traditional institutions and authorities, given the sudden economic turmoil that followed the roaring 20s.
Pre-Code Hollywood reflected this new outlook. No institution was sacred, no taboo off limits from storylines.
Studios were also facing a difficult time. They were making significant costly investments in converting theaters to sound, and fighting economic headwinds that slashed the filmgoing audience in the first years of the Depression. Remember that radio was becoming a common in-home entertainment at the time. To get people back into theaters, you had to give them something to see.
Different studios took different approaches to lure audiences back to theaters. One approach was to make “social problem” films that portrayed working class realities, or commented on the excesses of the wealthy and powerful, particularly business owners. Another approach was escapism and spectacle, focusing on the cinema’s thrills as an antidote to hard times.
Regardless of the story they were telling, studios all used graphic content to titillate audiences.
How bad was it really?
With the dawn of sound, films could be significantly more salacious. The sense of realism meant that actors could curse, or blaspheme, and violence and sex could be much more real, because you could hear what people were saying, along with things like heavy breathing or machine guns.
As the priest who helped author the Code said, "Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance."
Pre-Code films often dealt with previously unthinkable subjects, telling stories around the thrills and dangers of promiscuity, infidelity, and crime. The seven deadly sins were on full display. Prostitution, abortion, suicide, murder - all made frequent appearances during the Pre-Code era. Characters even occasionally used profanity, took drugs recreationally, and showed a lot of skin.
Pre-Code films were frank when it came to sexuality. In fact, there was a subgenre of films in the early 1930s called "sex films." The prototype for this film was the aforementioned The Blue Angel, in which Marlene Dietrich played a cabaret singer who seduces and dominates an older professor, causing his downfall.
Sex films portrayed strong, sexually-liberated women who were often economically self-sufficient and ambitious. Sometimes these female characters used their sexuality to conquer and dominate the men around them. Others involved female characters turning to prostitution, frequently portrayed positively until a third-act comeuppance or repentance to appease censors. These films had a fairly negative view of traditional institutions, especially marriage, so characters often cheated on spouses or partners with impunity. Some films dared to show same-sex relationships.
And the audience for these films? Primarily women. In an age where men had significantly more sexual freedom (as well as economic freedom) these films offered a form of escape and fantasy. Think of these films as the cinematic equivalent of romance novels.
Warner Bros. was the major creator of sex films, at one point declaring that "two out of every five movies should be hot."
The marketing for these films was just as racy. People knew exactly what they were getting. For 1933's Baby Face, in which Barbara Stanwyck's protagonist turns the tables on men who have used and exploited her all her life, and uses her sexuality to manipulate her way to the top of a commercial bank, the trailer uses fairly suggestive language to entice the audience in an almost winking way ("she made it pay!"). Promotional material frequently showed the lead actresses in nightgowns or less, posing suggestively for the camera. The Guardian piece linked at the end of this email contains more discussion of the promotional photos, if you're interested in examples.
Besides being sexy, films in the pre-Code era were violent. Lots of violence, sometimes in films where the protagonist was a criminal, portrayed almost heroically. This was the era of the gangster film.
The Gangster Film
Gangster films weren't invented in the Depression. One of the earliest gangster films was DW Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). But the genre exploded in popularity during the Pre-Code era.
The 1920s and early days of the Depression were days when a new class of criminals became front-page news and household names. This started with Prohibition, when mob leaders like Al Capone rose to prominence, becoming the first Public Enemy #1. In the Depression, outlaws like John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Baby Face Nelson, and gangs of bank robbers emerged. It was natural that Hollywood would bring these stories and others like them to the screen. And in a time when the normal social orders didn’t seem to work out equally, there was a sort of vicarious thrill in watching criminals outrun the police, thriving outside the rule of law.
Gangster films reflected a societal concern with the effects of poverty. Unemployment soared during the early years of the Depression, and many young men couldn’t find work and either roamed the country on the railroads, or milled about in cities. Gangster films express fears for how impressionable youths could be led astray, with the promise of quick riches and a gateway to a better life.
Gangster films also explore issues with immigration and ethnic conflict. Many gangster films center around first or second-generation immigrants, and in many cases blame these immigrants for bringing crime into American cities. In particular, Italian Americans are frequently portrayed as gangsters, drawn into elaborate criminal syndicates. Some of this reflects the stories of high profile organized crime bosses like Capone; but it’s difficult to watch a film like Scarface without seeing the actor Paul Muni delivering a cartoonish stereotype of Italian Americans.
At the same time, even the earliest gangster films portray their criminal protagonists sympathetically. Many films pushed the message that criminals were the result of a decaying society that was failing the working class. It wasn't necessarily the criminals to blame, but the cruel and unfair society of the Depression that created them. While early gangster films rarely went so far to portray crooked cops, there's often a sense that they're doing their job, but not necessarily dispensing justice.
Beginning in 1931, Hollywood released a string of masterpieces of the genre. Warner Bros. was the studio responsible for the majority of the best gangster films of the era - it’s one of the reasons their logo is a shield/badge, to signify the toughness and crime/law bent of their 1930s foundation.
The first major gangster film was Warner Bros.’ Little Caesar (1931), directed by Mervin LeRoy. It launched Edward G. Robinson to stardom, and he was one of the most prolific gangster film stars of the 1930s. Robinson plays Rico, a small-time gangster who dreams of becoming a kingpin. He does make it into a high profile gang and make it to the top, bumping whoever it takes out of his way. Rico is ruthless, and eventually his gang decides he’s too reckless, and overthrows him. Eventually, the police catch up with Rico, leading to his final demise.
Also in 1931, James Cagney became a superstar through The Public Enemy, directed by William Wellman for Warner Bros. Loosely based on a combination of Dillinger and Capone, The Public Enemy tells the rise and fall of two friends who take up a life of crime to escape the drudgery of lower-class life. The friends make it big, and find love, but have to contend with a dangerous rival gang.
The film is gritty, realistic, and violent, even as much of it happens off-screen. Cagney’s Tom is charismatic and dangerous, and even as his debut leading role, Cagney exhibits that star quality.
In 1932, Paramount released Howards Hawks’ Scarface. The film bears some similarities with Brian de Palma’s 1983 film starring Al Pacino - it’s a spiritual remake. Hawks’ film stars Paul Muni as a Capone-like figure and tells a loosely biographical story of Capone’s rise to power. The film contains re-enactments of several infamous mob incidents, including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Once again, Muni’s Tony Camonte rises through the ranks to the top of Chicago’s underworld. He’s ambitious, ruthless, and incredibly jealous, and it’s this combination that ultimately leads to his demise.
The film ran into some issues with state censorship boards, who felt the film needed a bit more justice, and a little less glamour. After being forced to shoot an alternate ending, Hawks also had to make significant edits to appease censors. So the resulting film is a flawed masterpiece.
From these three examples, we can see some of the key themes of gangster films. Gritty, realistic stories of crime. Often, these are rags to riches stories, where the protagonist escapes poverty through crime. In all three cases, the protagonist goes out in a blaze of gunfire. The stories were loosely based on real-life exploits. These films use stark black and white photography, with some expressionist influence in the atmospheric use of shadows and antiheroes. And these men are charismatic and have highly sexually charged relationships.
While the gangster film peaked in the 1930s, and began being watered down by censorship, the genre has made several comebacks and evolutions. Filmmakers around the globe embraced the gangster genre and tweaked its potential for social commentary to their own contexts. Every major national cinema has its own gangster film genre. Later in the series, we’ll discuss the renaissance of the American gangster film during the 1970s with The Godfather and the films of Martin Scorsese, and its later metamorphosis into the neo-noir in the hands of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, but we'll also see its influence in the French New Wave, Japanese cinema, and more.
The Production Code Administration (PCA)
Where was the Hays Office in this age of gangster films and sex films? Overwhelmed, mostly. And secondarily, to maintain a cordial partnership with the studios, the Hays Office censors would typically request a handful of changes, and only a massive overhaul in case of emergency. So writers and directors would stuff their films with obvious things the censors would find objectionable, so the rest of the script seemed more tame by comparison. As one screenwriter of the era said, “You would give them five things to take out to satisfy the Hays Office – and you would get away with murder with what they left in.”
Things came to a head in 1934, when the Catholic Bishops of the United States formed an agency, the National League of Decency. They set out to pressure the US Government towards formal censorship of motion pictures, and threatened a nationwide boycott. Leaders from other Christian denominations were supportive as well.
Terrified of this groundswell, the MPPDA passed an amendment requiring all movies in the US to receive a certificate of approval in order to be released. A new agency within the MPPDA, the Production Code Administration, would review all scripts before production and request changes.
The PCA was responsible for setting and enforcing the bounds of acceptable Hollywood content for over 30 years. The gangster film and the sex film were dramatically altered by PCA censorship.
Hollywood had just learned to talk, and now it would have to re-learn. As we’ll see in coming weeks, the constraints were in many ways a creative boost, as Hollywood developed a rich subtextual language that made films every bit as thrilling, without being as explicit as Pre-Code films. Those concerned that sound had ended Hollywood’s golden age, well they hadn’t heard nothin’ yet.
Questions to Consider
How do you feel about the protagonist of Scarface, Tony Camonte? Do you think the film valorizes, celebrates, or demonizes him?
What's an example of a contemporary gangster film? (if you can't think of any, maybe consider The Town, The Departed, or Inside Man). How do these films treat the criminals and the cops at the center of the story? What do these films say about contemporary society?
Films were eventually given First Amendment protection, and Hollywood eventually replaced the PCA with modern movie ratings (G, PG-13, R, etc.) and content warnings. How do these film ratings or content warnings impact how you experience movies - do you make conscious decisions based on ratings? Do you feel desensitized to certain types of material?
Further Reading / Viewing
If you've already seen Scarface, or you'd like to see other films from the era, check out one of the following: