#537) Scarface (1932)

#537) Scarface (1932)

OR “Say Hello to My Older Friend”

Directed by Howard Hawks

Written by Ben Hecht. Dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, and W.R. Burnett. Based on the novel by Armitage Trail.

Class of 1994

This trailer appears to be from a re-release in the late ’70s.

The Plot: In 1930s Chicago this town, Italian mobster Al Capone Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), shoots down a crime boss so that mafioso Johnny Torrio Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) can control the South Side of…this Anytown U.S.A. Acting as Lovo’s second-in-command, Tony sells booze to speakeasies across their new territory. Soon Tony’s ambition gets in the way, and he begins selling beer to the North Side, starting a turf war with the Irish mob. Tony also starts aiming to replace Lovo as the crime boss, even stealing his best gal Poppy (Karen Morley). It’s a tale of gangsters hot with power that is in no way related to…what did you say his name was? Al Ca-pone? I’ll have to look him up.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls “Scarface” no short of a “masterpiece”, praising Paul Muni for giving “his best performance”.

But Does It Really?: Hey, why not? While not the quintessential ’30s gangster picture, “Scarface” is worthy of NFR recognition thanks to its top-notch talent, its behind-the-scenes struggles with the censors, and for spawning an equally memorable remake. No argument here for “Scarface” on the NFR.

Wow, That’s Dated: Italian stereotypes, pay phones, tommy guns, yada yada yada, you know the drill with this segment.

Title Track: As part of the Hays Office’s many attempts to water down the film’s glorification of the crime world, some prints of “Scarface” include the subtitle “The Shame of the Nation”. The subtitle has often been used in recent years to help differentiate this film from its better-known remake. Also, weirdly enough, in order to further avoid any connections to Al Capone (who was also nicknamed Scarface), no one says “Scarface” at any point in this movie.

Seriously, Oscars?: Perhaps due to the film’s controversies with censorship or its poor box office receipts, “Scarface” received zero Oscar nominations. The film was, however, named one of the top 10 films of 1932 by the National Board of Review.

Other notes 

  • Producer Howard Hughes (yes, that Howard Hughes) was interested in doing a gangster picture based on Al Capone (still in his bootlegging prime in 1931), and bought the film rights to the novel “Scarface”, based in part on Capone. Hughes hired screenwriter Ben Hecht (writer of previous Hughes film “The Front Page“) and director Howard Hawks to mold Tony Camonte to a figure more align with the Borgia Family. Interesting side note: Hawks was in the process of suing Hughes for plagiarism on another movie when approached to direct! Helming “Scarface” was part of the agreement to drop the case.
  • Due to its central themes of crime and corruption, “Scarface” ran afoul of the Hays Office throughout its production. In order for the film to be approved for release, a text prologue was added calling the picture “an indictment of gang rule in America”, and several new scenes were shot of journalists and government officials serving as a Greek chorus condemning Tony and his actions. In addition, any elements that were specific to Capone were toned down or eliminated.
  • Tony gets a nice reveal: his first scene is played out in shadow, and you finally see his face during his second scene at the barbershop when the towels are being removed from his face.
  • There’s something quite interesting about Paul Muni’s performance. In a movie swarming with the Italian stereotypes of the day (there’s an organ grinder for crissakes!), Muni approaches Tony organically. Still plenty of clichés in his performance, but he’s building the character from the inside out. It’s the kind of “method stereotyping” that Eli Wallach would perfect in the ’50s.
  • A quick reminder that stage legend Osgood Perkins is the father of Anthony Perkins.
  • George Raft was hired to play Tony’s confidante Guino Rinaldo thanks in part to his real life connections to various gangsters (he was childhood friends with Bugsy Siegel). As Guino, Raft spends most of this movie flipping a coin. Where’d he pick up that cheap trick?
  • This movie may have the greatest time-lapse scene in cinema history. The passage of time as Tony starts to take over is visualized as pages rapidly falling off a calendar, synchronized with the rat-a-tat of a machine gun. It’s perfection.
  • So that’s what Boris Karloff actually looks like! As Irish gang leader Tom Gaffney, Karloff is either using his native English accent or has the worst Irish accent since Sean Connery. Either way, Karloff has more dialogue here than he did in two whole “Frankenstein” movies.
  • Between the free spirited, opinionated female characters, the rapid fire dialogue, and the comic relief of Tony’s secretary Angelo, are we sure Hawks didn’t think he was directing one of his screwball comedies?
  • Like oranges in “The Godfather“, “Scarface” uses the X motif to symbolize when a character is about to be killed. Typically this is represented by perpendicular architecture or convenient shadows, but there’s also the creative workaround when a character is killed in a bowling alley immediately after scoring a strike. Even Tony’s scar is an X!
  • Apparently the filmmakers fought to retain the original novel’s implications of incest between Tony and his sister Cesca. If any remnants of that are in the final film, I definitely missed them. Of course, that’s not something I inherently look for while I’m watching a movie.
  • In addition to the overall neutering of violence and story elements “Scarface” endured from various censor boards, a new ending was filmed in which Tony turns himself in to the police and is hanged in the gallows, rather than being shot in a blaze of glory. Richard Rosson directed this new ending when Hawks refused, and a double filled in for Paul Muni, who was starring in a Broadway play at the time. Current releases of “Scarface” include the original ending, with the mandated alternate ending appearing as a supplemental feature.

Legacy 

  • It was the long-fought censorship battles movies like “Scarface” encountered that led to the eventual installment of the Production Code. While this move negated the need for each state to have its own censor board, it created an over-protective code of conduct the movies would be straightjacketed with for the next 35 years.
  • While there were critics and moviegoers alike who praised “Scarface” from the beginning (even Capone liked it), the public backlash over the film’s subject matter led to “Scarface” underperforming at the box office. Disappointed with the film’s initial lack of success, Howard Hughes removed all prints of “Scarface” from circulation and turned down all offers to sell or re-release the film during his lifetime.
  • Following Hughes’ death in 1976, “Scarface” returned to the public eye for a reappraisal. Among those who saw the film was Al Pacino, who started planning a remake with producer Martin Bregman. Originally attached director Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of transplanting the story to the Cuban Mariel boatlift of 1980, and in the hands of new director Brian de Palma, 1983’s “Scarface” is more iconic than its predecessor. And yet, still no NFR recognition.

Bonus Clip: While we’re waiting for the ’83 “Scarface” to make the NFR, please enjoy this montage of Universal’s attempt to clean up Pacino’s F-bombs for network TV. Because this town is like a great big chicken just waiting to get plucked.

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