Friday, July 18, 2014

Scarface (Caddo/United Artists, filmed 1931, released 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1932 version of Scarface, which TCM was showing as part of a program comparing original versions of movies to their remakes — and by coincidence both original versions were films directed by Howard Hawks in the early 1930’s and both with featured roles for Boris Karloff at a time when he was just establishing himself as a character villain before the surprise success of his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein took his career in a quite different direction. They began the evening with The Criminal Code from 1931 and one of its two remakes, Convicted (1950) — there was an intervening version from 1938 called Penitentiary — and then showed both this Scarface and the 1983 semi-remake with Al Pacino not as an Italian-American gangster dealing bootleg beer but a Cuban-American gangster dealing drugs. I’ve never seen the later Scarface — I like Pacino and his success in the first two Godfather movies inevitably typed him as a gangster, but just about everything I heard about this movie, including the sheer length and the reports of its ultra-violence, put me off. (The Scarface remake was actually a box-office disappointment on initial release but it picked up money on video and DVD sales, largely after rappers adopted its violent iconography, and when The Black Dahlia was issued on DVD I was amused it was promoted as “Directed by Brian DePalma, director of Scarface,” as if that was his most marketable previous credit.) The 1932 Scarface began life as a novel by Armitage Trail, a writer I knew of elsewhere only as the author of The Thirteenth Guest, a haunted-house mystery filmed in 1932 by the first iteration of Monogram with Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot as the stars. It was produced by Howard Hughes — yes, that Howard Hughes — who after a six-year fling at moviemaking that had mostly just run through a lot of the fortunes generated by the oil drill-bit business that made the Hughes family its money, had finally started to generate blockbuster hits when he abruptly had to shut it down because as part of his divorce settlement from his first wife, Ella Rice, he had to agree not to make movies for seven years because she was afraid he would blow his whole fortune on filmmaking.

The idea to film Scarface came to Hughes from his screenwriter, Ben Hecht, who knew the Chicago gang scene intimately because he’d written about it as a reporter before he got into playwrighting and then screenwriting, and he reportedly sold the story to Hughes by telling him it would be a modern-dress version of the lives of the Borgias. The title, of course, suggested a more recent (indeed, still alive and at liberty when the film was made) figure, mobster Al Capone, and the script did indeed include the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other well-known real incidents from Capone’s life even though, contrary to the horrible sententious foreword added later to the film at the insistence of the censors, not every incident in the movie is based on actual events. Hughes bought Hecht’s screenplay and hired Howard Hawks to direct — and Hawks found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was Hughes, who saw Hawks’ rough cut and asked for more, and more explicit, scenes of gang violence — Hughes was especially big on drive-by shootings and there are quite a few of them in the film — and the hard place was the Production Code Administration and the censor boards in various states. Hughes had filmed Scarface in early 1931, in the wake of the success of the Warners gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (which made instant stars of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively), and he spent nearly a year afterwards fighting the movie censors. The censors wanted the title changed to Shame of a Nation (some prints bear that as a subtitle), wanted a scene inserted in which a crusading newspaper editor pulls together a citizens’ committee to build a public movement to stop the gangsters (this is in the current print, and it brings the action to a dead stop — Charles correctly guessed this was a censor-mandated addition), and most of all they wanted the central character, Tony “Scarface” Camonte (played by Paul Muni in a major comeback role for him — he’d been under contract to Fox for three years, had gone nowhere and had just been dropped when Hughes hired him for this role, which won him a Warner Bros. contract and leads in some of that studio’s most prestigious films), arrested, convicted and hanged at the end instead of mowed down in a defiant shootout with police.

Hughes agreed to all the above changes even though, with Paul Muni already at Warners making I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the shots of him in the courtroom and walking to the gallows were done with a double and only his hands and feet were shown. Then the censors demanded still more changes, and Hughes, with nothing to lose — he was making movies as an expensive hobby and he wasn’t dependent on the income from them — sued the censors and finally won the right to release Scarface with the original title and ending. But the battle between Hughes and the censors had delayed the movie’s release by nine months, so by the time it finally came out Paul Muni was a Warner Bros. star and Boris Karloff, who had taken the role as one more in a series of gangster roles he’d played (including a quirky film from Columbia called The Guilty Generation, a modern-dress Romeo and Juliet in which the young lovers are the offspring of rival gangsters in the U.S. instead of feuding families carrying on a vendetta in medieval Italy, and Karloff and Leo Carrillo are the gangsters whose feud is keeping their children from getting together) in his attempt to establish himself as a character villain, was on his way to a quite different sort of fame based on his star-making performance as the Monster in the 1931 Frankenstein. As a result, his jarring appearance as Thomas Gaffney, last survivor of the O’Hara (read: O’Bannion) mob after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre until Tony Camonte (read: Al Capone) traces him to a bowling alley and guns him down (Howard Hawks was especially proud of the shot he worked out in which Gaffney has just thrown his last bowling ball when he’s killed, the ball takes out nine of the 10 pins and then, as Gaffney dies off-screen, the last pin shakes and ultimately falls), probably seemed as odd to 1932 audiences as it does to us. Seen today, Scarface is a quite incredible movie, slower-paced than the slam-bang Warners epics that inspired it (much the way Hawks’ The Criminal Code was slower than the Warners prison pictures one usually thinks of as exemplars of the genre), with less music (there’s a scene at a dance hall where an unseen band — Gus Arnheim’s, according to, though they sounded Black to me and I had guessed Curtis Mosby’s Blue Blowers — plays “St. Louis Blues” and “Some of These Days” while the characters dance, but no one sings on camera even though, in a nicely artful Hecht touch, the dialogue between the romantically involved characters during “Some of These Days” echo the unheard, but well known to 1932 audiences, lyrics to the song) and quite a bit more open violence.

There are a few scenes in which killings take place off-camera and are merely narrated (including the one of North Side kingpin O’Hara, which spreads the gang war from the South Side to the whole city), but most of the murders are shown to the audience in detail as graphic as a well-known censor-provoker like Howard Hughes could get away with in 1932. The plot of Scarface casts Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as a kill-crazy thug intent on murdering his way to the top of gangland (the city is officially unnamed but is pretty obviously Chicago) no matter what anyone else has to say about it: he begins by offing Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar), whom he’s presumably working for as a bodyguard, as a contract hit man for Costillo’s rival Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ father). This makes him officially number two man in Lovo’s operation, but Lovo wants to organize the illegal beer trade as an industry and drive out his rivals within the South Side but leave the North Side alone. Tony couldn’t care less what his nominal boss wants; he provokes a gang war by targeting O’Hara’s operations and later killing O’Hara and seven others in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. One quirk of this film is that the letter “X” appears just before nearly every murder — the Massacre takes place in a garage and is viewed through a trellis with a cross-hatched pattern of seven X’s — one of the many Hawks touches that give the film visual richness (the cinematographers were L. William O’Connell and the great Lee Garmes) even though they also trade in an expressionistic look Hawks, like John Ford, pretty much abandoned by the late 1930’s. And though Scarface is a gangster movie and not a film noir, the final reels get awfully noir-ish as Tony becomes more and more isolated. He’s driven by passions for money, power and women — two women in particular: Johnny Lovo’s mistress Poppy (Karen Morley, wooden as usual but in a part that doesn’t suffer much from her limitations) and Tony’s own sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), whom he embraces in decidedly un-brotherly ways and gets ferociously jealous of any man who shows interest in her — including Tony’s own sidekick Guino (George Raft, doing the famous coin-flipping gesture that became de rigueur for all impressionists doing Raft and launched a thousand in-jokes — notably the one in Some Like It Hot in which Edward G. Robinson, Jr., playing a hood in Raft’s organization, is shown flipping a coin and Raft says, “Where’d ya learn that cheap trick?”), whom he guns down when he catches them in a hotel room together despite Cesca’s pleas that it’s O.K. because they’re married.

In a sense Scarface is a transitional film between the honorable-gangster movies of the 1920’s — made when public opinion regarded gangsters as a necessary evil to supply them drink in the wake of Prohibition — which showed the gangsters as motivated by almost medieval codes of honor that generally limited their killings to each other; and the depictions of the kill-crazy outlaws of the 1930’s who were considered nothing but public enemies (a phrase actually coined by whoever in Warner Bros.’ marketing department decided to use it as the title of James Cagney’s breakthrough film, which had been shot under the awkward working title Beer and Blood). An article at the time noted the contrast between Al Capone, who for all the killings he ordered had at least provided a service the public wanted; and John Dillinger, the paradigmatic criminal of the 1930’s as Capone had been of the 1920’s, who was just a predator. Public opinion began to turn against the gangsters in the late 1920’s as their killings got sloppier (and more frequent) and innocent people started dying in large numbers, but there are shards of the noble-gangster characterization even in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (in his autobiography Edward G. Robinson said he saw Caesar Enrico Bandello as a striver, eager to work himself up and make something of himself, and a villain only because he chose to do so in a criminal instead of a legitimate enterprise). Not here; Muni’s performance in Scarface is openly bestial, thuglike in a way that exposes the polite pretensions of the rest of the gangsters (the ones he’s supposedly working for, Costillo and Lovo, in particular) for the hypocrisies they are, a virtually uncontrollable id. When I commented on Little Caesar after not having seen it for years I noted how bestial Robinson became in the later parts of the movie and noted that Francis Edward Faragoh had worked on the scripts for both Little Caesar and Frankenstein; in Scarface Muni becomes even more openly monstrous, more Frankensteinian (which makes it even more ironic that Boris Karloff is in this movie as one of Muni’s victims!), grunting rather than speaking his lines and acting as if a thin veneer of civilization has been pasted over a wild animal. No wonder Howard Hughes insisted that he die in a hail of bullets instead of a properly administered due-process hanging; Scarface would be considerably less powerful and believable if Tony Camonte had shown himself a mere mortal at the end instead of an otherworldly presence whom law enforcement could dispatch only by sinking to his level.