Howard Hawks “Scarface” follows the typical rise and fall of a gangster, similar to the two other gangster classics of the period, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” however, here the bodies pile up much quicker and a lot more violently. There is more action and shooting in the independently shot “Scarface”, than in both of the studio system films combined. Even for a pre-code film “Scarface” is strong stuff. There is plenty of sexual innuendo, including a strong hint of incestuous interest by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dorvak). Tony is perversely possessive of his sister scaring off a boyfriend after catching them kissing. “I don’t want anyone puttin’ their hands on you!” he tells her. At one point during this exchange he even violently rips part of her dress. Cesca however, is too free-spirited to accept being sheltered by the dominant Tony. She is well aware that he acts more like a jealous lover than a brother. This abnormal relationship will come back to haunt them both later in the film.
Tony however, does not mind hitting on someone else’s sister or mistress as we discover when he meets his boss Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) mistress, Poppy (Karen Morley). The first time they meet, Poppy is sitting at a dressing table in a flimsy dressing gown. When introduced by Lovo to Tony she cannot be bothered to cover up an exposed thigh from his wandering eyes.
With all the bodies piling up and the sex, the censors came down hard on “Scarface.” Produced by Howard Hughes, “Scarface” was the last of the three seminal gangster films to released in the early 1930’s. Originally scheduled to be released in 1931 the film came out in March of 1932 due to a protracted censorship battle with the Will Hays Office and various State Film censorship boards including the powerful New York State Board. The censors felt there was too much glorification of gangsters in recent films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” They were demanding that the violence in “Scarface” be toned down and the lead character, Tony Camonte, be punished and condemned for his deeds. This forced a second ending to be filmed long after the film wrapped. Muni and director Hawks were long gone by the time second ending was filmed. In this alternate version Muni is never seen (alternate ending is included on the DVD as an extra). Additionally, a subtitle, “The Shame of a Nation” was added as well as an introductory text condemning the gangster lifestyle, blaming the government and demanding that something be done. Still after all this, some censors refused to let the film be released. Finally, producer Hughes scrapped the revised ending and released the film as originally shot in States with lenient film censorship boards. Subsequently, the world premiere was held in New Orleans. When the film was eventually released in New York, it was a censored version that both the critics and the public saw. In Chicago, the film was not released until 1934. Due its limited distribution and its late release toward the end of the first wave of the great gangster film cycle “Scarface” did well at the box office however, not as good as the earlier released films. About 1947, the film was pulled from distribution and became unavailable for public viewing except for some poorly chopped up bootleg versions floating around the underground market. In 1980, now owned by Universal, the uncensored version was finally shown in New York State at a special showing as part of the New York Film Festival.
While loosely based on the life of Al Capone (Capone was originally upset with the film’s likeness but eventually changed his mind and even had a personal copy of the film), the film’s realism was enhanced by screenwriter Ben Hecht’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld, and such real life Chicago mob figures as North Side gang leader, Dion O’Banion and Capone himself. Many scenes depicted in the film are based on actual events; the killing of “Big Louie” Castillo by Camonte (Paul Muni) was based the killing of boss “Big Jim” Colosimo. Later on, Camonte has the North Side gang leader O’Hara killed in his flower shop mimicking the Capone ordered assassination of Dion ‘O’Banion his flower shop, and the resulting retaliation by the O’Banion gang when they shot up a restaurant where Capone was eating at the time, was recreated by Hawks in its violent entirety. Still, there was much that was fiction also. The incestuous attachment Camonte has to his sister, screenwriter Ben Hecht used the Borgias, the infamous Italian Renaissance family as a blueprint, and the ending is pure imagination. Unlike the fictional Camonte, Al Capone died of syphilis and not by police bullets.
Looking at the film today, it still holds up as one of the most violent and best gangster films of its era. This is especially true if compared to “Little Caesar” that today seems to move along at a creaky pace despite a strong performance by Edward G. Robinson. What also contributes to the films modernity is Hawks use of the X motif, which shows up at various times during the film, mostly when someone is killed or about to be killed. The X, of course, looks similar to the scar on Camonte’s face. While parts of the screenplay are dated, the script contains a lot of dark and witty humor. Karen Morley as Poppy provides numerous sharp lines of dialogue mostly directed at Tony.
Paul Muni plays Tony as a not too bright thug, with an eye for the good things in life (power, gaudy clothes and women). Despite a bad Italian accent and a propensity for overacting Muni strikes the right balance as the crazed power hungry gangster with an unnatural attachment to his sister. The beautiful Ann Dorvak, who began an affair with director Howard Hawks during the filming, is vulnerable yet determined and sexy as Cesca, especially when she performs a seductive dance for Rinaldo (George Raft). Hawks would use her again in his next film, “The Crowd Roars.” Karen Morley portrays Poppy, Johnny Lovo’s mistress, with a cool sensual feistiness. For George Raft, this was well known territory. At one time the former ballroom dancer worked for real life bootlegger Owny Madden. The coin flipping that became his trademark and was parodied in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” was actually, used as an attempt by Hawks to calm Raft’s nerves while filming. Boris Karloff who previously worked for Hawks in “The Criminal Code” got the small part of Gaffrey, the new head of the rival gang.
“Scarface” remains one of the most violent and provocative of all gangster films managing to overcome some creaky dialogue, chew biting performances, by Muni and Boris Karloff, and some unfortunate attempts at misplaced humor by Vince Barnett as Angelo one of Tony’s incompetent henchmen.
“Scarface” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is part of the film catalog in the Library of Congress.
I’ve finally seen this movie (I got the DVD a while ago but hadn’t got round to it!) and mainly enjoyed it… except for the scenery-chewing and terrible Italian accent on the part of Muni.
I enjoyed your review and am interested to learn that things like the flower shop murder and shooting up the restaurant are based on real life. Also interested to hear that Tony’s relationship with his sister is based on the Borgias.
A shame that the film disappeared from circulation for so many years. I do agree about the humour from Vince Barnett being pretty bad, although I found it quite a moving touch when he still answers the phone after being shot, and finally gets the name!
[…] was originally set up to be a gangster melodrama, cashing in on Muni’s recent success with “Scarface” It was LeRoy who transformed the film to an attack on social […]
John, in responding to your comment on my own take on Scarface recently, I have to say that between us, we have just about covered everything about the movie! My focus was on personalities of the gangsters and the people in their lives. Yours was an excellent account of the background, full story and reception of the film. I see we are in sync about the annoying character of Angelo as played by Vince Barnett. I didn’t fit in this film. You have written a well-researched, well-done review, John, and I enjoyed it very much.
Enjoyed reading your essay and look forward to parts two and three. I have loved gangster films since I was a kid.
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