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Scarface (1932)

by Glenn Erickson Jun 05, 2021

Still the fiercest and most cinematic of the first wave of gangster classics, Howards Hughes and Hawks’s pre-Code rule-breaker was the one that brought down the ban on ‘glamorous’ gangster movies. In this case classic hardly means dated: the cars and clothes are vintage but the sex and violence are sizzling hot. Paul Muni is the primitive killer who falls in love with submachine guns and George Raft is his loyal trigger man. Karen Morley and especially Ann Dvorak are indeed the hottest pre-Code seducers in film. Plus, Boris Karloff contributes a mobster snarl as a lightly-disguised Bugs Moran. It’s a bullet-ridden city, that’s for sure, and the filmmakers frequently use expressionist effects: like X Marks The Spot!


Scarface
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 37
1932 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 93 min. 33 sec. + 95 min. 34 sec. / Scarface, Shame of a Nation / Street Date April 28, 2021 / Available from / 34.95 (au)
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, Vince Barnett, Boris Karloff, Purnell Pratt, Tully Marshall, Inez Palange, Edwin Maxwell, John Lee Mahin.
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, L.W. O’Connell
Film Editor: Edward Curtiss
Art Director: Harry Oliver
Screen story by Ben Hecht, dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett from the book by Armitage Trail
Produced by Howard Hughes
Directed by
Howard Hawks

Reviewing the 1983 Scarface remake last year led me to give the original another try. Producer Howard Hughes’ best movie, the 1932 Scarface, Shame of a Nation has a completely different feel than its contemporary gangster classics Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. All three made stars of their leading players, and brought down the wrath of every civic morals-minder in the country. The Warners’ pictures had violent scenes that were claimed to ‘teach’ criminal behavior to juvenile delinquents.

That didn’t matter to producer Hughes and director Howard Hawks: they ignored the Code Office’s censor objections to the script and filmed what they wanted. Almost every scene includes violence or threats of violence. The overall body count in Tony Camonte’s gang war is far higher than any other gangster picture. When the Production Code was given teeth two years later, prohibiting movies that glorified gangsters became a top industry priority.

The World is Yours.

The show is indeed a glorified retelling of the Al Capone story, leaving out aspects that don’t involve gang violence. Italian-American hit man Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) murders his own mob boss Big Louis Costillo (Henry J. Vejar) so that Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) can take over the South Side. Tony’s strong-arm tactics quickly bring the bootleggers into line, but his ambition shows from the start. Tony is soon disobeying orders, moving into ‘O’Hara’s North Side and igniting a shooting war. Tony also makes moves on Lovo’s moll, Poppy (Karen Morley). His protective attitude toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) verges on incestuous possessiveness. It leads directly to his downfall, when Cesca falls in love with Tony’s closest associate, gunman Guino Rinaldo (George Raft).

Scarface is a story of America writ large. Tony Camonte is a distortion of the immigrant experience, with the woefully ignorant Tony proving that brutal self-interest is a strong aid to getting ahead in the big city, where even advertising mottos tell him that his destiny is to rule the mob. The screenplay defends the good name of immigrant communities against gangster scum like Camonte, but the show can’t have been positive public relations for Italian-Americans. Forty years later the revisionist Godfather movies stressed that urban gangsterism was a carryover of Sicilian tradition. Scarface mentions crooked politicians and judges, but makes no mention of The Mafia. What we see here are petty warlords that ought to be deported back where they came from. (Some were).

 

Look, a machine gun you can carry in your hand! You hold it like a baby!

Tony Camonte is as murderous as Tom Powers or Caesar Enrico Bandello, but he’s far more unbalanced and dangerous. He’s sharp but infantile, an ignorant ape that can only see what he wants to take. Always looking for the Strong Man, Poppy responds to Tony’s grotesquely blunt come-ons even as she laughs up her sleeve when he misreads her insults as praise. Tony goes crazy when he gets his hands on a submachine gun, with a manic enthusiasm that guarantees that a lot of innocent bystanders are going to bite the dust. The symbolism isn’t subtle. Tony deems the gun an extension of his sexual potency: “Get out of my way Johnny, I’m gonna spit!”

Tony is so single-minded and emotionally out of control that he bears comparison with the same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The exaggeration of ‘excitable’ and ‘primitive’ stereotypes associated with Italian American immigrants make Tony resemble a leering monster. Plenty of gangsters had personalities almost as grotesque, but Tony Camonte is a glaring target for anti-defamation activists. Mr. Hyde was nastiness personified, whereas Tony Camonte is a horribly spoiled child capable of terrible brutality.

 

Some of the film’s noted screenwriters had been crime reporters, and covered some of the real events depicted in Scarface. Contributor John Lee Mahin has a cameo bit as a reporter who interviews Camonte rival Gaffney (Boris Karloff, fresh from Frankenstein). Is it an intentional gag that the reporter’s name is MacArthur, the same as scribe Ben Hecht’s writing partner?  Gaffney is an obvious cipher for Bugs Moran; Karloff summons a real look of horror when he’s shown the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Likewise Gaffney’s boss O’Hara is said to be a florist, which makes him the counterpart of the real-life Dion O’Bannion, who was gunned down in his own flower shop. The drive-by machine gun parade as Tony tries to eat lunch in an Italian restaurant is an historical event as well.

 Boris Karloff is an odd fit as a Chicago gangster but his grim snarl and cowardly reactions give the show an extra thrill. The film’s gallery of supporting characters is indelible. Dancer-turned actor George Raft ( ) was by this time avoiding roles that included dancing. Guino Rinaldo’s defining habit of flipping a coin is worked into the fabric of the story — he meets Cesca by substituting his coin for hers when tipping an organ grinder. The last time Guino answers the door he also chooses to flip a coin, rather than stop to pick up his gun. (At UCLA, critical studies student Joe MacInnerny argued that The Wild Bunch bridges the Western and the Gangster Film because Deke Thornton repeats Guino’s stage directions, leaving his gun behind when answering a door.) Raft’s Rinaldo is the pretty boy to Tony’s Neanderthal, and the movie keeps most of Rinaldo’s violence off-screen.

 

Little Caesar doesn’t give Edward G. Robinson a dedicated designated moll, and The Public Enemy’s James Cagney has both Mae Clarke and Jean Harlow. Tony Camonte’s first love interest is Karen Morley’s pampered Poppy. She changes loyalties from Johnny Lovo to Tony and shares in some of the excitement of Tony’s new machine gun, as if its acquisition adds up to ‘baby makes three.’ A plaything in a man’s world, Poppy understands men very well. It’s a smooth performance; in the same year, Morley would play a helpless victim of Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu and a live-in White House lover in the weird political fantasy Gabriel Over the White House. Although Scarface has no explicit sex scenes, Poppy is obviously shacked up with Lovo and then Tony. She’s even more of a trophy dish than was Powers’ Jean Harlow. Some sources say that the platinum blond Tony greets on the way to his table is Jean Harlow, making a cameo bit appearance.

The most exciting thing in Scarface today is the incredible Ann Dvorak, whose slinky, ‘wild kid’ Cesca is an emblem of unstoppable impulses. Cesca just wants to live, and through her brother sees a future of unending excitement. Cesca puts on a racy front with what has to be the sexiest bit of dance-pantomime in any pre-Code movie, performed for Rinaldo in a nightclub foyer. Ms. Dvorak was 21 playing 18 but could easily pass for a precocious, unrestrained teenager.

Scarface has plenty of comedy touches, the biggest being Vince Barnett’s broadly comic Angelo, a clownish idiot who can’t read or write and is incapable of answering a telephone. Tony is immature, but Vince is an outright baby, plain and simple. That the comedy routines blend in well with the film’s darker material is a secret to making ugly, violent stories more acceptable to the general public — a rule applied by the ‘serious’ director Arthur Penn in Bonnie & Clyde by David Newman & Robert Benton. Critic Robin Wood hailed Howard Hawks in a selective appraisal of his work. He designated Scarface as one of Hawks’s absurd comedies, having traits in common with Bringing up Baby and Monkey Business (which also has a theme of infantilism).

“X” marks the spot.

Comedy or not, Scarface really isn’t like any other Hawks film, with their emphasis on the male working unit and an easygoing narrative surface that shapes scenes from natural behaviors. The show is as as boldly stylized and expressionist as early ’30s Hollywood got. Lee Garmes’ cinematography and Harry Oliver’s sets are highly stylized from the very beginning, with Big Louis’ post-party tangle of confetti and balloons. To indicate the passage of time, a machine gun appears to shoot calendar pages off a wall. Shadows abound, to mask Tony Camonte’s first appearance and to make some of the gruesome violence palatable, especially the Valentine’s Day Massacre. We race through montages of mob retaliation on the street. A cop talks about collateral civilian casualties, but all we get is the scream of a woman in a step-down apartment — has a beer barrel off a hijacked truck smashed through and killed her child?

Scarface’s boldest visual conceit is something a cartoonist or Alfred Hitchcock would have admired. A big “X” hovers behind the main titles, perhaps signifying the gangster credo’s existential “No” to American society (as per Robert Warshow’s key essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero). Almost all of the film’s killings are accompanied by additional “X” designs, sometimes overt in the décor (seven X’s at the Clark Street Garage) or more subtle (a down angle of a sidewalk killing, through a mortuary sign). With Gaffney it’s a close-up of a scoring sheet at a bowling alley.

Both Tom Powers (“I ain’t so tough.”) and Rico Bandello (“Mother of Mercy…”) come to ironic, somewhat pathetic ends. Just as the cops claim, without his gang and his guns Tony Camonte is indeed a sniveling coward, but he still goes out in a blaze of glory. He’s so crazed that he neglects the basics, like closing those steel shutters. Nobody over-reaches like a foolhardy ambitious American gangster — the only exit is madness, a finish expressed in the final gangster film of the classic era, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat — which echoes Tony Camonte’s explosive egotism: ‘The world is Mine / Top of the World.’

 

It can be argued that Howard Hughes made movies not to make money but to indulge his excitement for he-man storytelling… and to collect a harem of women. Scarface survived in its (we think) original form only because the stubborn Hughes didn’t let the various censored versions be permanent, as would have happened at the studios. The movie opens with a text sermon expressing outrage against the gangster. The story is also interrupted by a judge’s speech to ‘community leaders’ that want news reportage of gangsterism to be suppressed. (Spoiler) An alternate finale filmed in re-shoots doesn’t give Tony Camonte a fighting finish, shot down in the gutter. An efficient but meretricious sequence shows a Paul Muni double being dragged to the gallows, while a judge exclaims yet another pompous speech. Oddly, two years later the Production Code would also ban explicit execution scenes like the one tagged onto Scarface for more stringent markets.

The exact stories of the film’s censorship differ. It was shown in New York City with the censored ending, but a train ride to New Jersey allowed fans to see the film uncut. We wonder if the the preamble text and the ‘irate citizens’ scene were added to the show as sops to the Code Office, or if they were scripted from the start. It is often written that the Code Office demanded a similar scene in the much later The Asphalt Jungle, in which a police chief (John McIntire) condemns criminals. Alan K. Rode reports that it was always there, in original scripts.

One continuity wrinkle in the original finale makes me suspect more tinkering. When Tony runs into the street to face a hail of bullets, he leaves detective Guarino (C. Henry Gordon) behind him in the apartment foyer. A few seconds later, the camera tilts up to see Guarino and other cops running to Tony’s body — from their positions on the street.

The IMDB quote transcript for one of Vince Barnett’s telephone-answering fiascoes, claims that Barnett drops a dialogue f-bomb (at 34:40). To me it could just be faux-Italian fumble-mumbling, but technically I think they’re right.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Scarface, Shame of a Nation is a handsome, nicely appointed presentation of this highly entertaining classic thriller. Until recently Scarface wasn’t available in good copies. Warners located excellent printing elements for the other two of the ‘big three’ gangster classics, but Universal hasn’t had that luck with this independently-produced picture. At a symposium several years ago a Universal restoration rep said that the only film they had was four generations removed from the original negative. Howard Hughes’s company kept a tight rein on its films, so the chances of a better source showing up are not good. The chances are that Hughes’ minions accounted for every print struck for Scarface.

Universal’s restoration job is exemplary. The image is stable and the contrast doesn’t flutter. We also see the full frame again; long-ago ratty 16mm prints were cropped on the sides. The audio is greatly improved as well. Both versions are here, in two separate encodings (or seamless branching?) Correct me if I’m wrong, but the versions seem to be identical until the very end. Both main titles read simply as Scarface without the ‘Shame of a Nation’ addition. The ‘censored’ last reel is also presented as a separate menu item. My memory of early viewings is not good: I have a (false?) impression that in one version Tony storms outside without acting so craven, and a second version in which he just quietly surrenders. Is it possible that Hughes cooked up even more alternate endings?  I doubt it.

Universal released their own plain-wrap Blu-ray two years ago, in conjunction with the 1983 remake, which I hear also has one or two f-bombs, if one listens really carefully. Viavision turns a brace of critical analysts loose on Scarface. Drew Casper’s audio commentary is a full lecture about the pre-Code era, Howard Hughes’ contemptuous attitude toward the censors, etc. In a clip-heavy video essay Matthew Sweet covers much the same ground. Tony Rayns’ lengthy talk digs deeper into the personality of Howard Hawks, with a less adulatory attitude than seen elsewhere. Rayns says that Hawks was a free agent who didn’t get along with producers and studios, and that the career interviews he gave were full of outright untruths, retelling events to give himself credit for everything. For instance, one of the writers likely knew Paul Muni from New York’s Yiddish theater, not Hawks. Rayns also confirms that critic Robin Wood classified Scarface among Hawks’s comedies in terms of style.

Help and corrections from correspondents “B” and Jeff Rosen.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Scarface, Shame of a Nation
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: New: Audio Commentary with Drew Casper; visual essay with Matthew Sweet; lecture by Tony Rayns; Archived: Theatrical Trailer; Introduction by TCM Classic Movies host Robert Osborne; Alternate Ending.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 2, 2021
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.