Saturday, March 31, 2012


The World is Yours

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Around my home base at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, the “Gangster Trilogy” is the nickname assigned to the three movies that for many kicked off the crime film genre in the 1930s: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). The first of these films starred Edward G. Robinson in what has commonly been called his “breakout” role, and Enemy did likewise for James Cagney…making both actors silver screen legends. Though there are variances in the plots of each movie, they feature a unifying theme of a racketeer who rises to the top of his profession stealing, killing and plundering all the way…only to achieve his comeuppance before the lights in the theater come up and the second show begins.

Scarface — which at the time of its release 80 years ago on this date was subtitled “The Shame of a Nation” — also made veteran stage actor Paul Muni a household name among theatergoers, though his starring turn in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang equally boosted his cinematic stature (he received an Oscar nomination for the role, and was soon signed to a long-term contract by Warner Bros.) as well. While both Caesar and Enemy were Warner releases, Scarface was an independent production funded by the deep-pocketed Howard Hughes (and released by United Artists) and as such it’s often the overlooked feature of the three. (At one time, the movie even was withdrawn from release and didn’t resurface until 1979.) If it’s remembered at all today, it’s probably because it was the inspiration for the 1983 Brian De Palma cult classic with Al Pacino as the lead. But there’s much more than meets the eye in the Howard Hawks-directed original. (Much more.)

Crime boss “Big” Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vegar) is gunned down by a mysterious assailant shortly after he’s thrown one of his impressive shindigs, and as dedicated police inspector Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon) has been instructed to round up the usual suspects, he brings in Antonio “Tony” Camonte (Muni) and Guino “Little Boy” Renaldo (George Raft), two lieutenants who work for one of Costillo’s rivals, Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Lovo gets both men released with writs of habeas corpus, and we learn that Tony was responsible for croaking Big Louie at the behest of Lovo. Johnny then informs his now second-in-command that they’ll be taking over the beer concession on the city’s South Side, selling illegal suds to speakeasies and squeezing out those bars owned by rival gangs. Lovo has specifically ordered the ambitious Camonte to leave the North Side operation (run by a hood named O’Brien) alone, because that’s just asking for trouble.

Tony’s stock starts to rise in the beer rackets, and he finds himself constantly trying to attract the attention of Poppy (Karen Morley), Lovo’s girlfriend. He’s also earned the disapproval of his mother (Inez Palange), who scolds Tony’s sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) when she accepts her brother's “dirty” money. Tony has a rather unhealthy (and suggestively incestuous) relationship with “Cesca” to the point that he gets enraged when he sees her in the company of eligible men. Finally, the impatient Tony makes a bid for the North Side operation by having Little Boy “eliminate” O’Hara in his flower shop, and this stunt earns him both the disapproval of Lovo and the enmity of Gaffney (Boris Karloff), the hood who takes over for the deceased O’Hara. Tony and his men wage a full assault on Gaffney and the other gangs…and seeing that Camonte is consolidating his power, Lovo orders a hit on Tony. The attempt fails, and Tony (with the help of Little Boy) exacts swift retribution.

The forces of good beat their collective breasts at the lawlessness exhibited by Tony, who is now king of all he surveys, and despite increased pressure by the newspapers and law enforcement, there seems to be little that will stop him. His downfall comes when he shoots and kills Little Boy after finding him in the same apartment with Cesca, not knowing that they have secretly wed. Returning to his stronghold (his sidekick Angelo, played by Vince Barnett, also has been killed as a result) as the police close in, Cesca arrives to Tony's surprise; she had planned to kill him for revenge but now realizes that “you’re me and I’m you” and she agrees to hold them off, but she’s felled by a stray bullet, and tear gas drives the now abandoned Tony out of his hideout to face Guarino and two detectives downstairs. Camonte agrees to come quietly, but bolts from his captors at the last minute and ends up gunned down in the street.

W.R. Burnett, the author responsible for the novel on which Little Caesar was adapted, was one of several credited scribes who supplied dialogue and continuity for Scarface, along with Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin (with uncredited contributions from producer Hawks and Fred Pasley) — but the bulk of the screenplay was penned by old newspaper hand Ben Hecht, who adapted Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name. “Scarface” also was the well-known nickname of racketeer Al Capone, and concerned that the film might possibly portray him in a negative light, he supposedly sent a couple of his boys around to see Hecht, hoping to discourage him from finishing the project. But Hecht, being a veteran ink-stained wretch, was not an easy man to scare…and according to legend, not only did he convince Capone’s goombahs that the movie was not about their boss, but he called upon them as consultants. (Further legend states that the end result pleased Al so much that he later obtained a print of the film for his very own.)

At the time of Scarface’s release, a vocal faction of individuals, concerned that others might be having more fun than they were, decried the product coming out of Hollywood…and the Hawks-Hughes movie was one on which they complained the longest and loudest. The accusations claimed the film glamorized gangsters and crime, and that this might be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Most of the time, this was true — it’s what was known as the “sin-and-salvation” approach to filmmaking. Cecil B. DeMille mastered this; presenting sequences of immorality and debauchery in his silent epics (which he got away with provided the characters received their just deserts at the end). Many of the later “message” movies that tried to warn innocent dupes away from sex or drugs (such as Reefer Madness) also took the same approach…and you often have to wonder how effective that was, showing kids having the time of their lives drinking and partying while frowning upont this type of behavior to be frowned.

I don’t think anyone would ever emulate the onscreen conduct in Scarface, however. The main character, Tony Camonte, isn’t a particularly admirable role model — as played by Muni, he’s positively primal; at times it’s as if someone shaved a simian and forced him into a nice suit. (Critic Danny Peary once observed that Muni’s Tony is essentially Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde, only without the fangs.) Camonte is constantly in a state of macho swagger, thinking himself sophisticated (but he’s not) and like a 1930s Donald Trump, judges the quality of what he buys by how much it costs. “That’s pretty hot” proves to be the highest praise he can bestow upon any item or individual, proving that Paris Hilton didn’t just come up with that asinine catchphrase by her lonesome. And like James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat, Tony Camonte has some serious psychological problems. Man, has he got it bad for his sister Cesca. Of the film's many elements, the incest theme intrigues the most in what I consider to be the best gangster movie of the 1930s, addressed in the uncomfortable familial relationship between brother and sister Camonte. Hecht based the characters on the Borgia family, making actress Ann Dvorak a delightfully slutty carbon copy of Lucretia and while Muni received many of the critical kudos for his performance in the film, I think Dvorak walks away with the picture. Scarface made me a huge fan of the underrated actress; her tantalizing dance moves and naughty double entendres (not to mention that unmistakable glint she gets in her eye when she talks to Muni’s Tony) no doubt concerned the censors more than the violence.

I also became a Karen Morley fan because of this film, even though I’ll certainly concede that Dvorak gets the showier role and makes much more of an impression. (Morley was an underrated thesp, often on the receiving end of static from the industry about her personal life and politics, all coming to a boil in 1947 with her blacklisting in the motion picture industry after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.) As Poppy, the fair-weather bitch who switches her romantic allegiance to Tony when she’s able to read the tea leaves that Johnny Lovo hasn’t much of a future, I like her blasé responses to Camonte’s advances (“I’m nice with a lot of dressing”), and how at times it seems as if she’s having difficulty holding it in and not laughing at the jerk. Scarface also served as a breakout vehicle for actor George Raft, who had danced his way to fame on Broadway (under the tutelage of Texas Guinan) before venturing out to Hollywood to crash the movie business. Raft had appeared in films before Scarface but his “Little Boy” character in the picture really cemented his stature in the motion picture industry; during the 1930s he was the go-to individual for gangster portrayals alongside Cagney and Robinson. George was quite cozy with a number of real-life hoods (including Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky), which led many people to speculate that he actually might have been in the mob at one time (he wasn’t). A bit of business performed by Raft — flipping a nickel in the air and catching it while never looking at the coin — soon became a trademark and even provided a hilarious in-joke in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, in which he had a nice comic (and menacing) turn as hood Spats Columbo.

The actor who wasn’t quite as convincing as Raft playing a gangster was Boris Karloff, who also had a small role in Scarface as Gaffney. Personally, I welcome Boris in any movie but the man was just a little too cultured and refined to play a hood. Be that as it may, Boris does get a memorable death scene in which he’s gunned down by Muni and his mob while bowling…and though he leaves this world having bowled a strike, the “kingpin” symbolically takes a little time to fall before finally doing so. Symbolism plays a large part in Scarface; director Hawks came up with an interesting motif in that all of the gangsters who are “rubbed out” are designated as such with an “X” visible onscreen. Hawks thought this great fun, even to the point of offering crew members $200 for each creative suggestion to allow him to present this. Scarface originally had been scheduled to be released in September 1931, but producer Hughes still was getting grief from the Hays’ Office about the movie’s violent content. In an attempt to pacify the censors, the producer had Richard Rosson shoot an alternate ending, one in which Muni doesn’t die in a hail of bullets at the end but gets taken into custody, tried and convicted by a judge (who gives Muni’s character a lecture though you never see the actor) and sentenced to hang by the neck until he’s really most sincerely dead. (This scene also was shot without Muni’s participation; a double was used in long shots.) The censors weren’t wild about this ending either so Hughes finally threw up his hands and just did an end run around them, releasing the movie in states where there were no censorship boards. (It did great box office and received positive critical reviews.) The “alternate ending” has survived and is available on Universal’s 2007 DVD release…but seeing as how they also eliminated some of the more overt sexual attraction between the Muni and Dvorak characters, I’m glad Hughes stuck to his guns and kept Ending A.

That stand-alone disc release of Scarface provided the best news a classic film fan could get in that before that DVD, the only way you could purchase a copy of the Hawks original was on a 2003 “Anniversary Edition” box set of the 1983 Brian De Palma version…and that’s a purchase I simply wasn’t capable of justifying. There’s even more bad news on the horizon in that Universal has got another remake of the film in the works (this was announced last year) that will combine elements of the 1932 and 1983 films…but as a cinematic British barrister once observed: “Is that really desirable?” Classic film fans can take solace in that the one-and-only original is being looked after; having been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1994. Otherwise I’d have no other recourse than to respond with one of Tony Camonte’s most memorable quips: “Get out of my way, Johnny…I’m gonna spit!”

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My favorite of the 1930's gangster films bar none, and so much better than the De Palma "remake". Like the film, Muni himself is also very underrated these days; amazingly versatile. In addition to this film and CHAIN GANG, Muni is also outstanding in BLACK FURY and the lesser known ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER.
Sorry to be late with this, Ivan. Excellent analysis of what I also consider to be the best of the Big 3, as I call it in ClassicBeckyLand. I did a series on the great gangster films, and you and I are in total agreement about Scarface. I loved how you described Tony "’s as if someone shaved a simian and forced him into a nice suit..."

You became a Karen Morley fan with this -- for me, it was George Raft. What an incredibly handsome man, ultra cool. Love this movie!
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