Wednesday 12 February 2014

Banned: The Screen Life of Scarface (1932)

Finally released in 1932 the original Scarface film has become a legendary example of the 1930s gangster and crime genre and the use of shockingly realistic depictions in Precode Warner Bros. productions. But its journey to pop culture immortality was filled with more road blocks, obstacles and authority inference then the characters of the movie experienced. For its unabashed portrayals of criminals, killings and glorification of gangsters and, in its original version, political hypocrisy and lack of repentance, Scarface is one of only a handful of films significantly censored during the Precode period and even banned in several states and cities.

The movie featured successful gritty actor Paul Muni alongside Osgood Perkins, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley and iconic horror staple Boris Karloff. The film centres on Muni as an Italian immigrant caught up in the highly territorial gang warfare of 1920’s Chicago. He works under mafia boss Johnny Lovo (Perkins) and, after murdering another head Big Louis Costello, the pair take over his organised crime operation on the south side of the city. This mostly focuses on running speakeasies and manufacturing and distributing prohibited alcohol. But, Tony (Muni) becomes increasingly greedy interfering in the businesses of other gangs, such as, the Irish mafia and develops an obsession for machine guns. His ambitions makes him become increasing erratic and he becomes the key focus of public attention, law enforcement and politicians. The mainstream edition of the film ends with a shootout with Tony eventually surrounded by the police and gunned down after attempting to escape.    

Produced by perfectionists the two Howards – Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes – and directed by both Hawks and Richard Rossen the film, based on a 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, was not destined to sit well with censors. While in the production phrase the movie was beginning to draw interest from the Hay’s department mainly for its apparent similarities with the real-life drama of Al Capone. This included comparisons to many murders and massacres Capone was involved in. In addition, the film’s main writer, Ben Hecht, claims men working for Capone confronted him to ensure there was no blatant connections between the stories and some historians have even asserted the men were working on the film as consultants.

During the three month shoot there was increased pressure from Hays who was worried the film would be too violent and glorify crime. The script had to be changed several times; first to alter the depiction of Tony’s mother to make her less accepting of her son’s lifestyle and gang involvement – calling him ‘bad’ and ‘no-good’ - and a second to remove hints of political hypocrisy. Hughes was reportedly soo frustrated by the interference by censors he told Hawks, "Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible." The original version of the film was completed early September 1931 but had to remain in production to shoot an alternative ending. In an attempt to appease the MPAA, a second version was created showing Tony’s being caught, tried and hanged for his crimes. This is opposed to the original ending which showed Tony killed by police bullets but not held accountable for his sins. Other edits were also made before the official release of the picture; namely, a sub-title ‘Shame of the Nation’ was added, the inclusion of a moral statement in the beginning of the film, removal of blame on law enforcement and removal of incestual undertones between Tony and his sister Francesca (Dvorak).

However the exhaustive changes proved not enough to pacify state and city censor boards. The film was ultimately banned in five cities and five states and censored further in others. The main issue was between Hughes and the New York censor board. After the film was banned – the organisation even refusing the sanitized ending - the producer took the board to court for the rights to show his film. After several lawsuits the restrictions were lifted.  In Chicago, the location of the film, the showings were delayed by over a year. Similarly there were issues selling the film overseas with Nazi Germany prohibiting the movie from entering the country. The issues with the overall circulation of the film made it – according to historians – not much of a box office success with Hughes forced to withdraw it from viewings and it wasn’t widely seen until its reissue in 1979.

Although its initial success is questionable, Scarface (1932) is undoubtedly a cult classic today. Its raw and realistic depiction of crime, gang warfare and the 1930’s depression society, is shocking even to contemporary audiences and shows the daring and will of the movies creators. The issues and controversy surrounding its original release – although arguably detrimental firstly – only adds to its notoriety and legend today.     


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