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Without a doubt, the most controversial of the gangster films of the Great Depression (when the genre was beginning to flower) was Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932). The film was produced before The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, its better-known counterparts, but its release was delayed almost a year by producer Howard Hughes's protracted battles with the Hays Office and regional censor boards.
Broadway star Paul Muni (I Am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang) portrays Tony Camonte, a ruthless gunman who rises through the underworld ranks in a meteoric rise to power and self-destruction. Assisting him in his criminal ascent are his sidekick Rinaldo (George Raft) and Tony's sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), for whom Tony harbors an unhealthy affection.
Unlike The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, which were fictional products of the studio system, Scarface was a renegade independent production that flaunted the codes of decency and drew an obvious parallel between its on-screen anti-hero and his real-life inspiration, Al Capone.
According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, Capone was so perturbed by the film's thinly-veiled references to his criminal career that he sent gangland emissaries to visit director Howard Hawks in order to arrange a private screening of the film prior to its release. "'The Big Shot' will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface," was Hawks's alleged response.
In his 1954 autobiography, A Child of the Century, screenwriter BenHecht also recounted a visit from two concerned representatives of the real-life "Scarface." Hecht quickly explained that the character of Camonte was actually a pastiche of numerous underworld figures, with whom the writer was personally acquainted. A former Chicago newspaperman, Hecht was familiar with the workings of the mob (being especially friendly with Deanie O'Banion, a dapper gunman with a fondness for flowers), and needed little research before writing the script.
"If this stuff ain't about Al Capone, why you callin' it Scarface?" asked the henchman. "Everybody'll think it's him."
"That's the reason," responded Hecht, before launching into a well-worded con job. "Al is one of the most famous and fascinating men of our time. If we call the movie Scarface, everybody will want to see it, figuring it's about Al. That's part of the racket we call showmanship."
According to legend, Capone grew less troubled by the similarities betweenTony Camonte and himself, and eventually became quite fond of Scarface, later acquiring his own print of the film for private screenings.
In the making of the film, which was engineered to be as uncompromising as tastes of 1932 could endure, Hughes developed the project with a squad of writers well schooled in the craft of hardboiled prose.
Contributors to the script (based on Armitage Trail's novel) included Fred Pasley (author of the 1930 book Al Capone: The Biography of a Self-Made Man); novelist W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle); screenwriters Seton I. Miller (The Criminal Code, 1931) and John Lee Mahin (The Beast of the City, 1932), among others. But by all accounts, credit for the screenplay of Scarface goes primarily to Hecht.
In its 1932 condemnation of the film, the pro-censorship publication Harrison's Reports ironically provides a neat explanation of why Scarface has endured as one of the most powerful and entertaining gangster films of all time. "Both in action and in talk it is brutal and obscene... One is left with a bad taste and a buzz in the ears, caused by the continuous savage shooting...This is the most vicious and demoralizing gangster picture ever produced."
* An early example of a "tie-up" (as these relationships were known) was in thefilm Scarface. Paul Muni smoked a cigar in the film, and the producers auctioned offthe merchandising rights to tobacco companies. Owl Cigars won the bidding by agreeingto provide $250,000 worth of advertising promoting the film (Owl was able to claim hewas smoking their Cigars, when - in fact - it wasn't their brand that was actually beingused).
Director:Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson (co-director)
Producer:Howard Hawks, Howard Hughes
Screenplay:W.R. Burnett, Ben Hecht, John Lee Mahin, Deton Miller, Fred Pasley (Based on the novel by Armitage Trail)
Art Direction:Harry Oliver
Production Design: Harry Oliver
Music:Adolph Tandler and Gus Arnheim
Cast:Paul Muni (Tony Camonte), Ann Dvorak (Cesca Camonte), Karen Morley (Poppy), Osgood Perkins (Johnny Lovo), C. Henry Gordon (Guarino), Gorge Raft (Guino Rinaldo), Vince Barnett (Angelo)
by Bret Wood