Tag Archives: Howard Hawks

Pre-Code Hollywood – Wrap-Up

033-scarface-theredlistOur Pre-Code Hollywood marathon has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I’ve taken part in to date! I’ve discovered numerous incredible films that I never would have seen otherwise, and learned a great deal about the history of Hollywood. The years leading up to the establishment of the Hays Code were some of the greatest years of early Hollywood, as writers, directors, and actors knew they could get away with not being censored. The creative spirit seen in the five years leading up to the enforcement of the Code has rarely been duplicated in North America, save for New Hollywood era of the late 1960’s through to the late 1970’s.

Below are some of my favorite films, performances, and more that I feel deserve some recognition from the general public. If you only have the time and patience to seek out one or two of these films, make it one of these:

Best FilmI Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: Scarface)

Best Actor – Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: James Cagney, The Public Enemy)

Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face (runners-up: Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman)

Best Director – Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, Scarface (runner-up: Mervyn LeRoy, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933)

Best Supporting Performance – Aline MacMahon, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: Claudette Colbert, The Sign of the Cross)

Best Moment – “Pettin’ in the Park”, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: “The hunt”, The Most Dangerous Game)

And there you have it! A big thanks to all those who stood by patiently over the three months that it took to complete the marathon. If you have any suggestions for future marathons, comments or criticism, feel free to comment below or email us at sgtpeppersfilmclub@gmail.com!

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Pre-Code Hollywood #10 – Scarface (1932)

MV5BODM2MzNjNzUtMzdkNy00Y2VhLTg5NzctOWY5ZmUxM2U0YmRmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Scarface (1932)
Directed by: Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson
Written by: W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, Ben Hecht (story by) (based on Scarface by Armitage Trail)
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Osgood Perkins, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff

Director Howard Hawks is one of the most influential filmmakers in movie history, and 1932’s Scarface stands as his first masterpiece. The surprisingly violent and action-packed picture helped to lay the foundation of what defines gangster films to this very day, being aided by Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of the same name. Scarface is everything great about Hollywood before the Hays Code was enforced, featuring countless sequences of excessive violence, and portraying organized crime in a way that had never been seen before.

The first shot we see is a series of still title cards condemning the actions that took place during the Prohibition, and the subsequent gang rule of America in general. It demands that viewers take a stand and help create a change, rather than demanding that their government be the difference maker. From there, we meet Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), an Italian immigrant settled in Chicago, acting as a crony for mafioso Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). After the assassination of a rival mob boss, Tony quickly rises in the ranks as Lovo gains a stranglehold on the city’s bootlegging business. Not one to back down to a challenge, Tony decides to take a little slice of the pie for himself, ordering the killing of an Irish gang leader. His actions lead to Johnny Lovo becoming paranoid about his protege, questioning his motives and the relationship between the two. Scarface culminates in an explosive and thrilling confrontation with the police that sees Tony all alone after burning every bridge he built on his rise to the top.
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From the get-go, it’s easy to see that Howard Hawks and company are incredibly passionate about the story being told in Scarface. The film serves as a brutal indictment of what had become of modern American life, and a bold shot at the infamous gangster Al Capone. Hawks pulls no punches with his telling of Scarface, going as far as accusing Capone of having incestuous feelings for his own sister. While it’s easy to say that Scarface is nothing but a glorification of the gangster lifestyle because of the excessive violence featured within, Hawks’ film serves as far more. It’s a tale of boundless greed and corruption that affects everybody within, and the misguided ambitions of its protagonist. The expert direction by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson help to distinguish many of Scarface’s shootout scenes, taking advantage of expert blocking and fluid camera movement. A car chase scene in the last act nicely shows off some of Hawks’ terrific action direction, following both cars involved with ease. The visuals featured within Scarface also help to elevate the film as a masterpiece, with Hawks using subtle imagery of “x”s in each major death scene. It’s obvious to me that Hawks wanted his film to stand as a call to arms, but to also stand out from all other films being made in Hollywood during this era.

Scarface’s central performance is another reason why Hawks’ picture works so well as a gangster picture. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte serves as a fictional stand-in for mobster Al Capone, the young gangster is as ambitious and passionate as they come. Just below the surface of Tony is an unbridled rage that can only be satisfied through bloodshed and a quick rise to the top of a corrupt empire. Muni’s Tony Camonte is easily one of the most compelling main characters of our Pre-Code marathon yet, making James Cagney’s character in The Public Enemy look somewhat sane and functional. Paul Muni was one of Hollywood’s first “chameleon” actors, taking on a wide range of challenging roles that saw him eventually rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1936. Muni’s portrayal of Tony is deeply troubled, angry, and impulsive – every one of his outbursts feels genuine and horrifying. Without a star like Muni at its helm, Scarface might be nothing more than just another brutal gangster picture.

The pre-code nature of Scarface is obvious from the very first moments of the film. The audience is constantly thrown into chaotic shootouts that almost always have a high body count. We see execution-style assassinations, drive-by shootings, murders in public places including restaurants, cafes, and even a bowling alley. Things are only made worse with the introduction of the machine gun, which allows Tony and his goon squad to effortlessly mow down the competition. Aside from the violence featured, Scarface has subtle hints towards Tony holding incestuous feelings towards his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), features a ton of gun running and bootlegging, and fast women who are taken advantage of by our cast of classy gangsters. Almost every scene in Scarface features something that the Hays Code would never have allowed, making this a much watch in the context of pre-code Hollywood.
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Howard Hawks’ Scarface is a classic thrill-ride that stands out as being truly exciting and groundbreaking. It features some of my favorite shootouts ever captured on film, a truly terrific (and despicable) performance by Paul Muni, incredible direction, and a passionate moral message at its core. This film is essential viewing material when discussing pre-code Hollywood, and when looking at the history of action and crime movies in general. Scarface gets my highest recommendation.

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Top 100 Films #19 – The Thing (1982)

 

the-thing-macready#19. The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Bill Lancaster (based on Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell Jr.)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T.K. Carter, David Clennon

John Carpenter’s terrifying remake of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s’ 1951 film The Thing from Another World stands as one of the best remakes in the history of the medium, doubling down on the original film’s sense of isolation and dread.  The Thing takes place at an isolated Antarctic research station and sees a group of men terrorized by a mysterious shape shifting organism.  The organism travels to the station in the form of a sled dog, and begins to quickly take human form, ultimately making each member of the research team untrustable.  The cast of characters includes the level-headed leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David), and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) among others.  After discovering the motivations of the organism, the men must band together in order to destroy it, or let their fear and paranoia get the best of them which may ultimately lead to their demise.  From the get-go, The Thing is an exercise in suspense and tension, giving viewers a palpable sense of isolation and distrust. The screenplay by Bill Lancaster is tremendous, establishing the camaraderie between the research team in the beginning of the film, and slowly but surely twisting the knife and creating subtle chasms between the entire group.  Since nobody is sure who the alien organism is posing as, nobody knows who may be an imposter version of themselves.  When this revelation kicks in, our cast of characters go into a controlled panic – they stop sleeping, eating, start acting erratically, and begin spending far too much time alone.  The incredible makeup and practically special effects by Rob Bottin are the highlight of The Thing in my mind – every one of his creatures is slimy, unnatural, and deeply disturbing.  The effects still hold up today, and help push the sense of horror that John Carpenter and company are trying to infuse into the film.  The performances from all-male cast are another highlight of The Thing, with Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Wilford Brimley’s Blair being the two major highlights.  MacReady is quickly forced into a leadership role, and he takes it and runs with it throughout.  When the cast of characters begin to slowly lose their minds, it is MacReady who manages to keep a level head and direct his team.  Blair on the other hand becomes one of the most paranoid, untrusting, most erratic characters on the crew, and Brimley captures it brilliantly.  Also worth mentioning is Keith David’s Childs, whose apprehensiveness towards MacReady, followed by their eventual partnership is an absolute highlight of the film’s last act.  My favorite scene in the film involves both Kurt Russell and Keith David involved in one of the most tense moments in film history – the blood test using a heated piece of copper wire. Carpenter’s direction during the blood test scene is frantic and claustrophobic, creating one of the most iconic moments in horror history.  The Thing is an absolute tour de force in horror filmmaking, and one that every fan of the genre needs to see, if only for its mounting sense of dread and excellent special effects.

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