Tag Archives: Prohibition

Pre-Code Hollywood #10 – Scarface (1932)

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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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Pre-Code Hollywood #5 – The Public Enemy (1931)

51fcd0976b353e7078f582fafe787b39The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Harvey F. Thew (based on Beer and Blood by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright)
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

The anti-hero and the gangster movie go hand in hand, dating all the way back to the dawn of film as an artistic medium. William A. Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy lays the early groundwork for iconic movie characters like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Tony Montana, and Robert DeNiro’s James Conway, and to an extent, Travis Bickle. For that, we have the immortal James Cagney to thank – his lack of empathy towards anybody but himself, violent outbursts, and sinister smile create a three-dimensional, vivid, and highly memorable character. Cagney would continue playing anti-heroes and crooks in films about the criminal underworld, leading him to the very top of the Hollywood food chain in the 1930’s and 40’s. The enforcement of the Hays Code would see the re-release of The Public Enemy with several missing scenes, most of which weren’t restored until the film’s release on home video years later.

The Public Enemy follows young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) as they slow rise through the ranks of Chicago’s underground bootlegging business. Tom’s family begs him on multiple occasions to go straight and give up what is looking to be a dangerous life of crime, but their Tom is too far gone – the young man has long since romanticized the exciting lifestyle. We watch Tom and Matt go from petty, clumsy thieves to legitimately dangerous made men. Together, Tom and Matt burn bridges, let down their families, break hearts, and even kill. By the time the film’s shocking ending arrives, bootlegging and larceny are the least of their worries.
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When talking about the pre-code era of Hollywood, it’s important to note just how shocking and groundbreaking a film like The Public Enemy probably was. It’s chock full of unlikable characters, prohibition-era shenanigans, and violence (domestic and organized) among other things that the Hays Code would soon outlaw. There’s just no way something like it would have been made even five years later, which is truly a shame. The Public Enemy doesn’t just set out to shock its viewers with exciting subject matter, but instead gets deep inside the head of a sociopathic anti-hero. James Cagney’s portrayal of Tom Powers is sly and sadistic from the get-go, it’s clear that his attitudes towards the world he’s living in are less than optimistic. Tom sees a life of luxury at his fingertips, and doesn’t seem to mind having to kill and break the law in order to get there, making him very different than most big screen characters of the time. Almost every pre-code element of The Public Enemy is perpetrated by Tom Powers or involves him – he murders thugs and police officers alike, explores pre-marital relations with a number of women, smashes a grapefruit into a woman’s face during breakfast, straight up murders a horse, and is raped by a woman while being nearly blackout drunk. Cagney’s Tom Powers is the most unlikable character I’ve seen from this era of Hollywood, and yet every minute spent with him is fun and exhilarating. The highlight of Cagney’s performance is the aforementioned grapefruit scene, which comes off as a genuinely spur of the moment action, perfectly capturing Tom’s compulsive nature. While Cagney’s performance is far and away the best part of The Public Enemy, its screenplay is also worth noting. Adapted from an unpublished novel called Beer and Blood, Harvey Thew teamed with authors Kubec Glasmon and John Bright to create a criminal underworld that feels genuine in its intricacies, and a cast of characters that live and breathe thanks to some healthy character development. Their crowning achievement comes in the film’s final moments, where our main character finally learns the dangers of the lifestyle the hard way, and his family is forced to suffer for his actions. For their efforts, the screenwriters were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. This would be the only nomination for The Public Enemy, although the film would later be recognized by the Library of Congress and submitted to the National Film Registry.

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is a landmark of crime films, specifically the gangster subgenre that has spawned countless classics. James Cagney’s Tom Powers will go down in movie history as one of Hollywood’s great anti-heroes, thanks to Cagney’s prowess as an actor, the strong screenplay, and the film’s shocking pre-code material. It may not seem like it today, but The Public Enemy is an absolute trailblazer, and a thrilling one to boot. By the time you reach the film’s conclusion, you’ll be begging for more. William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is highly recommended.

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