Tag Archives: The Public Enemy

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)

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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 #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It 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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Pre-Code Hollywood – An Introduction

GirlMissing00011On July 1st, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) was officially implemented after four years of development. The Code set a list of precedents that all mainstream Hollywood sound films had to adhere to, focusing largely on censoring profanity, sexuality, organized crime and violence, and religious criticism. The Hays Code was made up of two sections – “Don’ts”, which outlined things that were strictly prohibited by the code, and “Be Carefuls”, which were subject to scrutiny by the Production Code Administration (PCA). The two lists featured the following rules and restrictions:

Don’ts:

  • Pointed Profanity
  • Suggestive Nudity
  • Illegal Drug Trafficking
  • Sex Perversion
  • White Slavery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Sex Hygiene
  • Scenes of Childbirth
  • Children’s Sex Organs
  • Ridicule of the Clergy
  • Offense to Any Nation, Race, or Creed

Be Careful’s:

  • Use of the Flag
  • International Relations
  • Arson
  • Firearms
  • Theft
  • Brutality/Gruesomeness
  • Murder
  • Smuggling
  • Torture
  • Executions
  • Sympathy for Criminals
  • Attitudes Towards Public Figures/Institutions
  • Sedition
  • Cruelty to Children/Animals
  • Branding of People/Animals
  • Sale of Women
  • Rape
  • Wedding Night Scenes
  • Men and Women Sharing a Bed
  • Deliberate Seduction of Women
  • Institution of Marriage
  • Surgery
  • Drug Use
  • Law Enforcement
  • Excessive/Lustful Kissing

As you can see, the Motion Picture Production Code set the groundwork for a great deal of censorship in American cinema. By limiting the content that writers and filmmakers were able to show on screen (or even allude to), the PCA was in turn stifling artistic freedom and creativity in general. Limiting the content allowed in Hollywood films would lead to Hollywood writers, directors, and actors coming up with more subtle, creative ways of getting past the Hays Code. In turn, it sparked a great deal of outrage in Hollywood upon its announcement in 1929, setting in motion a five-year period now known as Pre-Code Hollywood. This Pre-Code era saw the development of many boundary pushing films, featuring strong female protagonists, violent content focusing on gangsters and criminals, and sexual innuendo. The Hays Code was abandoned in the 1960’s when it became clear that studios were no longer willing to enforce the strict rules, and when American culture was in the midst of an undeniable revolution. The collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code would eventually lead to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose film rating system is still in use today.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club will be taking a look at fifteen of the most famous Pre-Code Hollywood films, examining their boundary pushing nature and shedding light on an era of filmmaking that has been sadly forgotten to history. The Pre-Code Hollywood films that will be covered include:

  1. In Old Arizona (1929) (dir. Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh)
  2. The Divorcee (1930) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
  4. Night Nurse (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  5. The Public Enemy (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  6. Blonde Venus (1932) (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
  8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  9. Red-Headed Woman (1932) (dir. Jack Conway)
  10. Scarface (1932) (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)
  11. The Sign of the Cross (1932) (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
  12. Baby Face (1933) (dir. Alfred E. Green)
  13. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) (dir. Frank Capra)
  14. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley)
  15. Of Human Bondage (1934) (dir. John Cromwell)

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