Scarface: Polarizing The Nation

As the postwar period of the 1920s and the early 1930s emerged, there were a group of crime films that dared to be darker, bolder, and more accurate in depicting its characters and their environment in the Great Depression era. These films focused on the archetypal “rags to riches” story that showcased men who would finally take matters into their own hands, and venture into criminality in order to move up the social ladder. Usually, these men were often portrayed as heartless individuals, who became successful thanks to their willingness to become murderers and thieves. Although these characters were in many ways callous criminals, they were also appealing and relatable because of their experiences in urban America. In the book, Public Enemies, Public Heroes, author Jonathan Munby states: “Central to the appeal of these gangster films of the early 1930s were their candid dramatization of the contradictory nature of the ethnic urban working-class American experience” (20). There were three gangster films of the early 1930s that had a tremendous cultural impact in depicting the underworld and the working-class American experience; however, one film has stood out the most.

Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)

Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)

The three films that have been singled out in film criticism as the defining gangster films of the early 1930s are Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface (Munby 16). Collectively, these films were able to appeal to a variety of people because of the historical elements found within the films. However, Scarface would take it one step further. In the Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, J.E. Smyth writes: “More than the other two critically acclaimed gangster pictures, Scarface was a biopic. It was also one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history, mostly due to its alleged glorification of the life of Al Capone” (553). By having Scarface modeled closely after Capone’s life, the creative team behind the film was trying to make a gangster picture that was an accurate representation of the gangster lifestyle, and the inner-city life in America. In addition to making this film a biopic, the filmmakers of Scarface wanted their production to be the gangster film to end all gangster films. They collectively wanted to push the envelope of what can be depicted on screen. Author Fran Manson states in the book American Gangster Cinema: “Scarface has everything that previous gangster movies has, but more of it. It is the epitome of excess even down to the number of people killed in the film, as Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, is reported to have said: ‘In one [gangster] film, nine people were bumped off, so I went to Howard and said, ‘We’re going to kill 25 people’” (24).  Unsurprisingly, Scarface had several complications in trying to get the final product on screen. From the beginning of the production to the eventual release of the film, censorship from the Hays Code was the major hurdle that Scarface faced.

During this time period, films that were portraying a story that was essentially based on true events were considered possibly dangerous to the public. Especially, if these true events dealt with the criminal world. So, there was a set of guidelines that administered the moral content of films released by major studios. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was the set of guidelines ran by William Hays. William Hays and his Code decided what was acceptable and unacceptable for the public by keeping an eye on all films: “American film, like its gangland subjects, was under the censorious eye of the government. Filmmakers, now under the stricter surveillance of Will Hays, had to be careful that their historical accuracy didn’t end by glorifying crime” (Smyth 545). Historically accurate gangster pictures were viewed as being extremely dangerous because these films could antagonize the audience into valuing these gangsters as modern day heroes, and when Hollywood learned of the making of Scarface they became concerned. The censors worried that Scarface was not only going to be accurate, but also blatantly excessive in its depiction of Al Capone. In the book, Crime Movies, Carlos Clarens states: “The film that was to jolt the already uneasy truce between filmmakers and civic groups was Scarface. Late in 1930, Hollywood learned with certain trepidation that Howard Hughes was about to produce a gangster epic to surpass all others in cost, scope, authenticity, and, needless to say, violence” (83). Since the project was announced, censors became worried that portraying the accurate life of Al Capone on screen could do more harm than good. They feared that this film would glamorize his life, and they began to supervise the script and production. During the filming of Scarface, Jason Jay, a member of the Production Code, wrote a letter to producer Howard Hughes. In the sample provided, Jay made clear of the danger Scarface possessed:

The motion picture industry has for a long time, in spite of strong denunciation and criticism, maintained its right to produce purely fictional underworld stories, provided certain standards were maintained, but has, on the other hand, admitted the grave danger of portraying on the screen actual contemporary happenings relating to deficiencies in our government, political dishonesty, and graft, current crimes or anti-social or criminal activities. (Smyth 556)

This part of the letter represents the fears that the censors had in Scarface, and it also signifies the beginning of the ongoing battles the Hays Code had with Scarface.

Before describing the specific issues the Hays Code had with Scarface, it is important to mention the source material the filmmakers used for inspiration. The screenwriters took the liberty of adapting some material from a novel: “Burnett, Pasley, and Hecht based their material on Aermitage Trail’s pulp novel of the same title. Although Howard Hawks later claimed that the Caddo Company only paid Trail for the use of the suggestive title. Trail’s novel provided a lurid and powerful historical background from which to project a gangster biopic” (Smyth 553). The novel resembled much of Capone’s gangster career, and the film definitely used this as a basis of their screenplay. In the article, Scarface, The Great Gatsby, and the American Dream, Marilyn Roberts compare the similarities of the book and the movie: “Scarface retains many features of Trail’s novel, including major characters, plot developments, and even the incest motif” (77). The plot developments allowed the film to add a social commentary about the main character’s pursuit of the American Dream through materialistic gain. By adding this social commentary, Howard Hawks made sure that the film was a “violent tragicomedy” and not an indictment (Clarens 89). By not making a direct indictment of the actions depicted in the film, the Hays Code had to use their power and prevent certain scenes from appearing in the final cut of the film.

The chief concerns for the censors were that the film contained too many positive depictions of Tony Camonte, the Al Capone character. The many censors and some civic groups thought that the film was sympathetic towards the criminal way of life, and also believed that the film provided no lessons for the audience: “The film simply glorified the gangster and offered no moral lesson” (Munby 58). With their complaints publicly known, the censors began to interfere with the film’s production and eventual release. After viewing a rough-cut version of the movie, the people from the Hays Code Office presented a list of modifications the film needed to make in order to get a seal of approval (Clarens 88). An outraged Howard Hughes scoffed at the demands, and intended to fight the censor boards. There was no progress made between the two parties, and the censors ordered that the film should be held from its release until the demands were met. Eventually, Hughes complied with the censors and agreed to meet their several demands, and the film was finally released:

Put into production late in 1930 the film was not finally released until May 1932, partly as a result of haggling over the film’s tittle but also because of demands by the Hays Office that changes be made to the film. Several scenes were cut, involving Tony hugging Cesca, Tony giving his mother presents, and another scene aboard a yacht which demonstrated the rewards of crime (Mason 29).

It was important for the censors to establish a moral lesson in the film, and they did this by inserting their own values of justice and authority. Also there are more examples of scenes being cut from the final cut of the movie. A violent action sequence was removed, and the censors also requested a new ending. Along with these cuts, the Hays Office also made sure that some scenes that publicly denounced gangsters and their crimes were also added: “The outcome of these recommendations was a new finale that showed Tony die in a gutless manner as well as the inclusion of a carefully written prologue that denounced gangster rule in America, ‘and asked the audience ‘What are you going to do about it?’” (Clarens 88). In the end the censors had the final say of what was going to be included in the film, and by default changed much of the original plans for the film.

Along with some of the required changes, Scarface also added some voluntary changes to the Capone story. The most obvious changes of the story came from changing the names of the characters and the locations of the places these crimes took place. Director, Howard Hawks, wanted to remove certain aspects of the film to give the film some breathing room from historical accuracy: “Hawks had become cautious with the excessive historical details. His copy of the script contains multiple penciled annotations calling for the changing of names and Chicago locales” (Smyth 554). These types of changes altered Scarface, but there is still no denying that the film stood on the foundation of historical accuracy. Despite of the name change, Tony Camonte had a lot of Capone’s personal traits: “A number of Capone’s personal traits were incorporated in the Camonte character: a taste for the Italian opera, cultural aspirations, and a facial scar” (Clarens 86). These personal traits added to the authenticity of the film; however, the end of Camonte’s story is different than Capone’s real life. In Hollywood Gangland, Jonathan McCarthy writes: “The film’s most significant departure from the Capone story- the real Scarface was already in jail for tax evasion when the movie was released- is its perverse finale” (68). Scarface actually had three alternate endings, but they all ended in the death of Tony Camonte. While the ending of the film is a big departure from real life, it fits into the movie’s rise and fall motif.

Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)

Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)

Even though the film was delayed for over a year and was modified greatly over the course of its production, when Scarface was released it was still able to resonant with the audience. The film’s greatest success came from the portrayal of Tony and his obsessive concerns of his perceived wealth in society. The way Hawks filmed the movie, and his control over certain historical elements allowed Scarface to be more than a simple biopic. Hawks used Tony, his environment, and his aspirations to be an allegory of how society was fascinated with materialistic items. More specifically, Scarface perfectly exemplified how gangsters of the 1920s wanted to be seen as successful, wealthy businessmen.  In the Journal of Academic Culture, Laura Beshears states: “Crime became as organized and structured as most legal businesses in the 1920s because gangsters took their economic role to be the provisions of goods and services that society demanded, even though supplying those goods was against the law”(200). During this time, society’s judgment on gangsters was blurred. Many gangsters were countlessly being portrayed in the movies and media. This allowed for Americans to see gangsters as success stories rather than dangerous criminals.

The most talked about gangster of the 1920s and 1930s was the notorious Al Capone. He was such a popular figure that many different outlets began mythologizing his exploits, and he became a symbol of a self-made man. Al Capone unsurprisingly considered himself a businessman when he stated: “If I break the law, my customers, who number hundred of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference is [sic] between us is that I sell and they buy. Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patron serves it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality” (Beshears 201). In many ways Capone did actually sell Americans want they wanted, and he also presented himself in a businesslike manner by wearing businesslike attire. Throughout his reign, Al Capone was seen wearing pinstripe suits, fedoras, and elegant neckties (Beshears 197). This can be seen as an effort by Capone to legitimize himself as a respectable part of society. By wearing suits, gangsters wanted to appear as credible citizens who achieved wealth just like other legitimate businessmen: “Wearing businesslike attire, gangsters gave the illusion that their work was just as valid a career as any other” (Beshears 201). Fashion became embedded in the underworld, and was symbolic for gangsters. This exact sentiment can be seen accurately portrayed in Scarface thanks to many scenes depicting Tony’s necessity for having the appropriate attire.

Throughout the script, the screenwriters drew on society’s perception that your clothes are a symbol of prosperity. Capone in real life, and the Capone figure in Scarface both felt that they needed to live a luxurious lifestyle in order to achieve the American Dream. By absorbing himself in luxury items, Tony is able to make a valid attempt at being accepted by the good graces of society. To achieve this symbolism, Scarface looked towards The Great Gatsby for inspiration: “The main signs the screenwriters adapted from Fitzgerald are those of shirts as a symbol of wealth” (Roberts 73). The shirts in Scarface represent the attaining of the American Dream, and there are numerous scenes that showcase Tony’s need to be surrounded by an expensive wardrobe. As his career grows so does his wardrobe: “Film scholars also have pointed that an expensive, showy wardrobe is a sign of the gangster’s rise and commentary on American consumerism. Only shortly before he reaches the height of his power does Tony begin to dress well” (Roberts 77). Tony’s faith in the American Dream can be seen through his investment in material items. By showing this side of a gangster, Scarface was able to accurately portray the need for a gangster to spend extravagantly in order to demonstrate his worth and success to society. This desire to be recognized as affluent businessmen in society also represents how the American Dream can be attained on a superficial level.

Although the film didn’t do too well at the box office and many protested the release of the film, there were a few people who defended the film. Critic Robert E. Sherwood was an example of somebody coming to the defense of Scarface. In his review he stated:

The possible merits of Scarface as entertainment, or its importance as a sociological or historical document, are of no particular consequence in the argument that should be made for its free release. All that matters is that an utterly inexcusable attempt has been made to suppress it- not because it is obscene, not because it is corruptive or libelous, or blasphemous, or subversive-but because like Public Enemy it comes too close to telling the truth. (Smyth 558).

Scarface’s unapologetic tone and its unflinching portrait of gangsters in this society is what make it a classic in this genre. The film dives deep into the psyche of a man who is a product of his environment. From humble beginnings to having the opportunity to rise in society is something that everyone can relate to. Although the film was mostly received negatively, thanks to the home video release it has further established itself as a defining film in the gangster genre: “It is now hailed as one of the genre’s pioneer efforts-a tough, no-nonsense portrayal of a Capone-style mobster that delivers almost as much of a punch today as when it was made” (McCarthy 69). The reason why it is still as powerful today as it was back then is because Tony Camonte is still acting out the dreams of the audience. There is a sign in the movie that simply states: “The World Is Yours”, and Tony was a man who lived and died by that motto. That very motto also presented Tony the opportunity to achieve the American Dream through obtaining material success. Scarface’s portrayal of the American Dream might be a dark version, but it is still a version that many are familiar with.


– By Louie Coruzzolo



Works Cited

Beshears, Laura. “Honorable Style In Dishonorable Times: American Gangsters Of The 1920s and 1930s.” Journal Of American Culture 33.3 (2010): 197-206. Academic Search

Premier. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Clarens, Carlos. Crime Movies. New York: Norton, 1980. Print.

Mason, Fran. American Gangster Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print

McCarthy, John. Hollywood Gangland. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Print.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Heroes, Public Enemies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,

1999. Print.

Roberts, Marilyn. “Scarface,” “The Great Gatsby,” And The American Dream.” Literature Film 

Quarterly 34.1 (2006): 71-78. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Smyth, J. E. “Revisioning Modern American History In The Age Of Scarface (1932).” Historical 

Journal Of Film, Radio & Television 24.4 (2004): 535-563. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.


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