CS Weekly Archive > The Big Picture > 06/01/07
"The World Is Yours":
The Writing of the Original Scarface
Howard Hawks' 1931 gangster picture Scarface was a picture that courted controversy. Its screenplay, with its lawlessness, violence, and hints of incest, provoked censor disapproval and resulted in a protracted series of fights and compromises that continued even after its initial release. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Hawks' picture and its recent release on DVD, CS Weekly takes a look at the writing and production of this American classic.
Of all the pictures Howard Hawks directed, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, which premiered 75 years ago on April 9, 1932, remained his favorite. It was the last of the trio of the great early gangster pictures, following in the wake of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both released in 1931). Yet Scarface differed from its predecessors. Many of the events it portrayed were based on actual events (including the St. Valentine's Day Massacre) and it was, as Hawks later remarked, "much more violent than any other picture that had been made to that time."
Hawks' involvement with the picture arose in the midst of legal proceedings. In 1930 while he was directing the WWI aviation picture The Dawn Patrol for Warner Brothers, Howard Hughes was making a flying picture of his own—the costly Hell's Angels. Hughes had hired all the pilots and planes for his picture, but discovered their loyalties lay elsewhere. "I'd been flying with the fellows for a long time," Hawks later explained. "They just took Hughes' money and came over and flew for me!" Hughes took exception and, in July 1930, sued, claiming The Dawn Patrol infringed upon the copyright of his own picture.
Then, one day, while preparing for a game of golf at the Lakeside Country Club, Hawks received a phone call from Howard Hughes, who asked if he could join Hawks for a game. When Hawks refused, Hughes promised to drop the lawsuit if the director would join him for a round. "We got halves," said Hawks, "and decided to become partners and make Scarface."
Hughes already had the story. In March he had purchased the property, the novel Scarface, from author Armitage Trail and hired Little Caesar author W.R. Burnett to pen a screenplay. Fred Pasley, Seton I. Miller, and John Lee Mahin also worked on early drafts, but Howard Hawks, who was announced as the director in February 1931, had his own ideas. Hughes' tale told the story of two brothers—one a cop, the other a gangster. Hawks thought the premise unoriginal and devised a story of his own. He asked reporter-turned-playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht (whose play "The Front Page" Bartlett Cormack adapted into the 1931 film) to help with the script. "This is the Borgia family in Chicago today," Hawks told Hecht, "and Tony Camonte is Caesar Borgia." Hawks and Hecht wrote the script in 11 days and took it to Hughes. "This is quite a story," Hughes said. "Where's the brother?" "Well, Howard," Hawks told him, "you can just use that story all over again."
Hecht had worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and was familiar with the workings of the mob. He was even personally acquainted with one of Al Capone's biggest rivals in Chicago, Charles Dion "Deanie" O'Banion (who was murdered in his florist shop by Capone's associates in 1924).
After moving to New York, Hecht followed the advice of his friend, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and went to Hollywood, where he wrote (and won the Academy Award for) the screenplay for Josef von Sternberg's 1927 gangster movie Underworld (Howard Hawks had assisted, uncredited, on the screenplay.) In 1928, Hecht teamed with another former Chicago reporter, Charles MacArthur, and wrote the hit comedy play The Front Page; Hawks would later make a film of the Hecht-MacArthur play Twentieth Century.
When writing together, Hawks and Hecht would sit in a room and work for two hours. Then they would play backgammon for an hour before returning to the writing. They would each take a character in a scene and improvise, as Hawks told Joseph McBride in 1977. "We'd read our lines of dialogue, and the whole idea was to try and stump the other people to see if they could think of something crazier than you could. And that is the kind of dialogue we used, and the kind that was fun."
Hawks was already tired of the gangster clichés and wanted his characters to differ from the usual tough-guy type. "These fellows were not that way," Hawks explained. "They were just like kids." Instead Hawks and Hecht wanted a different, almost jokey, approach. "We saved the animosity for the personal scenes," Hawks said.
One of Hecht's goals in co-writing Scarface was to up the ante in gangster pictures. "In one film, nine people were bumped off," he recalled, "so I went to Howard and said, 'We're going to kill 25 people.'" Hughes was responsive to Hecht's ideas. Although he left Hecht and Hawks alone during the writing process, Hughes did get involved during the shooting and even encouraged Hawks to increase the spectacle. He would see the rushes and call Hawks. "That's great stuff," he would say. "Keep on going." Sometimes he had more specific instructions. On seeing a car crash Hawks had shot for the 'reign of terror' sequence, Hughes called the director. "That's a great wreck," he said. "When are you gonna do some more?"
Despite the support from Hughes, mounting pressure from the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) to change "unsavory" elements in the script forced Hawks and Hecht to make some compromises. They completely removed the character 'Benson,' a corrupt state attorney who condemns the gangsters in public yet socializes with them in private. A scene where Tony and Poppy (Karen Morley) host a party for socialites on a yacht in Florida was also dropped.
Hecht and Hawks also changed the character of Tony's mother (Inez Palange). In the original script she was happy to share in the spoils of her son's criminal career, but in the finished picture she berates him for it and warns her daughter Cesca (Ann Dvorak) against him. "He hurt you," she says in her broken English. "He hurt everybody."
Casting the picture also proved problematic. "All the good actors and actresses are under contract and the studios won't loan them out," Hawks told Hughes. "I think I'd better go to New York." It was there that Hawks found Paul Muni at the downtown Jewish Theatre (Muni tested for the role of Tony Camonte in New York in May 1931). Osgood Perkins was the lead in a play, George Raft was spotted at a prizefight, and Ann Dvorak was a chorus girl at Metro-Goldwyn. Karen Morley was the girlfriend of one of Hawks' acquaintances, and Boris Karloff had worked with the director on The Criminal Code and wanted to work with him again. "He thought I was good for him," Hawks said. Members of the crew, including property men, wardrobe men, and drivers, were also utilized in the picture, most notably in the gangster conference scene where Johnny Lovo (Perkins) announces his takeover.
Shooting began in June 1931 at the Metropolitan Studios, which Hughes had leased for the production. Throughout the picture Hawks employed a visual motif to signal imminent slayings. "In the papers, in those days," Hawks explained, "they'd print pictures of where murders occurred, and they always wrote 'X marks the spot where the corpse was.' So we used X's all through the film. When anyone connected with the picture thought up some way of using an X, I'd give him a bonus." Hawks' use of the motif ranged from a shadow cast by an "Undertaker" sign, to light coming through windows, the Roman numeral X on a door, seven X's on a girder (one for each gangster shot on Valentine's day), and even the X-shaped scar on Tony's cheek.
Perhaps the most famous occurrence is seen in the death of Boris Karloff's character, the rival gangster Gaffney, who meets his end gunned down in a bowling alley pre-empted by the ominous "X"—in this instance, a strike written on his score card. Francois Truffaut later commented, "The most striking scene in the movie is unquestionably Boris Karloff's death. He squats down to throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn't get up; a rifle shot prostrates him. The camera follows the ball he's thrown as it knocks down all the pins except one that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself, the last survivor of a rival gang that's been wiped out by Muni. This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema." Even Hawks appeared in the picture as a victim. "I was the man who was spread-eagled on the bed in the form of a cross with just his underwear on in one of those 'X marks the spot' dissolves," he said.
Filming was completed in September. It was developed and printed at the new Hughes Multicolor laboratory and, following editing, was soon ready for exhibition. The picture immediately ran into trouble. "There were a few things that had to be done to get by the censors," explained Hawks. The censors objected, primarily, to the level of violence in the picture. One problem was the climactic death of the story's protagonist: in the final picture, Tony Camonte is caught, unarmed, and begs the police not to shoot him. He makes a break for it but is gunned down by the cops and dies in the street.
(This had already been considerably toned down from the original script. That ending had an armed Tony escaping from his besieged apartment. He leaves via his secret stairway but, outside, is riddled with bullets from police machine guns. Refusing to fall, Tony staggers towards his nemesis, the police detective Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon). Confronting him, Tony fires his gun, point blank, in the policeman's face, but the gun is empty. Guarino shoots Tony who falls, repeatedly pulling the trigger as he dies.)
Despite the changes, the revised ending still troubled the censors. Although Tony was killed by the police, it was felt that his death was, as Hawks explained, "a little too heroic." Another ending was shot (no pun intended) in which Tony was tried and hanged for his crimes (despite the fact that, at that time, the death sentence in Chicago was carried out by electric chair). By this time Muni was unavailable, so a stand-in was used.
But the ending was not the only point over which Hughes was forced to compromise. The scene near the end of the picture—where Tony hugs his sister Cesca—was removed, but not due to its deliberate incestuous undertone. Missing the point, the censors objected to the scene, as Hawks later related, because "they thought the relationship between the brother and sister was too beautiful to be attributed to a gangster!"
Demands were also made to add footage. A written preface was added in an attempt to ensure the picture did not elicit sympathy or admiration for Camonte but was seen as a warning, and an incentive for the government to stamp out gang rule in America. A sequence in which a newspaper magnate and city officials moralize about the gangster problem was also added to reinforce the point. "The censors wrote it; somebody (Hawk's assistant director, Richard Rosson) shot it," Hawks said. "I didn't come around for it. I didn't want to have anything to do with it." A subtitle—The Shame of a Nation—was also added, in addition to a written introduction which claimed the purpose of the picture was "to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?'" Still, for some, the changes did not go far enough. When the New York censors refused to pass the 'cleaned-up' version of Scarface, Hughes announced he would show the original version in those states without censorship boards.
Prefiguring situations that Francis Ford Coppola would face decades later when making The Godfather, certain concerned parties took a personal interest in Hawk's picture. Ben Hecht later recounted how he was approached by associates of the notorious gangster, Al Capone. The mobsters were concerned that people would think the picture was about their boss. Hecht told them that Tony Camonte was merely an amalgam of different underworld figures. The hoods then asked Hecht why, then, was the picture called Scarface? "Al is one of the most famous and fascinating men of our time," Hecht explained. "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." Fortunately the mobsters accepted his explanation and left.
According to the studio, Hawks, too, received a visit from Capone's lieutenants who demanded they be allowed to view the picture prior to its release. Hawks allegedly told them if they wanted to see Scarface they would have to pay at the box office like everyone else.
In March 1932, the National Board of Review finally passed the picture and Scarface premiered on the March 31. It was released just over a week later, 75 years ago, on April 9. The final costs were estimated at $750,000, although Hughes, ever the showman, told reporters the picture had cost him $1,000,000.
Despite its controversies, Scarface was a great success; yet Hughes withdrew the film after its initial release and refused to reissue it. The picture only resurfaced in 1979, three years after Hughes' death, when the tycoon's "Summa Corporation" sold the rights to Universal Studios. In 1994, Scarface was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and in 2003 it was released on DVD—but only in the "Scarface Deluxe Giftset" along with Brian De Palma's 1983 re-interpretation. Available on DVD in Europe since 2005, the original 1932 version was finally released in the U.S. on May 22.
Three-quarters of a century after its initial release, Scarface still retains its power. Ironically, the elements for which it was condemned, particularly the violence, are the very things that have kept it fresh. "The whole thing was a challenge and a lot of fun," Hawks said. "Then it turned out very well and became a kind of legend."
Stephen Jacobs lives in South London, England and is currently writing his first book, More Than a Monster: The Life and Work of Boris Karloff[. Information about William Henry Pratt, also known as Boris Karloff, as well as about Jacobs and his projects, can be found at www.morethanamonster.com.
Scarface (1932) courtesy Universal Home Entertainment
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