BANNED MEDIA MONTH #12: Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, by Howard Hawks (1932)

Type of Media: Film

Like the Western, the gangster film is a uniquely American movie genre. Between 1930 and 1932, three films came out that would form the base of what people think of when they picture the mob: Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface: The Shame of the Nation. They laid out certain superficial tropes, like flashy suits and Italian-American mafias, that would later get twisted or bucked by successors, but their one lasting contribution was the feeling of awe mixed with disgust they inspire in viewers. Best demonstrated by Scarface, it's the feeling that defines the gangster genre. And who do we have to thank for that feeling? None other than 1930s film censors.

In Scareface Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a mafia thug who starts the movie by killing his boss, Big Louie, so the ambitious Johnny Lovo can take control of the South Side Chicago beer running racket. Tony quickly starts disobeying Johnny's orders, provoking the Irish gangs that run the North Side racket and making moves on Johnny's dame, Poppy. Eventually Johnny orders Tony killed, but Tony escapes the assassination attempt and kills Johnny instead. However, Tony goes too far when he sees his right-hand man Guino with his sister Cesca, and kills him out of protectiveness (or maybe jealousy).

The ending of Scarface is somewhat hard to pin down, as it released with several different versions to appease various state, city, and industry censorship boards. In one Tony goes down fighting against the police, getting slowly wounded until he's finished. In another, Tony begs for his life with the police and tries to flee before they shoot him down and the people of Chicago rejoice. In the final, most sanitized ending, Tony gives himself up willingly, then goes to court where he's lectured by a judge and sentenced to hang for his crimes.

Director Howard Hawks struggled to meet the content code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (which wanted to clean the film up to keep government censors off its back), the desires of his co-producer Howard Hughes (who wanted more blood and violence to draw in viewers), and his own artistic vision. The result is a movie that insists its main characters are all despicable and people should be ashamed for liking them, while also making them likable. Muni's Tony Camonte is brutish, disloyal, and possibly has incestuous feelings toward his sister, but he's also smooth. When Guino stands around flipping his coin, he's cool, and when Tony's bumbling secretary Angelo takes a message in the middle of a shootout, he's funny. Tony is compelling when he spots his first tommy gun and reacts like a kid with a new toy, even though it's detestable that his imagination is running wild with all the people he's going to kill.

This dissonance probably existed to some degree in the original version of Scarface, but the changes to get the film up to moral standard definitely heightened it. Title cards at the beginning of the film say the movie is meant to be an indictment of gang violence in America, made to get the government to take action. It then clarifies that statement, saying "The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?" implying that all the horrible things depicted in the movie are actually the people's fault. Several times during the film all the action just stops and a reporter or a police chief will make a speech about how it's the people responsible for the presence of gangsters (and then goes out of the way to specifically state that it's definitely not the police's fault at all). Even the title of the movie got changed to appease the censors. The original title was just Scarface, and Shame of the Nation just got tacked on later.

Unfortunately those changes just weren't good enough for some. Censor boards in five states and five cities banned Scarface from showing, and distribution in Europe was difficult due to Nazi Germany banning the film as well. The movie didn't make as much as projected, both because of the bans and due to delays cause by censors in the cities it did release in. After its release it wasn't really seen until Universal dragged it out of its vaults in 1979, nearly 50 years later. It still holds up surprisingly well, and is pretty well considered a classic these days. It's said that it effectively captures the spirit of the times, so if you want to see what America thought of as dark and gritty in the 30s, consider giving Scarface a look.