October 11, 2019 | by Shannon
WOW. Scarface (1932) is one of those classic films that leaves you wondering how on earth it was made so long ago! Of course the look of the film is very much of its era, but the story, script, acting, lighting, etc., are truly timeless.
What makes the film even more intriguing is the utterly fascinating behind-the-scenes history. After researching the film and writing this post, I’m ready to watch Scarface again! Immediately. I plan to this weekend!
And you can too! Scarface is available to watch on tcm.com through Sunday, so don’t miss your chance to watch this haunting film for free! Simply log in to your cable provider through tcm.com. You can also purchase the film on Amazon here. [aff.link] Ok, to the plot!
No surprise, the title character of the film, “Scarface” Tony Camonte, is played by our Star of the Month Paul Muni. Camonte’s nickname comes from the “X” shaped scar on his left cheek that extends from his jaw to his ear. The film is set in the Prohibition Era 1920s, and Tony does the dirty work for Chicago mob boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, and yes! He’s the father of Anthony Perkins of Psycho (1960) fame!) Tony basically just kills people left and right. In fact, that’s what he’s doing when the film starts, killing a competing mob boss so Johnny Lovo can take over more territory.
So now Lovo’s only competing group for control of Chicago is the Irish mafia, run by rival boss O’Hara. Lovo favors Tony, but it becomes evident that Tony has some ambitions of his own, and he begins disregarding Lovo’s instructions. Tony’s behavior is inspired by a neon sign he sees that reads
“The World Is Yours. Cook’s Tours.”
Scarface Takes Over
Tony and his right-hand man Guino, played by the debonair George Raft, begin hustling bar owners on the northside of the city, O’Hara’s territory, to buy bootleg liquor from Lovo. This is like the big thing Tony does against Lovo’s orders, and it’s a huge dis to O’Hara. Tony’s flagrant disregard for mob boundaries results in a mob war.
Tony takes advantage of the mob war and kills just about everyone. He’s really not that discerning. After Tony gets a hold of the new “Tommy Gun,” or machine gun, he’s basically a maniac. And when he finds out that Johnny Lovo is responsible for an attempted car attack/hit on Tony, Tony and Guino decide it’s time for Lovo to retire, and they kill him, too.
So now that Tony’s effectively wiped out all of O’Hara’s gang and he’s killed his old boss, Tony officially runs Chicago. And with Lovo out of the picture, Tony takes the opportunity to make Lovo’s former mistress, Poppy (Karen Morely), his own. I’m telling you, this guy has no redeeming qualities.
The Ultimate Betrayal
Tony’s also got the hots for his sister, the beautiful Cesca. Yes, you read that right, we’re talking Borgian incest here. (And don’t forget, this film came out in 1932!!!!) When Tony comes back to Chicago after a trip with Poppy, he finds Cesca and Guino romantically together at Cesca’s new apartment. So he shoots Guino on the spot, and kills him. He finds out immediately after the murder from the hysterical Cesca that she and Guino had been secretly married while Tony was away. But let’s be honest, that probably wouldn’t have changed Tony’s actions…
After murdering his best friend Guino, Tony is a little dazed, and is holed up in his literally iron-clad apartment when all of the sudden, the place is surrounded by the cops! Cesca ratted him out after he murdered Guino. But Cesca herself manages to sneak into Tony’s apartment before the police arrive, with the intention of killing her brother herself.
STOP HERE! If you don’t want to know the end of the film, skip ahead to the next section!
But she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Brother and sister basically profess their love for each other, their intention to fight the world together, and begin shooting back at the cops. Tony laughs manically as he shoots his Tommy guns into the sea of policemen below. All is fun and games for Tony until he notices that Cesca has been hit by a stray bullet. She dies in his arms.
Tony realizes his efforts to escape are futile when the police discover his hidden back door exit. He pleas with them for mercy, and makes a run for it as soon as their guns are down, only to be shot by a police officer in the distance. He crumbles to the ground and dies after one last look at the neon sign that inspired his ambitious crime spree:
“The World is Yours. Cook’s Tours”
Is the last thing we see before fade out. The End!
Hawks and Hughes: Hollywood Rebels
Scarface was a 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, and it had been passed over by countless filmmakers and studios who considered the story too risky to film—it was obviously based on the life of notorious mobster Al Capone! And who wanted to potentially make that guy angry?!!! Furthermore, with the growing power of the “Hays Office”—Hollywood’s self-imposed regulator of what was and was not morally acceptable to appear in a film (enforced by former postmaster general William H. Hays, hence the name)—the Scarface story, with its overt violence, sex, incest, and some would argue glamorization of the mob—was going to have a whale of a time getting past the censors!
But Texas millionaire-turned filmmaker Howard Hughes was up for the challenge. Hughes was not associated with any of the major studios, and he courted another Hollywood independent, Howard Hawks, to direct Scarface. As Hughes was suing Hawks at the time over an unrelated film dispute, it seemed the chances of Hawks accepting Hughes’ Scarface proposition were slim. But, after a game of golf between the two men, the lawsuit was dropped, and Hawks committed to direct Scarface. So these two independent rebels, Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes, set out to get Scarface made!
Stickin' it to the Man!
Hawks and Hughes were basically told right off the bat that the film wasn’t going to happen. Like literally, the Hays Office, after reading the Scarface script, sent it right back to Howard Hughes with this little note:
“Under no circumstances is this film to be made…If you should be foolhardy enough to make Scarface, this office will make certain it is never released.”
Still, Hughes, never one for censorship, was not deterred and instructed Hawks to
“Screw the Hays Office. Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”
And Hawks did just that.
Yeaahhhhh!!!! Go Howards!!!!!
Onto the Next Problem: Casting!
As two outsiders, Hawks and Hughes really had to get creative with the casting of Scarface. No chance any of the major studios would lend these two independents any of the big stars. That meant the Scarface cast would be a bunch of unknowns.
Hawks was already familiar and impressed with Paul Muni’s work, and thought he’d make the perfect Tony Camonte. And so the courting of Muni began! The problem was, after his first two Hollywood films proved unsuccessful, Muni had admitted defeat and went back to Broadway and the East Coast. Believing that Hollywood and film stardom were not for him, Muni needed plenty of convincing before he would agree to go back to Hollywood. It was actually the negotiations of his wife, the ever-stalwart Bella, that finally got Muni on board for Scarface and sealed the deal!
Fooling the Mob
Muni was so convincing as a hard-hearted mobster, he even had the real mob fooled! Not long after Scarface was released, Muni was on board the same ship as the legendary Mafioso Bugsy Siegel. At one point during the voyage, Siegel’s henchmen came up to Muni and told him he was too convincing in Scarface to just be acting, and they asked him what mob he was really with! How great is that?!!! It’s also rumored that Al Capone, on whom “Scarface” Tony Camonte was based—and whom Muni studied religiously for his portrayal of the character—actually owned a copy of Scarface because he enjoyed Muni’s performance so much.
George Raft: the Quintessential Mobster
The next not-Hollywood-name Hawks and Hughes signed on for Scarface was George Raft. Even if you haven’t heard of Raft, you’re probably familiar with his face: after Scarface, Raft became the archetype for the smooth, cool, sharply dressed mobster. Raft grew up in New York alongside future real life mobsters, including Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, so he had some first hand inspiration for his role of Guino in Scarface. But Raft himself was far from being a career actor or mobster when Hawks handpicked him for his role in Scarface. George Raft, the quintessential mobster bad boy, began his career as a dancer. !!!!! According to Fred Astaire, Raft
“did the fastest Charleston I ever saw.”
WOW!!! Coming from the great Fred Astaire, that is particularly high praise!
Raft Rivals Astaire!
To be honest, I’ve known about Raft’s past as a hoofer, but I’d always kind of laughed it off, assuming that the guy really couldn’t have been any good. I mean, this is George Raft, he was a Hollywood bad boy, not a dancer! Well, I finally decided when writing this post that it was about time I watch George Raft dance.
I did a little scouting on YouTube, and came across some really great videos. And BOY could this guy dance! That smooth cool that made Raft such a suave gangster translated to perfection on the dance floor. Watch his fluid movement, sharpness, and charisma when he dances, first alone, then with the lovely Carole Lombard! So many of Raft’s moves here are precursors to modern day hip hop. (I catch “the wave,” and a bit of moon walking, among other things! How cool is that?!) Seriously, take a minute to watch Raft’s awesome dance moves in the clip below!
A special thanks to HarlowGold for putting together this AMAZING compilation of Raft dancing! If my post has piqued your interest on the talented George Raft, head on over to HarlowGold’s fabulous site, georgeraftdances, dedicated to the Great Man himself!
Ann Dvorak: The Should Be Star
Ann Dvorak plays the critical role of Cesca Comante in the film. Scarface made Ann a star. Oh wait, no it didn’t. But it should have.
Ann is such an obscure name today, even Dave Karger—who I consider to be one of the more detail-oriented TCM hosts—completely butchered her name when he introduced Scarface on Monday night. (The “D” is silent, and it’s pronounced simply “Vor-shack.”)
Scarface unfortunately ended up being one of the few noteworthy films in Ann’s career, and after contract disputes with Warner Brothers over their failure to offer her good roles, she finished her contract on suspension, moved to England with her husband, drove an ambulance during WWII, and officially retired from acting in 1951. Ann was an awesome lady! But I still wish she had made more films like Scarface that really capitalized on her unique talents!
Ann Steals the Picture
I was expecting Paul Muni to give a standout performance in Scarface, so I was not surprised when he blew me away. What I was surprised at was that Ann, with her hauntingly huge eyes, warm smile, and completely timeless and authentic acting style, stole the picture. In my opinion, it’s Ann Dvorak who gives the standout performance in Scarface. (With Muni running a close second, and Raft getting bonus points for being awesomely cool.)
Like George Raft, up until this point in her career Dvorak had been a hoofer, playing uncredited chorus girls and the like in several films. She got the role of Cesca in Scarface by securing an invite to a Howard Hawks party through her good friend Karen Morely (Poppy in the film!). Ann came to the party in a stunning black dress, and convinced Hawks that she would be the perfect Cesca after sizing up George Raft on the dance floor!
Ann and George’s dance was the showstopper of the party, and Hawks was so impressed, he not only gave Ann the role, he wrote a scene into Scarface that was basically a play by play of what Ann manufactured at the party that evening. So when you watch Scarface and get to the scene where Cesca entices Guino to dance with her, you are literally watching real life reenacted!
The Final Word
As promised by the Hays Office, Scarface did experience huge delays between the time the film was completed and when it was officially released. In fact, it was a whole year after filming wrapped before select audiences were permitted to view Scarface. Some cities banned the film altogether, most likely under the influence of the Hays Office.
When you watch Scarface, you will probably be surprised by the preachy little placards that run before the movie starts, condemning mobs and violence. You’ll also wonder why there’s a totally random scene in the middle of the film where some newspapermen, government employees, and concerned citizens are calling all Americans to action to put an end to the mafia. Both the placards and this scene seem completely out of place. And that’s because they are!! The Hays office forced Hawks and Hughes to insert these little gems into Scarface to make it perfectly clear to the public that the film was not promoting a life of crime. Hawks and Hughes burned with anger over these required additions, but had to include them if anyone at all was to see their masterpiece.
A Few Interesting Facts as I Wrap Up!
- Watch for the recurrant “X” motif in the film. At the time Scarface was released, newspapers always published crime scene photos with an “‘X’ marks the spot” of the dead body, so Hawks inserted “X’”s throughout the film. It’s even the shape of the scar on Tony Camonte’s cheek. See if you can find them all!
- Howard Hughes pulled Scarface from circulation a few years after its release. He did so because of all the censorship problems that kept it from wide release. For decades, no one saw the film. Then after Hughes’ death in 1976, Scarface was discovered in Hughes’ personal vault and redistributed, finally gaining the widespread recognition it deserved. And as we all know, the film inspired a 1983 remake of the same name!
- The author of the book Scarface (1929), Armitage Trail, lived in Chicago amidst real life mobsters so he could make his book believable. Trail settled in Hollywood after selling Scarface, and began indulging in alcohol and rich food, among other Hollywood decadences. He died at age 28 in 1930 before the film (loosely) based on his book was released. His death from heart failure was probably in part brought on by the excesses of Hollywood.
- What is Cook’s Tours??!!
- “The World Is Yours. Cook’s Tours” sign that inspires Tony to make his dream of ruling Chicago a reality stood out to me. And I had no idea what Cook’s Tours was. Turns out, it’s not taking tours of kitchens or cooking classes. Cook’s Tours is a travel agency, and it’s still around today!
More Paul Muni Films Monday!
Ok, ok, that’s it! If you got through this novel of a post, I thank you! Check out the TCM film schedule for the Paul Muni films that will play Monday as we continue to celebrate his career this month!
Have you seen Scarface? What elements and performances in the film stand out to you?