Scarface and Violence in Pre-Code Hollywood
Updated: Sep 24
Sound in film was in its infancy during early 1930’s “Pre-Code Hollywood” films, but there are very few sounds and images quite as iconic to Pre-Code Hollywood as the booming and rattling metallic sound of the firing of a Chicago Typewriter Sub-Machine Gun. The showering of lead upon various gangsters in tailored suits with matching fedoras, clouded by smoke, caused by a ricochet of bullets flying around the various urban brick buildings, in which the films took place, set a standard of spectacle among audiences in the early 1930’s. One could look no further to find that kind of violent spectacle than in the 1932 Howard Hawks directed, Howard Hughes produced, and Paul Muni starred gangster film, Scarface, loosely based on the exploits of real life gangster, Al Capone.
Scarface chronicles the brutal exploits of Chicago gangster Tony Camonte, as he inflicts an excess of violence among rival gangsters in Prohibition-era Chicago, in order to rise through the ranks and become one of the most powerful alcohol smugglers in the city. Like many other films throughout film history that portrayed extreme violence, it was met with a large amount of controversy. Hughes and Hawks had to fight a yearlong censorship battle that significantly delayed the release of the picture, and in turn, the film was a large contributing factor to the rise of the Studio Production Code, and the many years of film censorship that followed in its wake.
One of the most prominent and numerous depictions of violence in Scarface occurs around 45 minutes into the film during its second act. Tony had just ordered a hit on O’Hara, the leader of the North Side gang, and wants to wipe out the rest of the gang members in that area to claim it all for him. Tony and a small crew of gangsters hop in a car and start a citywide gangster massacre. What follows is a montage of Camonte’s several acts of destruction: a medium wide shot of a man sitting in a chair, minding his own business, before he is quickly murdered as a hail of gunfire rains down on him, shattering the glass behind him, and riddles both him and his newspaper with bullet holes. While there is no gore or visible squibs or bullet holes, (unlike the Brian De Palma Scarface remake) the on screen portrayal of men being killed is ever present. Camonte then commits a drive-by-shooting by gunning down a bakery, as two men in the doorway fall to the ground dead. He chases down rival gang members in their cars as one of his own members fires wildly out the window, causing the car to smash into the pavement. A man attempts to crawl up a small set of stairs and bullets rain down on him. The cloud of debris surrounds him as he falls down the stairs, motionless. He then fires upon another car, and that car crashes into a truck carrying barrels of beer, and one of the barrels rolls into the window of a nearby building, causing a woman to scream, symbolizing the destruction of the North Side prohibition business. The violent montage’s final scene occurs when Camonte and his men ambush the crew of rival gangster, Gaffney, in their hideout. Starting with a medium shot of an X-shape of two wooden planks, it pans to a wide shot of all of the men standing, but we only see their shadows in frame. Camonte demands them to put their hands up and surrender. They initially comply, but Camonte guns them all down nonetheless, leaving bullet holes in the wall where their shadows once were.
The violence in the film is also portrayed comically in certain moments. For instance, there’s a scene around 35 minutes into the film where Camonte and his girlfriend Poppy are enjoying lunch in a cafe. Suddenly, several cars drive past the cafe, and attempt to fire upon Camonte. Camonte and Poppy duck for cover, but his assistant Angelo is making a phone call attempting to get the name of whoever is calling him. As thousands and thousands of bullets rain upon the cafe, Angelo is still relentlessly trying to get the name of the caller. He is standing in direct sight of the gunfire, yet all of the bullets miraculously miss him. For added comedic effect, a keg of liquid finds a bullet inside it, and liquid pours onto Angelo’s suit much to his annoyance. While a lot of the violence is brutal and realistic, Scarface occasionally finds cathartic levity in its sea of brutality.
The death and violence shown in Scarface can be argued as tame by today’s standards, but in 1932, many, including the MPPDA, considered the film excessive. The MPPDA, or the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was formed in 1922 to, “improve public relations after a series of Hollywood scandals.” However, in 1930, after much public protest and outcry from religious groups such as The Catholic Church (Culture Shock) and funds promoting the welfare of children, the MPPDA took a stance into policing and censoring films by adopting The Motion Picture Production, commonly nicknamed the “Hays Code,” named after the president of the MPPDA at the time, William Hays. The Code’s goal was to enforce censorship of violent and promiscuous content that may seem inappropriate to those groups at the time. This includes films that were centered around prostitutes such as, Baby Face and Red Headed Woman, and films portraying gangsters such as Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and of course, Scarface. Many film companies were resistant to this censorship, because sex and violence always boosted attendance to theater showings. Furthermore, since this was during the time of The Great Depression, and many film companies were on the verge of bankruptcy, everyone had to do what they could to make as much money as possible. Scarface’s case was unique, however, in that Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes fought back against the Hays Code, and tried their hardest to get Scarface through the censorship boards while making sure the film remained intact.
The production of Scarface came as the result of the booming gangster genre, and the widespread success of films such as the aforementioned Little Caesar and Public Enemy already establishing the iconography of the genre. Producer Howard Hughes and director Howard Hawks wanted to cash in on the gangster genre popularity as soon as possible, so they bought the rights to adapt Armitage Trail’s novel of the same name in 1929, which is somewhat loosely based on Al Capone’s life. Capone was a culturally relevant figure at the time, and Jason Joy, one of the heads of the Studio Relations Committee at the time, warned Hughes that making a film about such a recent and violent event would upset the MPPDA saying that, “Camonte’s heroic battle against police…unquestionably tends to glorify a gangster who also an underdog gains sympathy from an audience.”
Glorifying anyone who the MPPDA may find reprehensible is a huge violation of the Code. After Joy convinced Hughes and Hawks to make changes to the story, he wrote to Hays ensuring him that the film was in no way a glorification of gang culture. Camonte would not be found sympathetic, and that the finale would have an anti gangster speech from the main character.
Initially, as Hawks showed the film to many peers such as Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks, the reception was positive, and Hawks used this positive endorsement as a way to pressure the censors into not touching the film, as it could potentially diminish the quality of the final product. However, Hays was not convinced. He felt that children would see Camonte not as a villain, but as a “Robin Hood to many boys.” Edward Curtiss, the film’s editor, suggested to Hays that he would remove some of the more gruesome acts of violence in the massacre montage explained earlier, but Hays felt that the movie needed more anti-gun propaganda and less focus on Camonte’s story. However, Hughes continued to fight for the film’s depiction of violence, as he stated that censoring the film’s violence was a “threat to the freedom of honest expression in America” while he also felt, as the film is loosely based on historical events, that the MPPDA had “vicious interests to suppress a motion picture simply because it depicts the truth about conditions in this country which have been front page news since the advent of prohibition”.
After Hughes and company endured a year long grueling battle against the censors, the film premiered in 1932 remaining relatively untouched, with the exception of a disclaimer put at the beginning of the film telling the audience that the violence depicted in the film is not heroic and is a serious issue in the country, and urgently asks the public, “What are you going to DO about it?” Despite its successful premiere, censor boards still attempted to ban showings of the film in major cities, and Hughes attempted to sue any theater that refused to show the film.
Hughes and the Cabbo Company were victorious in battling the censorship boards over Scarface. However, in 1934, the MPPDA issued a stricter regulation on films, enforcing the rules of the Hays Code so they wouldn’t have to deal with a public relations nightmare quite like the one caused by Scarface again, and to restrict filmmakers on what they could and couldn’t show. Thus, Scarface was a large contributing factor to the end of the Pre-Code era Hollywood. The Hays Code remained relatively unchanged, the MPPDA was rebranded to the Motion Pictures Association of America in 1945, and in 1966 Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA and created a newer, more flexible, rating system that is still used today. In fact, director Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface carried the censorship troubles the original film faced, branding it with the dreaded “X” rating. The X rating barred anyone under the age of 17 from legally watching the film, which would have killed its marketability. De Palma had to re-edit and re-submit Scarface to the MPAA three separate times before the MPAA finally agreed to give him a more respectable “R” rating.
By and large, Scarface finds its place in the history of film as one that depicts its violence under a basis of truth. It doesn’t show depictions of death and destruction for the sake of exploitation or glorification, but to expose what was happening within gang culture to the public at the time and to serve as a cautionary tale, pleading to the public to not take part in the real life violence that the film’s depictions were inspired by. I take the side of Hughes, as I believe violence should not be shied away from when displayed in film as a means of depicting realism and depicting the truth of a certain subject. Violence is a part of our society’s struggles every single day, and it’s important for films to be used as a means of reflecting on our society.
Jeremy is younger than he looks, and has passionately studied the art and craft of filmmaking for as long as he can remember. He is currently a freelance wedding videographer, and is also heavily involved in Competitive Fighting Games. IG: jeremyko95