Sunday, January 31, 2010

Special Katie Award For Cinematography: Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express and Scarface)

I've mentioned before that this blog had its start in a project to choose alternate Oscars for every award category dating back to Oscar's beginning, a project that after seventeen years became more of a hindrance than a help to my understanding of movies and their history. Last March, I pared the list down to seven categories—picture, director, a single, combined screenplay award, and the four acting categories—and I've been writing essays about the winners ever since.

Lost in the shuffle though were some key figures in the making of films and their history—cinematographers, film editors and composers, among others. From time to time, I'll hand out special Katie Awards to rectify the oversight. Today, I want to mention Lee Garmes, who had a spectacular year in 1932, lighting and photographing two of the year's best movies, Shanghai Express and Scarface, as well as two Norma Shearer vehicles—Smilin' Through and Strange Interlude—and one of Clara Bow's last movies, arguably her best talkie, Call Her Savage.

Scarface you know about if you've been reading this blog. The most violent and stylish of the early gangster movies, Scarface also represented the most fluid and beautifully photographed of Howard Hawks's movies.

Shanghai Express was the fourth of the seven collaborations between actress Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg, and like their other efforts, it too includes an exotic location, a woman with a past, a tortured romance and just enough violence to whet the appetite. In this case, the exotic location is China during the early days of its civil war, the fallen woman is a high-priced courtesan named Shanghai Lily, the tortured romance involves a British doctor who left Lily years before when he mistakenly thought she was cheating on him, and the violence comes at the hands of Warner Oland made up to look like the leader of one of the warring factions.

In one sense, the movie is a meditation on the idea that love without faith isn't love at all, just animal instinct; but in fact Shanghai Express—like all the Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations—is really a meditation on Marlene Dietrich's cheekbones. And indispensable to this rite was the camerawork of Lee Garmes.

Indeed, figuring out how to light Marlene Dietrich—putting the key light above and forward of her for her first Hollywood movie, Morocco, to hollow out her cheekbones and narrow her nose—might have been the most significant lighting choice of Garmes's career. Certainly it had a profound impact on Dietrich's, defining her look so successfully, she insisted on the lighting technique for the rest of her career.

In terms of composition, Garmes preferred deep shadows with highlights on the scene's key elements, and like the painters who influenced him, he like a soft, indirect "northern" light, which gave what others have called a "painterly" effect. He developed his techniques and preferences while working on comedy shorts during the silent era—the productions were so cheap, Garmes couldn't afford lights and shot the films outside, using reflectors to angle the sunlight.

In addition to Scarface and Dietrich's early Hollywood movies, Garmes was also the cinematographer on such films as Nightmare Alley, The Portrait of Jennie, Detective Story and The Desperate Hours. He was nominated for four Oscars and won a well-deserved one for Shanghai Express in 1932. He was also president of the American Society of Cinematographers from 1960 to 1961.

Perhaps the most cele- brated movie he ever worked on was the one he didn't receive credit for. Garmes began as the cinematographer on Gone With The Wind, photographing the burning of Atlanta scene and the scenes directed by George Cukor. He was replaced, however, when Victor Fleming took over the troubled project. Fleming typically liked a sharp, picture-postcard look to his movies; Garmes's soft pastels didn't fit the bill.

And who would have won the Katie Awards for cinematography in previous years?

1927-28: Charles Rosher and Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)
1928-29: John Arnold (The Wind)
1929-30: Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front)
1930-31: Fritz Arno Wagner (M)

I leave it up to you to fill in their biographies. But each now sports a Katie Award for the mantlepiece. Congratulations, fellas.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Shot Of Jean Harlow—With A Bath Water Chaser

I've only recently learned how to do screen captures, which for most of you would probably be like your mother saying she'd only recently learned how to use the telephone, but which is a real godsend for someone like me blogging about old movies—where else to get a shot of Red Dust's Jean Harlow bathing in the company bath water? Not the sort of picture MGM put on movie posters even if it would have sold a million extra tickets.

Jean Harlow will be one of the nominees for best actress of 1932-33 when we eventually get there (for her performances in Dinner At Eight, Bombshell and the aforementioned Red Dust). No guarantee she'll win—she faces tough competition from Greta Garbo (Queen Christina), Miriam Hopkins (Design For Living and Trouble in Paradise), Katharine Hepburn (Little Women) and I'm not sure who else; it's a very loaded award season, comparable to 1939 if you want my opinion.

But in the meantime, a taste of things to come.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ernst Lubitsch

Maybe the wittiest director ever, gifted with a comic touch so light they named it after him, Ernst Lubitsch directed some of the finest comedies and musicals of the Twenties and Thirties. I've already mentioned four of his movies in this blog—Lady Windermere's Fan, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant—with at least a half dozen more down the road. Two of those movies, Ninotchka and The Shop Around The Corner, are playing this afternoon on Turner Classic Movies (between 2 and 6, if you live in the Eastern Time Zone).

Since I'll be writing in my usual mind-numbing detail about Lubitsch when he one day pulls in a Katie Award for best director, I won't whack you over the head with him this morning. But if you have a chilled bottle of champagne handy, I'd suggest you pop the cork and drink a toast to the old master. When people say "they don't make 'em like they used to," they're referring to Ernst Lubitsch.

Here's to you, old buddy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Classics Of Gay Cinema: Mädchen In Uniform

Personally, I hate putting labels on movies. Terms like "chick flick" and "fun-stupid," while useful to lazy critics and unimaginative marketing departments, are more often than not designed to say to the ticket-buying public (or Oscar voters) "it's safe to skip this one." Plus, a label like "gay cinema" creates certain story expectations that, in the case of Mädchen in Uniform at least, have nothing much to do with what's on the screen.

I could just as accurately label Mädchen in Uniform "boarding school cinema" and lump it in with Diary of a Lost Girl and Dead Poets Society. But failing to note that a movie made in 1931 treated the subject of homosexuality with seriousness and sensitivity would be like an archeologist failing to note that he found a television set buried in King Tut's tomb.

Images of gays in the movies of the early sound era were few and far between; and positive ones? Forget it. One of Clara Bow's last films, 1932's Call Her Savage, included a scene in a gay bar, the first and last such scene in a Hollywood movie until Otto Preminger's 1962 movie, Advise and Consent, but otherwise gay men existed at best as foppish creatures of ambiguous sexuality and at worst as "sissies" subject to ridicule and broad comedy.

Lesbians fared a little better—think of Marlene Dietrich kissing a woman in Morocco (1930) or Greta Garbo proclaiming she'd "die a bachelor" in Queen Christina (1933)—but a lesbian relationship was never front and center in a Hollywood movie. More often, Hollywood simply pretended that gays and lesbians didn't exist, for example, turning the lesbian relationship at the heart of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour into the heterosexual triangle of These Three.

That's why seeing a movie like Mädchen in Uniform feels so much like stepping into a time warp—there wouldn't be another movie like it for decades. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that it came from Germany; film critic Ruby Rich in talking about the film, noted that Berlin under the Weimar Republic was remarkably open to gays and lesbians such as Christa Winsloe who wrote both the script and the stage play it was based on, and Leontine Sagan who directed both versions of the story. The movie "comes to us directly from that era," Rich said, "and shows us the kind of scene that flourished there."

Mädchen in Uniform is the story of a fourteen year old orphan girl, Manuela (Hertha Thiele in her film debut), the niece of a wealthy aristocrat who warehouses her at a prestigious boarding school. The school's elderly headmistress (Emilia Unda) is the proud daughter of a Prussian officer and modeling her school on that military tradition, is regimented, authoritarian and cruel.

"Through discipline and hunger we will become great again," she says as she dismisses student complaints of malnutrition and mistreatment, "or not at all!" The movie was filmed just two years before Hitler took power in Germany and the school and its principal were swipes at the rising Nazi tide and its threat to a free society. At this school, books outside the classroom are forbidden, letters are censored and the girls' striped uniforms bear an uncomfortable similarity to those later worn by concentration camp inmates.

Indeed, life at the school is so regimented, the only warmth its students know is a nightly kiss on the forehead bestowed by their favorite teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). "Don't fall in love!" one of the girls teases Manuela when she arrives. "All the girls are crazy about Fraulein von Bernburg."

Manuela sees in her teacher a substitute for the mother she lost many years before and as she is overwhelmed by a confusion of emotions
loneliness, homesickness, her own budding sexuality—she develops a crush on Bernburg so palpable her feelings are soon obvious to everyone. Manuela's story, that of a lonely girl searching for something, is the film's strength—loneliness, ironically, being one of the chief traits all human beings share.

Fraulein von Bernburg's feelings are more ambiguous —she expresses concern for Manuela and the girls, displays maternal affection, and yet the first time she lays eyes on Manuela descending a staircase, the look is as frank as Rhett Butler's as he pictures Scarlett O'Hara without her shimmy on. And indeed, the first night, as Bernburg kisses each girl on the forehead, Manuela impulsively throws her arms around her teacher—and Bernburg responds by kissing the girl on the lips.

"What you call sin, Frau Principal," Bernburg says, "I call love which has thousands of forms."

Later, when an act of kindness is misconstrued, the simmering tension between the authoritarian principal and the compassionate teacher comes to a boil.

The film's ending, in stark contrast to that of the play, is hopeful. Whether Winsloe and Sagan settled on the changes for artistic reasons or to appease German censors, I can't say, but at least, as Ruby Rich put it, they spared us the cliche of "lesbian suicide."

The film also spares us the cliche (or is it the reality?) of Mean Girls-style conflict between the students. The girls here are refreshingly supportive of one another and rather than turning on each other in the face of oppression, they rally together. Indeed, they are seen as Germany's greatest hope to avoid the coming disaster. In light of what soon after transpired in Germany, however, the filmmakers' optimism proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Mädchen in Uniform premiered in Germany on November 27, 1931. It was initially banned in the United States until Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of New York governor Franklin Roosevelt, interceded on its behalf and in September 1932, it played briefly in New York City. While audiences of the time—and certainly censors—were shocked at the film's subject matter, I'm not sure a modern audience would react any differently today. While we may now be open to the characters' sexual orientation, I suspect most of us would look askance at the hints of pedophilia, an issue the filmmakers seemed blind to.

As with every other director of quality in Germany in the early Thirties, there was no place for director Leontine Sagan in Hitler's new regime. Unlike the case of directors such as Fritz Lang (whose own M would make an interesting double feature with Mädchen in Uniform), there was no room for Sagan in Hollywood either. She directed only two more movies, both for Alexander Korda in England, then moved to South Africa where she founded the National Theater of Johannesburg.

Playwright and screenwriter Christa Winsloe also left Germany when the Nazis took power and joined the French Resistance during the war. On June 10, 1944, four Frenchmen mistook her for a spy and shot her; they were later acquitted of her murder.

Dorothea Wieck made a couple of Hollywood films, neither a success, then returned to Germany where she continued to work in supporting roles for another forty years. Hertha Thiele resisted offers by the Nazi party to perform in propaganda films and in 1937 emigrated to Switzerland where it took her five years to find work. After the war, she worked in East Germany as a nursing assistant before returning to acting in the mid-1960s.

As for the subject matter itself, with enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, portrayals of gays and lesbians were driven even further underground. Gays and lesbians would have to be satisfied with the occasional Mrs. Danvers or Joel Cairo, characters ambiguous enough to slip past the censors, if not audiences. Not for another thirty years would Hollywood again openly address the issue.

Postscript: Unfortunately, Mädchen in Uniform is not available on DVD. It pops up periodically on cable (I taped it off the Sundance Channel years ago), or if you don't mind watching it on YouTube, you can see it here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Nominees For Best Supporting Actress, 1931-32

Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel)

Ann Dvorak (Scarface)

Miriam Hopkins (The Smiling Lieutenant and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)

Anna May Wong (Shanghai Express)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vote In The New Poll

Of these 1930s-era Howard Hawks movies, which do you like best?


Twentieth Century

Bringing Up Baby

Only Angels Have Wings

Remember, there are no wrong answers, only movies you haven't seen yet.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Best Screenplay Of 1931-32: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett; from a novel by Armitage Trail (Scarface), Part Three

[To read Part One, click here. To read Part Two, click here.]

III. Tabloid Cinema At Its Best
Scarface premiered in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 31, 1932, two years after Howard Hughes had acquired the film rights to the story. Denied a proper release thanks to the interference of the Hays Office, the National Board of Review and other state and local censorship boards, the movie played where it could.

Even in its compromised form, though, Scarface was the toughest, most violent picture of its era, boasting twenty-eight deaths (with more off screen), drive-by shootings, bombings, numerous car crashes, and for those lucky enough to see the original ending, a shootout worthy of a more modern movie. It's also credited with being the first picture to show a gangster using a machine gun and it gave us George Raft and his oft-parodied coin-flipping gangster routine.

Scarface is the story of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a vicious, small-time thug determined to take what he wants, and what he wants (in the words of Key Largo's Johnny Rocco) is "more." As the movie begins, Tony is working as hired muscle for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), a Chicago gangster who is tired of waiting in line behind Big Louie Costillo who has grown fat, happy and complacent after years of running Chicago's South Side. After removing Big Louie and taking over his operation, Lovo mistakenly believes he can handle Tony, aiming him like a tommy gun when he needs him, putting him away again when he's served his purpose.

But Tony is a sociopath unable to control his impulses or reign in his appetites. "Some day I'm gonna run the whole works," he boasts. "In this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." His ferocity gets Lovo embroiled in a gang war he's not ready for and eventually Tony also tires of waiting in line behind a mob boss he feels has grown fat, happy and complacent, wresting control from Lovo in a bloody confrontation.

Meanwhile, Tony's sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) falls in love with Tony's best friend and partner in crime, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), a development as dangerous for the would-be lovers as a gang war is for everybody else—Tony is in love with his sister and will allow no one, not even his best friend, to get close to her.

Predictably, Tony's lack of self-control leads to his downfall. "Someday you're gonna stumble and fall down in the gutter," a police detective tells him, "right where the horses have been standing, right where you belong." And you just know he's right.
(If Ben Hecht didn't write that line, I'll eat the movie.) While typically Hawks's dramas focus on a man aware of his limitations as he runs smack up against a nearly-impossible task, Tony Camonte might be the least self-aware man Hawks ever spent time studying and his lack of self-awareness proves to be his Achilles heel.

The result is one of Howard Hawks's best movies, to my mind the first indispensable movie of his long career. The storytelling is taut, the action intense and well-staged. The camerawork is some of the most involved of his career, for example, using an uninterrupted tracking shot to open the movie in a style reminiscent of the silent opening of Rio Bravo.

Without calling attention to itself in the way, say, the opening of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil does, the shot establishes the ethnicity of the main characters, their buffoonish pretensions and tragic fall, Tony Camonte's treachery and the reluctance of a witness to get involved, all while creating an air of suspense that literally pulls the audience into the story.

Hawks was also beginning to experiment with faster-paced dialogue—twenty percent faster than anything he'd done before, he later said. Although it would be another two years before he began to experiment with overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire delivery in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, a style that would characterized so many of his later films, the speed and fluidity of Scarface is a welcome relief from the static and stagy efforts of so many of his contemporaries.

Which is not to say that Scarface is a perfect movie. The constant moral- izing of police- men, reporters and politicians is clumsily written, repetitive and tiresome (blame the Hays Office, assistant director Richard Rosson and writer John Lee Mahin). The film's attempts at humor from Tony's illiterate secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett) are too broad for a movie this serious. Further, some have criticized Muni's performance in the title role—writer Ben Hecht who had himself recommended Muni for the part later complained, "He was a make-believe tough guy. You think he's a menace, but he doesn't do anything." (I myself have nominated Muni for a best actor award, so obviously I disagree; but it's a matter of taste.)

And those looking for Hawks's signature elements—male comradery, stoicism in the face of danger, and smart, independent women—will not find them here. What we today think of as a Howard Hawks movie was still a few years up the road.

Still, for all its flaws, Scarface is the best gangster movie of the early sound era and arguably the best gangster movie made before The Godfather in 1972.

It may also be the least glamorous look at crime before Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Without The Public Enemy's back story to explain away violent behavior (criminals are made, that film suggests, rather than born), without James Cagney's gleeful energy, Edward G. Robinson's genuine menace, or Clark Gable's roguish sexuality, the portrait of criminals presented in Scarface is of dull-witted buffoons and incestuous sociopaths. The violence may have been thrilling, but I can't imagine anyone walking out of the theater thinking, "Gee, I wish I were Tony Camonte."

Despite favorable reviews and strong box office in those theaters where it played, Scarface received no awards and no nominations. Hughes ultimately withdrew the picture from circulation and except for bootleg copies, it wasn't seen again until 1980.

Of the major participants, Hawks went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood history, giving us such gems as Rio Bravo, Red River, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and many more. Howard Hughes, as fans of Martin Scorsese already know, was primarily interested in aviation, but he did produce twenty-six movies, including The Outlaw which in 1943 introduced Jane Russell's bosom to a grateful movie-going public. Paul Muni went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest names, earning six Oscar nominations, winning for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Ann Dvorak on the other hand, got into a contract dispute with Warner Brothers and despite a brief flurry of good movies in the early '30s, wound up making B-pictures until her retirement in 1952. (You can read more about her at Operator 99's blog "Allure.") George Raft had a long career playing gangsters and tough guys but he also had an uncanny ability to turn down good parts, rejecting the lead roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity.

As for the authors of the screenplay, Ben Hecht was nominated for six Oscars during his career, winning two, for Underworld and The Scoundrel, though his best known work now is probably the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Notorious.

W.R. Burnett continued to work as a screenwriter and novelist, earning an Oscar nomination for 1942's Wake Island. Along with fellow novelist James Clavell, he also co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape in 1963.

Seton I. Miller went on to write sixty-nine movies, including the original screenplay for The Adventures of Robin Hood, and shared the Oscar for Here Comes Mr. Jordan with Sidney Buchman.

John Lee Mahin most often worked with director Victor Fleming (he of Gone With The Wind), contributing to ten of Fleming's movies. Mahin helped found the Screen Writers Guild, but opposed his co-founders' leftist politics and joined the Screen Playwrights instead. He was later an outspoken critic of Communism during the McCarthy Era but denied involvement in the blacklists of the period, saying, "If [screenwriters] were a threat to the American way of life, the American way of life isn't worth a shit, you know?" He was twice nominated for an Oscar, for Captains Courageous and Heaven Knows, Mister Allison.

Armitage Trail (a.k.a. Maurice Coons), whose novel inspired the movie, never saw the finished production. He died of a heart attack in October 1930 shortly after his arrival in Hollywood. He was only twenty-eight. His brother, Hannibal Coons, wrote for television, including twenty-five episodes of The Addams Family.

Scarface itself is now regarded as an indispensable part of the Hollywood film canon. Hawks called it his favorite movie and Jean Luc-Godard once named it the best American movie ever made. In his 1974 book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss called Scarface "a kind of cinematic version of tabloid prose at its best" and "the alpha and omega of Hollywood's first gangster craze."

In 1994, the Library of Congress included Scarface in the National Film Registry, and in 2006, the American Film Institute selected it the sixth best gangster movie ever made. The AFI also included Paul Muni's Tony Camonte on its list of the fifty greatest villains of movie history.

And what did the movie's inspiration, Al Capone, think of Scarface? He liked it so much, he obtained a copy for his own personal collection.

Note: In Part One of this essay, I wrote, with regard to what role each of the credited writers played in preparing the final screenplay for Scarface, "Whether [Seton I.] Miller and [John Lee] Mahin worked together as a team or one after the other, I can't say (given the degree to which Miller later resented collaborating with other writers, the latter seems likely)." Since then, I found a photo of the "cutting continuity" (which Joseph's Glossary of Film Terms defines as "a list containing information about camera setups, dialogue, and other aspects of each shot of the final cut of the film") which lists Ben Hecht as the screenplay's author with "continuities" by Miller.

Assuming this is a copy of the cutting continuity for Hawks's version of the film (the document is dated 1931) before Richard Rosson shot additional footage, then I would have to conclude that Mahin was brought in to write the alternate ending for Scarface. Maybe other dialogue as well. I can't swear to this though since I haven't actually read the cutting continuity. It can be purchased for a mere $3500, which is about $3490 more than my budget allows for this sort of thing. If someone has read it, or otherwise can say where Miller and Mahin come into the story, let me know.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Missed It By That Much Award #2: The Honorable Mentions Of 1931-32

I'm still working on Part Three of my essay on Scarface. In the meantime, chew on some photographs for a while. This is a collection of those actors and actresses who turned in notable performances in 1931-32, but just missed out on a Katie Award nomination. Some of these faces you've seen before, some you will see again.

(To see the list of nominees for 1931-32, click here.)

Edward G. Robinson (Five Star Final)

James Cagney and Joan Blondell (Blonde Crazy)

Marie Dressler (Emma) (pictured here with Katie Award nominee Norma Shearer)

Dorothea Wieck (Mädchen In Uniform)

Raimu and Pierre Fresnay (Marius)

Warner Oland (Shanghai Express)

Jackie Cooper and Irene Rich (The Champ)

Anita Page (Skyscraper Souls)

Warren William (Skyscraper Souls)

Constance Bennett (What Price Hollywood?)

Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert (The Smiling Lieutenant)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Best Screenplay Of 1931-32: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett; from a novel by Armitage Trail (Scarface), Part Two

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

II. From Screenplay To Screen: Battling The Censors
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

For those unfamiliar with the words, that's the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and it's been allowing sinners and saints, artists and hacks, and statesmen and blowhards alike, to speak their piece without fear of reprisal or prior restraint for over two hundred years.

Well, theoretically.

Despite the absolutist language of the amendment, courts have always recognized limitations on the freedom of speech (and speech is what I'm specifically writing about here), including but not limited to prohibitions against slander and libel, child pornography, incitement to riot, creating the danger of imminent harm (that is, yelling "fire" in a crowded theater), and publishing troop movements during times of war (and no doubt others I haven't thought about since law school); as well as reasonable "time, place and manner" restrictions on when, where and how speech is conducted (which is why protesters camp out across the street from the White House and not in the Oval Office). (Others would not doubt remind me of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, the so-called "Espionage" Act of 1917, the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and a lot of other episodes that would curl your hair.)

Still, it must be astonishing to a generation accustomed to watching pornography on their telephones to discover that for the first half of the 20th Century, the First Amendment did not apply to movies at all.

Huh? What?

In 1915 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that the protections of the First Amendment did not extend to motion pictures. "[T]he exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit ... not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded ... as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion." Given that movies could be "used for evil," the Court reasoned, censorship was not beyond the power of the state.

Until the Supreme Court overturned Mutual Film in 1952 (Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson), Hollywood studios were subject to the whim of any government body with a mind to protect the public from itself.

The government of New York City was the first to begin censoring movies, forming the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship in 1909. The city required all movies to receive its stamp of approval before being exhibiting in its jurisdiction. Because of the city's outsized commercial importance, the major studios agreed to submit their films for the board's review, which meant in effect that New York City was determining what the rest of the nation could see. To reflect that fact, the Board changed its name, first to the National Board of Censorship and then to the National Board of Review.

After the Supreme Court's decision in Mutual Film, seven other states created their own censorship boards. By the time Scarface went into production, one out of three moviegoers lived in states or cities that regulated the content of movies.

In the early 1920s, a series of scandals—for example, the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle trial -- further eroded Hollywood's standing in the eyes of the public. To stave off the threat of even more state and local oversight, the studios asked former U.S. Postmaster General, Will Hays, to draft a set of guidelines of what would and would not be acceptable content in movies. In 1930, he produced a more formal document of prohibited topics called "A Code To Govern The Making Of Talking, Synchronized And Silent Motion Pictures," known informally as the Hays Code. (For a more detailed primer on the history of movie censorship, check out the article "Movie Censorship—A Brief History" at "The Picture Show Man.")

It was in this climate that Hughes, Hawks and Hecht sought to make the ultimate gangster picture, one which as Hecht put it, would "double the casualty rate of any picture to date." Hecht's treatment had come complete with casting recommendations—for the lead, Paul Muni, a young New York actor who had made a couple of critically-acclaimed flops in Hollywood before retreating to the Broadway stage; and for the part of Johnny Lovo, Tony's boss, Osgood Perkins who had played the lead in Hecht's Broadway play The Front Page. Hawks cast George Raft for the key role of Tony's sidekick, Guino Rinaldo. Before turning to acting, Raft had been a boxer in New York's Hell's Kitchen and had well-known mob connections, both lending authenticity to the part. In the role of Tony's sister and Rinaldo's love interest, Hawks cast bit player Ann Dvorak after seeing her dance at one of Raft's parties.

Principal photography began in June 1931 and continued until October. The film's release was delayed until March 31, 1932, while Hughes wrangled with both the Hays Office and New York's National Board of Review over the film's content.

Tim Dirks, at his indispensable website "Filmsite," details the various cuts, edits and alternate scenes deemed necessary to get the film out the door.

For example, Tony Camonte's mother explicitly disapproves of her son, calling him "bad" and "no good." Hawks dialed down the violence as much as possible, showing no blood despite a body count of nearly thirty and leaving many of the deaths to occur off screen. (He instead used a recurring visual motif, the letter "X," to signal to the audience that a death had occurred, paying his crew $100 a piece for ways to fit the X into the production, the most inventive being the murder of Boris Karloff in a bowling alley—he rolls a strike, marked with an "X" on his scorecard, just as he's gunned down.)

Hawks also de-emphasized the incestuous relationship that had inspired Hecht's screenplay in the first place.

"We made the brother-sister relationship clearly incestuous," he explained later, "but the censors mistook our intention and objected to it because they thought the relationship between them was too beautiful to be attributed to a gangster. We had a scene in which Muni told his sister that he loved her, and we couldn't play it in full light. We wound up play it in silhouette against a curtain with the light coming from outside. It was a little bit too intense to show faces—you wouldn't dare take a chance."

Despite the changes, the Hays Office refused to give Scarface its stamp of approval—unusual at a time when the Code was unenforceable and honored in the breach if at all—forcing Hughes to bring in assistant director Richard Rosson after filming was complete to shoot an alternate ending, one where a cringing, cowardly Tony Camonte is brought before a judge and sentence to death. By that time, Muni was no longer available and a stand-in (whose face is never shown) was used in his stead.

In addition, Rosson added several moralistic speeches with lines such as "Don't blame the police. They can't stop machine guns from being run back and forth across the state lines. They can't enforce laws that don't exist." A disclaimer was tacked on to the beginning of the film as well as a subtitle, "The Shame Of The Nation," both designed to shift the blame for bootlegger violence from police and political corruption to public indifference.

And still the Hays Office did not approve the film. Hughes finally got tired of waiting and shipped the movie out to any theater that would take it. Some states, New Jersey for example, saw the original cut; New York saw a cut with the bowdlerized ending. Scarface did well wherever it played but didn't play in enough places to make back its costs and eventually Hughes withdrew the film from circulation. Except for bootlegged 16-millimeter prints, the public didn't see it again for nearly fifty years when Universal Pictures bought Scarface in preparation for Brian DePalma's 1983 remake. (The original cut of Scarface wasn't seen in New York until 1980.)

To read Part Three, click here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The First Who Am Us Missed It By That Much Award

Well, Who Am Us admits to being crushed (crushed, I tells ya) that I got "this close" to giving him a coveted kreativ blogger award, only to snatch it from his fingers and hand it to a bunch of dead people instead. He suggests we create a new award, the "Missed It By That Much Award," with a little gold statue of Maxwell Smart as the prize.

Well, I don't have a gold statue handy—perhaps this photo of a paperback novel I found on the internet will work just as well. So here's to you, Who Am Us Anyway, KC at Classic Movies, Mister Muleboy at The Mouth O' The Mule, Plain Chicken, Clicks and Pops, Thingy at Pondering Life and Avalon 76 at Silent Stanzas (is that seven?) and everybody else who deserves a kreativ blogger award and just missed (is that seven billion?) who are the first recipients of the Missed It By That Much Award.


There are no rules, requirements or responsibilities that go with winning. Just sleep easier tonight, knowing that you are read, respected and not alone in the howling void.

P.S. Would you like to add a name to the Missed It By That Much honor roll? Just leave a comment with a web address and then let 'em know how much we love them here at the Monkey.

We Interrupt This Blog, Part 2

If you've been following my blog for a while, you're probably aware of Zoe, who lives in New Zealand and writes the blog The Big Parade. This last weekend, Zoe was awarded the "prestigious" kreativ blogger award (the quotation marks are hers) in recognition of the creative and worthy work she has done as a blogger. If you read her work, you know she deserves it.

And then Zoe passed the award along to seven more bloggers, including me, your unworthy correspondent, the Mythical Monkey. This is my first award since the last time I got a check from a federal agency in recognition of my work as a lawyer—and I had to win a $19 million case to earn that one. All I had to do for this one was watch movies and write about them, something I'd be doing anyway. It's like stealing!

But as always, I can never leave anything alone without doing a little research first—not as an act of churlish cynicism but because curiosity is one of my defining characteristics. Here are a couple of things I think I've learned:

Originally, "kreativ blogger" was a quilt block designed by a Norwegian woman named Hulda, which because I have a personal connection to the quilting community, I find quite interesting. Somewhere along the way, though, somebody decided "kreativ blogger" would be a good name for an award, slapped some chain letter-like rules on it—like forwarding the award to seven more bloggers—and started sending it around the internet.

While drinking my coffee this morning, I did a little math, never one of my strong suits, and found that if every person receiving the kreativ blogger award passes the award along to seven more people who pass the award along to seven more (different) people, and on and on, etc., within twelve days every man, woman and child on the planet will have received the kreativ blogger award—which accounts for, what, half the blogs in existence?

Which is not in any way to suggest I didn't want to receive the kreativ blogger award. If I could have lobbied for it, I would have and I am genuinely touched that Zoe tagged me, especially since she knows me only through my writing and has no personal obligation to be nice to me whatsoever. And as for the fact that Zoe ranked me at the top of her list, well, all I can say to the other recipients of the award is Ha ha!
Writers may be as shy and solitary as oysters, working away day after day, year after year, in the anonymity of their dark, dank offices, but they in fact crave attention, at least attention directed at their work (the work, which after all is merely another disguise designed to deflect attention from our shy and solitary selves). Every award we receive is as precious as the Pulitzer and if you don't think it is, you're probably not a writer.

Still what I am suggesting is that unless we branch out, we're going to run out of potential recipients of the kreativ blogger award in a big hurry. Thus, rather than pass the award along to Plain Chicken, The Mouth O' The Mule, Who Am Us Anyway, Clicks and Pops, Classic Movies, and all the other blogsters I read on a daily basis, I am forwarding the award to my favorite deceased movie critics, who despite their passing continue to influence the way we think about movies. This expands the potential list of rewardees rather substantially, and if somehow they hear about the award and write about it, imagine what a story that would be!

Some, you will note, are also known for accomplishments other than film criticism.

The seven:
James Agee
Bosley Crowther
Leslie Halliwell
Pauline Kael
Gene Siskel
Francois Truffaut
Robin Wood

Then apparently because the kreativ blogger award works in sevens, I am supposed to reveal seven personal things about myself—a real trick since I have spent my entire life concealing the personal, even from myself. Here they are, though, each fact somehow related to the one before it.

* I own 559 movies on DVD or Blu-Ray (not including television-related stuff or the 1600 or so movies on VHS tape I have floating around in the basement). I have arranged them on the shelf chronologically, from 1915's Les Vampires to last year's Up.

* We have only one working television in the house. It's in the family room.

* My "porn" name (first pet/street where I grew up) is "Snappy Landings." (Katie's is "Janie Colton.")

* Jane Greer is the only femme fatale in movie history I would let shoot me.

* My favorite movie to take a long nap to is The Thing From Another World.

* I wrote my first book when I was thirteen years old—125 handwritten pages. It remains unpublished.

* Don Rickles has insulted me personally.

That's it. Tomorrow, back to the lucrative business of blogging with Scarface, Part Two.