Wednesday, January 13, 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 One

Of the seemingly endless series of movies Hollywood produced during Prohibition to cash in on the public's obsession with gangsters, three stand out today—Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface. The first two made stars of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively, but the best, and at the time most controversial, was Scarface.

The story of a ruthless thug's rise and fall was a familiar one to audiences when the film first appeared in theaters in 1932. But those lucky enough to see the uncut version of Scarface saw a more violent and more complex treatment of the subject than anything that had come before it. Both bucking censorship and helping to usher it in, the production of Scarface is the stuff of legend; the finished movie is a classic.

I. From Novel To Screenplay: "A Real Tough Shoot-‘em Up"
The movie Scarface was based on a novel of the same name by a young writer of pulp fiction, Maurice Coons, whose friendship with the Sicilian gangs that ran the slums of Chicago gave his material an air of authenticity. Writing under the pseudonym Armitage Trail, Coons fashioned a tale of a small-time thug, Tony Camonte, who claws his way up the mob ladder only to fall once he reaches the top. It was a thinly-disguised portrait of Al Capone, the same sort of story that writers all over the country were churning out in novels such as W.R. Burnett's Little Caesar and for pulp magazines like Black Mask. As Hollywood sought to exploit the gang wars of the Prohibition Era for its own profit, studios snapped up many of these stories and began to adapt them into motion pictures.

Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire business man, aviator and movie producer, was eager to jump on the gangster bandwagon with a picture of his own that would "knock the audience out of its seats." Although he had successfully produced a number of movies, including The Racket, The Front Page and the Oscar-winning comedy Two Arabian Knights, Hughes's one experience as a director, helming 1930's Hell's Angels to financial disaster, convinced him that despite his money and his enthusiasm, he needed a real director to get his project off the ground.

Enter Howard Hawks.

Born in Indiana to a wealthy merchant, and raised in Southern California, Howard Hawks had studied mechanical engineering at Cornell and served in the United States Army Air Service before returning to California to work as a prop man for the Mary Pickford Company. That in the wide-open days of the silent era he went from prop man to director in just three years was not all that unusual. By the time Hughes acquired the film rights to Scarface, Hawks had already directed ten movies and was a veteran of the gangster genre, helming The Criminal Code to critical acclaim and commercial success the year before. Always independent minded, Hawks walked out on a contract with Jack Warner to take the job with Hughes, resulting in a lawsuit that Hawks ultimately lost.

W.R. Burnett took first crack at the screenplay. A native of Springfield, Ohio, Burnett had failed in his first attempt at fiction, writing a hundred unpublished short stories and five unpublished novels before throwing in the towel and taking a job as a night clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It was there that he became acquainted with Chicago's underbelly; his experiences and observations inspired his 1929 novel, Little Caesar, a smash hit that served as the basis for Edward G. Robinson's classic gangster film.

But evidently, Burnett's screenplay for Scarface failed to satisfy Hughes's vision of "a real tough shoot-'em up," and while enough of his work survived to earn Burnett a screen credit, Hughes and Hawks would look elsewhere for the final screenplay of their gangster thriller.

They next turned to Ben Hecht, arguably the greatest screenwriter of all time, certainly belonging near the top of a very short list. Before moving to Hollywood, he had worked as a journalist in Chicago and Berlin, written novels and co-authored the hit play The Front Page with Charles MacArthur (Howard Hughes produced the film adaptation in 1931). In 1926, Hecht moved to Hollywood after receiving a telegram from Herman J. Mankiewicz (who with Orson Welles won best original screenplay for Citizen Kane). The telegram read, "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." Mankiewicz was right. Hecht eventually became the highest paid writer in Hollywood, earning as much as $100,000 a month, and won an Oscar in its first year of existence for the gangster picture Underworld.

Film historian Richard Corliss later called Hecht "the Hollywood screenwriter."

During their conversations about the project, which initially didn't interest Hecht, Hawks commented that Capone reminded him of the Borgias, whose unsavory stew of incest, murder and intrigue ruled Italy during the Renaissance Era. That was enough of a hook for Hecht who—to the consternation of his agent who had negotiated a salary of a $1000 a day instead of a flat $20,000—wrote a 60-page treatment of the story in eleven days.

As Hecht envisioned the story, Tony Camonte's ascension through the ranks to the position of crime boss is accomplished not through brains and cunning but through sheer aggression so irrational, unrestrained and often at odds with Tony's own best interests that it takes more calculating men by surprise, overwhelming them before they see the threat. One of Hecht's keenest insights, that criminals aren't so much masterminds as ruthless, undisciplined children, came from his conversations with gangsters while working as a journalist in Chicago, and Hecht portrays Tony as a child who, as Naomi Wise put in an essay for Take One magazine, "refuses to recognize the existence of the wills of other humans." As a result, despite the violence depicted in Scarface, the movie plays more as a comic satire about preening buffoons and apes in hats than the reverent portrait of larger-than-life anti-heroes too many gangster movies devolve into.

In adapting Scarface, Hecht cut out the novel's backstory and cop brother, and added a sister for whom Tony has incestuous desires apparent to everyone but himself, a desire that ultimately proves to be his Achilles heel. He also used Scarface as a vehicle for criticizing his fellow journalists whom he felt had helped glorify gangsters. Hecht based the character Johnny Lovo, Tony's boss, on Johnny Torrio, and North-side boss Big Louie Costillo on Big Jim Colosimo. He also drew on several incidents well-known to movie audiences, such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the murder of Legs Diamond in a hospital bed and Deannie O'Bannion's assassination in a flower shop.

After receiving Hecht's treatment, Hawks turned the story over to a pair of young writers, Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin, who are credited with their movie's "continuity and dialogue." Miller was a young writer who had worked with Hawks before, co-writing the early Louise Brooks effort A Girl In Every Port, and providing the dialogue for The Dawn Patrol and The Criminal Code (the latter scoring him an Oscar nomination). Like Miller, Mahin was twenty-eight; unlike Miller, Scarface was Mahin's first screenplay. He had been working in New York as a journalist (and was fired by William Randolph Hearst for writing a negative review of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies) until heading for Hollywood at the invitation of fellow journalist Ben Hecht.

Handing a screenplay from writer to writer was not an unusual procedure in those days—Hollywood studios approached screenwriting as an assembly line process for decades, with one team of writers developing the story, another team working on the dialogue and yet another providing re-writes, with very little collaboration between the separate groups. In this case, Hecht fleshed out the novel's storyline, invented many new ideas, defined the characters, wrote dialogue, then Miller and Mahin worked out the "continuity"—the progression of the scenes—and wrote additional dialogue.

Whether Miller and 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). It is also unclear which, if either of them, did the rewrites attempting to satisfy the censorship boys in the Hays Office. Hawks himself did some work on the script although as was often the case, did not take a credit.

In any event, the process of producing a screenplay for Scarface turned out to be relatively painless. Getting the movie from the page to the screen proved to be anything but.

[To read Part Two, click here.]

1 comment:

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

I’ve always liked the gee-whiz sound of 1930s lingo in America: “Look boys, what we want to do is knock the audience out of its seats!"