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.


Ed Howard said...

This is a great series, I love all the detail you put into the very complicated story of this film's making. Even compromised and a bit hacked-up, as it is even today, Scarface is a phenomenal movie, so raw and edgy that even De Palma's remake, made in a much less censorious era, can't quite top its wild excesses. Hawks and company may have toned down the incestuous subtext, but it's still very much apparent, and the fact that most of the deaths occur off-screen merely caused Hawks to come up with some really inventive images, like the shadows of the victims projected on the wall during his visualization of the Valentine's Day Massacre, or the eerie whistling of the killer that runs through the opening sequence. And the performances, raw and unrestrained as they are, perfectly fit the film's hysterical tone. Paul Muni is, of course, volcanic, gargling out one of the world's worst Italian accents and still managing to sound sinister and nasty. Ann Dvorak, then Hawks' lover, is slinky and sexy and just so much fun to watch in every scene, even if she is a little annoying whenever she opens her mouth. She seems like an actress born for the silent era, since she projects everything you'd need to know with just her body language and her flashing eyes.

Great, great movie.

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks, Ed! I think Scarface is one of Hawks's best efforts, to convey so much without explicitly showing, well, really anything.

Paul Muni is one of those actors, I have discovered while researching him, who seems to create strong opinions on both sides. Some consider him the biggest over-actor of the 1930s, others love him. Personally, I think of Tony Camonte as a small-time thug who is playing the part of a big-time mob boss and the fact that his every gesture seems broad and exaggerated just underscores that he's in over his head. His pure viciousness carries the day for a while, but it's destined to catch up to him.

And I agree about Ann Dvorak. Some people were born to be silent stars. She started out with a flurry of good movies then quickly faded into B-pictures. Whether that was because of a contract dispute with Warners or the inevitable result of a lack of range, I can't say.