Fast-paced 'Scarface' pushed `30s violence limits, stirred censors

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

1 June 2007


Two important and controversial Hollywood films—one from 1932, the other from 1950—are among the most intriguing recent DVD releases.

The notoriety of the original Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as Chicago crime boss Tony Camonte (a thinly veiled Al Capone), began even before it was filmed in 1931 and gained steam when producer Howard Hughes tried to release it. The film was far more scandalous in its day than Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake, starring Al Pacino, which itself caused an uproar.

Hughes wanted to make a film about the notorious Borgia family of Italy but to set it amid the world of Chicago gangsters; he also wanted to top the most famous contemporary gangster films, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, in its action and lurid violence. He hired Hawks to direct, and after several other writers failed to come up with an adequate script, Hawks brought in former Chicago reporter Ben Hecht to take over the writing.

Working outside the Hollywood studio system, they couldn’t sign any established stars for their film. So Hawks and Hecht found Muni, a star of New York’s Yiddish theater, to play Camonte; George Raft, a former dancer with mobster friends, to play Camonte’s best friend and sidekick Guino Rinaldo; and chorus girl Ann Dvorak to take the role of Cesca, Tony’s younger sister.

Hawks, the director of such famous movies as Bringing Up Baby, Sgt. York, Red River and The Big Sleep, always called Scarface one of his favorites. It remains a beautifully shot, fast-paced story—if a bit over the top in some of the performances—of the rise and fall of a criminal boss.

Even before filming began, Hollywood’s censorious Hays Office tried to tamper with the script, which it viewed as glamorizing criminals and containing too much violence. Although Hughes agreed to make many of the changes demanded by the censors, he ended up telling Hawks (according to Hawks’ biographer, Todd McCarthy): “Screw the Hays Office. Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”

But after the movie was finished, the Hays Office and various state movie censorship boards did succeed in persuading Hughes to make some major changes, without Hawks’ approval: adding a prologue saying that the movie was made to educate the public about such despicable characters; changing the title to Scarface: The Shame of the Nation; adding a scene in which newspaper editors decry the criminals; and filming a new ending that has Camonte convicted of murder and hanged—rather than the original ending in which he dies in a hail of bullets.

The film was finally released sporadically around the country in 1932 and did remarkably well at the box office. Although it was re-released at various times over the years, in 1947, Hughes ordered the film withdrawn from circulation. It was seen only in rare bootleg copies until 1980, when Universal purchased it along with other Hughes films. Only then did it receive a New York premiere in its original form. (Ironically, when it was finally re-released, Scarface received a PG rating—an indication of how Hollywood’s standards about violence have changed over the years.)

Unfortunately, Robert Osborne’s introduction to the film on DVD doesn’t go into these later issues, though he does mention some of the film’s early censorship battles. The only other bonus feature on the DVD is the inclusion of the tacked-on alternate ending.

Filmed on location in Arizona and set in 1870, Broken Arrow (Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98, not rated) marked a turn in the depiction of American Indians in the big-budget Hollywood Western. Directed by Delmar Daves, it’s about a former Union officer and scout named Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), who believes that both U.S. policies and the behavior of settlers in the Southwest are treating the indigenous Apaches unfairly. He respects the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise as an honorable man, and gains Cochise’s friendship and an agreement by him to try to work out a peace treaty with the U.S. government.

Made in 1949 but not released until 1950, Broken Arrow was the project of a Hollywood producer named Julian Blaustein, who wanted to make a movie that was sympathetic to the Indians and that exposed the prejudice toward them on the part of many white settlers. (I was a graduate teaching assistant in a film course Blaustein gave at Stanford University in the mid-1970s in which he discussed Broken Arrow.)

Blaustein hired a well-known screenwriter, Albert Maltz, to write the screenplay from Elliott Arnold’s novel. But by the time the film came out, Maltz, one of the “Hollywood 10,” had been blacklisted, and the name of a “front,” fellow writer Michael Blankfort, was given screen credit; Blankfort received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. Years later, Maltz was properly, but posthumously, given the credit he was due.

The film does succeed in showing the Apaches in a favorable light. Cochise is brave, honest, thoughtful and wise while the Apaches as a whole are portrayed as fierce but honorable fighters with a rich culture and a well-organized society. According to Stewart’s biographer, Gary Fishgall, more than 375 Apaches from Arizona’s White River Reservation served as extras to give the film authenticity.

However, Broken Arrow didn’t break entirely from Hollywood tradition in that it cast two Causasian actors in the largest Indian roles—Jeff Chandler as Cochise (he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor) and Debra Paget as Sonseeahray, Jeffords’ love interest. While the relationship between Jeffords and Sonseeahray could be viewed as a breakthrough in the portrayal of interracial romance, their scenes together are saccharine sweet and a bit icky due to Stewart being 41 years old and Paget only 16 at the time of the filming.

In addition, the movie plays fast and loose with the historical record in several important places—in particular in portraying another Apache leader, Geronimo (played by Indian actor Jay Silverheels, later TV’s Tonto in The Lone Ranger), as an enemy of Cochise when they were actually close friends and allies for many years.

On the other hand, Broken Arrow deserves praise for its fine action sequences, beautiful photography of the Arizona landscape and in at least making an attempt to right a grievous Hollywood wrong. A box-office hit in 1950, it later became a TV series starring John Lupton as Jeffords and Michael Ansara as Cochise.

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