One of the premier screenwriters of the day, Ben Hecht (screenwriter of Scarface) grew up in Chicago and became a newspaper reporter during prohibition. He found that people loved reading his articles about the criminals who lived and prospered in the Windy City. As he moved to Hollywood to ply his trade in the movie business, he discovered the slight internal censorship that occurred in the studios. Upon arriving in Hollywood he quickly learned of the social mores involved in writing films. One precept, as he was told, required that the hero needed to remain pure, yet the villain could engage in anything he wants: "The thing to do was to skip the heroes and heroines, to write a movie containing only villains and bawds. I would not have to tell any lies then" (in Rosow, 118). Yet the studios had continued upon a more rigid form of self-censorship as the gangster film grew in popularity.
The opening sequences of both Little Caesar and Public Enemy (both released by Warner Bros.) contained a similar disclaimer:
The studio generated this disclaimer hoping to assuage the eventual claims of moralistically determined reform groups to put and end to the constant stream of violence and depravity as depicted in such films. Yet the content of these films remained generally unchanged. Scarface, on the other hand, suffered the greatest from the imposition of censorship.
Scarface's producers came under fire for the unapologetic violence of the "hero," and in fears that public censors wouldn't allow its release, they added two scenes that they hoped would temper people from criticizing the film as encouraging sympathy for the gangsters (Munby, 58). These two scenes had people gathered around and authority figure who actively fought against the idea of the gangster as a hero. In the first scene, the police chief chastised a reporter for writing a story about the gangster as a "colorful figure," detailing some of his crimes against the innocent and questioning if this is what people describe as "color". Secondly, the publisher of a newspaper railed against glorifying the gangster as a public icon. The several people (save one) standing in his office are definitively Anglo-Saxon, from their upscale dress to their untainted diction, discussing the gangster as a scourge on society. The one who is not Anglo-Saxon is very Italian. When allowed his chance to speak, he agrees in a stereotypically Italian accent, saying: "Thatsa true. They bring nothin' buta disgrace to my people." When engaging in their diatribes against the gangster, the police chief and the newspaper publisher stand, and speak to each person in the room, including the camera. At that point the viewers are made to feel that they are being chastised (along with the other members of the film's society) for allowing the crime and violence of the gangster to continue. Other than the accusatory tone towards the viewer, the stylistic attributes of these scenes contrast sharply with the rest of the film. Shot with distinct lighting and incorporating a full screen wipe transition (unused in the rest of the film), the style emphasizes the differences of these scenes.
Shot without director Howard Hawks, who refused to be a part of the forced inclusion of scenes that both disrupted the fluidity of the film and stood out as moralistic grandstanding, these scenes overtly appeared as a form of censorship. Yet, according to Jonathan Munby, "the aesthetic discontinuity produced by the added scene(s) only marks the opposition between gangsterdom and official society in a way that backfires on the interests of censorship" (61). However, the studio delayed Scarface's release by 2 years due to the quarrels
Hays' power came not from his own ability to control the motion picture industry, but by the support he had from the Catholic Church. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt realized in his campaign for president in 1932, the rise to power came with the support of the ethnic minorities of the inner city. Hays saw that he could only maintain his role in charge of policing the film industry by forging an alliance with the increasingly powerful Catholic 'Legion of Decency'. The Legion, created in reaction to Pope Pius XI's demand for "Catholic Action", sought to work within the motion picture industry to regulate immorality on film instead of legislating from above as the Protestant reformers had done (Munby, 97). Coming from the same urban-ethnic centers that saw the vastly unpopular social control of the nativist's attempt to eradicate alcohol, the Catholic Church refused to use the same measures towards the cinema. The collaboration of Hays and the Legion of Decency proved a potent force for broad censorship of gangster films.
When Hays learned about a proposed film based on the life of true "Public Enemy" John Dillinger, he had seen enough. Hays quickly sent a telegram to the heads of the major studios that germinated into "The Hays Code". The letter stated,
No picture on the life or exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed, or exhibited by any member (of the MPPDA). This decision is based on the belief that the production, distribution, or exhibition would be detrimental to the best public interest (in McCarty, 95).
The MPPDA (Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America) agreed to the memorandum regarding Dillinger, and Hays began the development of the Motion Picture Production Code (better known as the Hays Code). The Code became the standard for judging what movies would and would not be exhibited. All the producers agreed that they would not distribute a film unless it had the MPPDA's seal of approval. Unfortunately for the gangster film, the Code incorporated a strict moratorium on their distribution and exhibition.
As evidenced in additions and common themes in Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface, the Code's role was significant. The exclusion of many action sequences, the addition of scenes, such as the one in Scarface demonizing the gangster, and the addition of disclaimers at the film's outset became commonplace. Yet the Code's written rules effectively forced these films underground for years. The Code refused to acknowledge films that sympathized with the gangster in the commission of crimes, the depiction of crimes of extreme brutality, those that can be copied, or any instance of justifiable revenge. Furthermore, the Code forbade the detailed account of a crime such as the steps taken to blow up a safe or the planning of a bank heist (Rosow, 215). These and several other rules forced filmmakers to rethink the gangster genre and formulate a new role for crime in society. However, as the New Deal began to drag the United States out of the Great Depression, a new gangster came onto the scene.
The New Deal signified a shift in the relationship the citizens of the United States had with one another and with the government. The dark years since the Crash cast a pall over society that, for one, helped the rise of an underworld character such as the gangster who survived in opposition to authority, no matter what the consequences. However, around 1934, a new wave of optimism took control. With New Deal programs designed to provide work and stability for a struggling American population came a new sense of cooperation and a resurgence in national pride that the country had not seen since WWI (Rosow, 222). This faith in the government became apparent on the screen when James Cagney moved to the other side of the law.
G-Men (1935) has Cagney coming from a similar background on the streets as he did in Public Enemy. Yet, instead of choosing to lead a life of criminality, he has the opportunity to go to law school and succeed through working within the system. When a local gangster kills a friend of his, he joins the FBI in order to seek justice. Working within the government, instead of in opposition to it, signals a definitive shift away from the focus of the pre-Code gangster film. The influence of the New Deal served to incorporate several disenfranchised groups into society and generate a unified national spirit.
The Hays Code, as an attempt by Catholics to curb the glorification of crime and sympathy with criminals on film through internal regulation, demonstrated the shift of cultural control away from the Anglo-Saxons. In taking a backseat to stepping away from forcefully assimilating ethnic people, the nativist guardians of "traditional" American culture acknowledged the fate of the United States as a future "melting pot" of ethnicity, class, and other minorities.
|Public Enemy Little Caesar Scarface|
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion