The Shame of a Nation

The last of the "big three" gangster movies, 1932's Scarface is acknowledged to be the most artistic - and most violent - of the trio. Directed by Howard Hawks, Scarface was based on a novel by Armitage Trail, which in turn was based on the life of famed gangster Al Capone (who had his own copy of the film). Producer Howard Hughes was determined to outdo all previous efforts at celluloid gangsterland, and production values were higher than those of Little Caesar or Public Enemy. The body count was also higher, creating a backlash that would destroy Hawks' artistic vision and keep Scarface virtually out of circulation for fifty years.

Plot Synopis

The plot centers on the rise and fall of Tony "Scarface" Camonte, whom the audience first see taking out Big Louie Costello, last of the old-style gangsters. Tony then becomes the right-hand man of new boss Johnny Lovo, strong-arming saloon keepers into buying Lovo's beer. Meanwhile, the women in Tony's life - Lovo's ice-cold moll, Poppy, and his young sister, Cesca. Tony catches Cesca kissing a suitor in the hall of their tenement home. Outraged, he throws the man out the door. Cesca is determined not to let her unnaturally protective brother boss her around, and we see her throwing a coin from her window to Tony's right-hand man, Guino.

Tony's ambitious exploits cross over into the territory of the Irish North Side gangs, led by O'Hara. After a corpse is dumped outside of Tony's headquarters, he takes revenge by having O'Hara assassinated. The Irish gangs fight back, using the new weapon of the streets - the machine gun. Entranced by the gun, Tony rushes out to take down his rivals. Scenes of gang warfare follow, with the cold-blooded murder of seven gangsters in a reenactment of Al Capone's real-life St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Tony is moving up in the gangster world - both Gaffney, the leader of the Irish gang, and his own ostensible boss Lovo live in fear of his wrath.

The audience sees Tony at a performance of Somerset Maugham's Rain. He's not so caught up in the performance, though, that he isn't able to leave at intermission for a hit - this time, on Gaffney. Afterwards, at the Paradise nightclub, Tony sits down with Lovo and Poppy. Poppy makes it clear that she is happy to see him - when the two men offer their lights for her smoke, Poppy chooses Tony's. Lovo, left alone as he watches his moll dance with Tony, plots revenge. Tony's own happiness is shattered when he sees Cesca, clad in a revealing sleeveless dress. In a rage, he wrenches her out of the hall and drags her back home.

When Tony steps out, a hail of bullets awaits. He jumps into his car and eludes his pursuers. Suspicious, Tony and Guino concoct a plan to determine whether Lovo was behind the attempt on his life. Lovo, shaky and obviously guilty, begs for his life before being shot down by Guino. Tony is now king of the gangsters.

Tony leaves for a month in Florida to celebrate his triumph. When he arrives home, he finds that Cesca has moved out. In a frenzy of jealousy, he tracks her down to her new apartment, where we see her happily playing the piano for Guino. Tony shoots down Guino while Cesca's horrified scream echoes across the soundtrack. Cesca screams at her brother, revealing that she had been married to Guino the day before. She reviles Tony, calling him a butcher. Tony staggers to his hideout, where Cesca tracks him down, gun in hand.

Suddenly, police sirens break into the silence. Instead of shooting her brother, Cesca runs into his arms, telling him that she's not afraid of going down with him. Gloriously happy at the prospect of a showdown with his sister at his side, Tony is drawing the steel shutters shut when Cesca is hit by a bullet. Tony carries the mortally wounded Cesca to a sofa, where he weeps over her, telling her that without her he will be completely alone. With her last words, Cesca accuses Tony of being afraid and calls for Guino.

A tear-gas grenade forces Tony out of his protected room and down a flight of stairs - where policemen await at the landing. The cops shoot Tony's gun out of his hand as he prepares to open fire. The defeated Tony pleads for his life, crying "Don't shoot....I don't got nobody....I'm all alone." (Pump Em, p. 41) The police attempt to take Tony into custody, but he runs frantically out the door, where he is cut down in a hail of bullets. The camera travels from Tony's body to a sign flashing "The World is Yours" above the tattered corpse.

Hawks took an artistic approach to Scarface, using subtle imagery lacking in other Warner Brothers offerings. The "X"-shaped scar of the title reflects itself as a symbol of death - Cesca wears a dress with crossed straps, Gaffney's murder takes place at a bowling alley and is preceded by a strike, and during the murder of the seven gangsters the camera cuts to a beam cut into seven X's. Before Tony kills his superiors, he whistles "Chi mi fena in tal momento?" from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. (Translated, the title means "What restrains me in such a moment?" - an ironic touch.) Hawks, who was at first reluctant to direct, brought a touch of historical class to the picture by basing the lives of the gangsters on the lives of the Borgias - thus the implied incestuous relationship between Tony and Cesca had a Renaissance basis.

Scarface Cut Up

Censorship and a new gangster

A backlash of criticism from Christian magazines and other sources followed the success of Public Enemy and Little Caesar accusing the two films of glorifying gangsters. Scarface, however, was so violent that began its wrangles with the censors even before its release - it was actually ready for the screen in 1930 but was held up for two years the recent disapproval of the Two Warner movies making the process even more difficult. In order to get a Motion Picture Association of America seal of approval, many changes had to be made to the picture. The title was changed to Scarface: Shame of a Nation, and a moralizing introduction was added:

This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?' The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it? (

Cuts and erasures were made throughout the film, and scenes featuring an angry chief of police and a sermonizing newspaper publisher were added (these scenes were not directed by Hawks, but by Richard Rosson). The scenes are clumsily added and give nothing to the film's overall dramatic structure. The first scene, featuring the monologue by the chief of police, is almost an apologia for the Hays Code (which allowed outright violence in Westerns on the grounds that they were set in a less civilized time):

Say listen, that's the attitude of too many morons in this country. They think these hoodlums are some sort of demagogues. What do they do about a guy like Camonte? They sentimentalize, romance, make jokes about him. They had some excuse for glorifying our old Western badmen. They met in the middle of the street at high noon and waited for each other to draw. (

The scene in the newspaper publisher's office also condemns public interest in the gangster lifestyle. When a group of concerned citizens calls for less violence on the front pages, the publisher defends his right to free speech and calls for citizen action against the gangster menace:


The additions by the censors are obvious attempts to shame moviegoers who are taking pleasure in the gory story of Scarface. The government should do something - and since the American government is run by the people, the argument goes, if the government is too lax in its prosecution of gangsters it is the fault of honest American citizens and their misplaced sympathy for the "hoodlums."

Added scenes were not the most blatant changes made to Scarface. A totally different ending was shot (without Hawks' direction and without Paul Muni, who was replaced by an extra shot from a distance.) The new ending alters Cesca's reunion with Tony during the standoff. In the original ending, Cesca tells her brother that "you're me and I'm you. It's always been that way" ( before hugging him and running to load the guns. In the altered ending, this dialogue is cut so that Cesca seems to be a passive and "womanly" accomplice, rather than an as active accomplice.

After Cesca's death, which corresponds with the original version, Tony runs down the stairs broken and alone. Instead of running past the police, though, the scene fades to black with the police holding Tony captive. A judge then appears. Shot in close-up, he speaks to the audience while addressing the unseen "Tony." Sentencing Tony to death, he says that "There is no place in this country for your type." ( A shot filmed from underneath a gallows follows as the hangmen test the apparatus with a sack, then a pair of limp feet (Tony's) are belted together in preparation for the hanging. A policeman is seen in extreme close-up from Tony's point of view, placing a blindfold over the lens. The last shot of the altered ending is of policemen using knives to activate the hanging mechanism. The film fades to black and the words "The End" appear on the screen.

Even with the altered ending, the various cuts, and the added scenes, Scarface's frank depictions of violence led to controversy and gossip (a rumor spread that in one scene, an actual corpse was thrown from a taxi). (pump em 38) The film was banned in several states and its release was delayed in other areas (over a year in Chicago). As Scarface lost money, producer Hughes pulled the film from circulation.

In 1979, after Hughes' death, Universal Studios re-released Scarface, revealing a film that had languished in obscurity for over fifty years.

See Censorship: A New Gangster

The Depression

Like the other gangster heroes during the depression, Tony "Scarface" Camonte lusts after possessions -expensive clothes, expensive jewelry, especially expensive women. This is shown most clearly through his pursuit of Poppy. Poppy's first reaction to Tony is one of scorn. Undeterred, Tony jokes to Johnny Lovo that Poppy is "a very busy girl. Expensive, huh?" Later on, Poppy acts cold but is secretly impressed by Tony's acquisitions of jewelry and a snappy new dressing gown. Poppy herself becomes a (willing) acquisition after Lovo's death.

In an era when many Americans had lost their material possessions, Tony's decadent lifestyle seemed like a dream. Perhaps even more appealing was the fashion in which Tony rises to the top. Tony shows contempt for all leadership, law, and anything that stands in his way. He shoots the old-fashioned Big Louie then expresses his contempt for the leadership of Johnny Lovo.

Tony: There's business just waiting for some guy to come and run it right. And I got ideas.
Guino: We're workin' for Lovo, ain't we?
Tony: Lovo, who's Lovo? Just some guy who was a little bit more smart than Big Louie, that's all. Hey, that guy is soft. I could just see it in his face. He's got a set-up, that's all, and we're gonna wait. Someday, I'm gonna run the whole works.

The skinny Lovo, with his fear of confrontation, could stand for the authority figures of the early 1930s, with their refusal to confront the bleak economic reality. The idea of overthrowing weak, inefficient leaders obviously resonated during the floundering Hoover era.

The Individual

The world of Scarface is also a world of individual action . Tony is constantly on the move, fighting, partying, plotting. For a nation out of work, this was the ultimate fantasy. An individual viewer could imagine himself or herself taking charge of life and making it back to their former position in life. As a 1930 letter to Screenland magazine read, "we will be better able to gather up our worries and thrash them soundly; to line up our cares against the wall, shoot them one by one and glory in it just as we saw the hero do." (born to, 160) The St. Valentine's Day massacre could be interpreted as a reconstruction of Al Capone's notorious murders - or as a elimination of the troubles of the hero/viewer.

Tony is a fighter - willing to overcome any obstacle to make it to the top. He is "thoroughly ambitious, totally ruthless, and absolutely fearless until the end." (born to lose, 209) This is not the sort of person who would be content standing in a breadline. Tony's story made it easy to believe that, with the right attitude and a healthy self-esteem, "The World Is Yours."

The American Dream

The movie does not develop the young hopes of its main character like the two earlier Warner films did. Instead it jumps in when Scarface has already become a regular in the gangster world he simply materializes from a pan to a shadow spread on the floor, Scarface appears. Already, cold hearted and whistling as he kills Big Louie in the first scene, right after Louie gives a small speech about how he has everything he could ever want, Scarface is seen more as a force that destroys the American dream rather than a simple man who dreamed it. In fact the scene skips directly after than to Gang warfare- another antithesis of the American dream. The scenes added by the Hayes office also serve to accuse not only Scarface, but all gangsters of ruining life for everyday Americans. Of course, when the film finally came out the public backlash ignored these depictions and focused on the excessive violence and unredeemable qualities of Scarface that were depicted. Unlike the earlier movies the viewed is not allowed for a moment to feel sorry for the main character.