TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS DAY 6 - PAUL MUNI
Today’s Summer Under the Stars Pick is SCARFACE (1932) starring Paul Muni as scenery chewing gangster Antonio “Tony” Camonte, Ann Dvorak as his sexy sister Cesca, and George Raft as his coin-flipping henchman, Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo.
Director Howard Hawks’ seminal gangster film was loosely based on the life of Chicago mobster Al Capone, and adapted by Ben Hecht from Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name. In the wake of hand-wringing about the popularity of gangster movies, SCARFACE endured endless meddling by the Hays Office, beginning well before filming commenced. Script changes were made, an alternate ending was shot (without Muni, even though his character is hanged), a text preamble and sub-title (“The Shame of a Nation”) were added, and additional edits were made (supervised by Lewis Milestone), but the film still had problems passing local censorship boards. Multiple versions ended up in circulation, including the original cut, which was released at producer Howard Hughes’ insistence in territories without strong censorship regulations.
This hodgepodge of local censorship variations in part led to the across-the-board enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, beginning in July of 1934. The version of SCARFACE that circulates today omits the moralistic sub-title, but includes the hilarious cautionary preamble, concluding with the words:
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?
5 Reasons to Watch:
1. The Opening Scene
The film kicks off with a mobster kicking off: Big Louie Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) is assassinated by Tony, in a scene based on the IRL rubout of Big Jim Colosimo by Capone in 1920. Hawks never shows us Paul Muni in this scene, though, filming the shooting in shadow and silhouette. Considering that we’re expected to root for Tony for the next 90 minutes, the decision not to introduce the character in the act of murder was a smart one.
2. In the book, Tony and the cop pursuing him are brothers.
Early in the film Inspector Ben Guarino (C. Henry Gordon, pictured in the lobby card above) picks up Tony at the barber shop for questioning. The mobster then defiantly lights a match on Guarino’s badge, which earns him a sock in the kisser.
Interesting side note: in the book upon which the film is based, Tony and the cop are brothers. Had Hawks and Hecht carried this over to the film, it would have added a real level of poignancy, particularly to the climax.
3. Ann Dvorak
Paul Muni may be the star of the film, but he’s far from the best thing in it. For me, the breakout performer is Hughes-contractee Ann Dvorak. As Cesca, she slinks around with the grace of a dancer (Dvorak began her film career as an MGM chorus girl), and her meet-cute with Raft is unforgettable, communicated almost entirely without words. Dvorak’s Cesca also doesn’t pull any punches in SCARFACE’s Borgia-esque incest subplot, both acknowledging it and, to a perverse degree, encouraging it. That’s a remarkably modern approach, even for a Pre-Code film.
That Dvorak didn’t become a bigger star is a tragedy, and you can read all about it in Christina Rice's excellent biography, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.
4. Boris Karloff
Post-FRANKENSTEIN Karloff is eighth-billed as gangster Tom Gaffney. When Karloff is eighth-billed, you know you have a strong cast. And Frankenstein’s Monster wielding a machine gun is just as fun as it sounds.
5. The Climax
The concluding gunfight with Tony and Cesca holed up in his fortress was apparently based on a real life, 1931 incident: the Siege of West 90th Street, wherein gangster Two-Gun Crowley fought off cops from his New York City apartment.
The sequence in the film is memorably over-the-top, with Muni, who’s been setting the knob to 11 (Spinal Tap-style) for 90 minutes just breaking it off and going for broke. He chews the scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks.
For the record, I prefer this version of SCARFACE to Brian De Palma’s iconic 1983 remake, though both are larger-than-life in their own way. Muni and Pacino both chose to play it “big,” and both films are memorable for it.
SCARFACE airs today at 9:45 PM (ET) on Turner Classic Movies. For the complete schedule and background on Muni, visit TCM’s site. The film is also for digital download and/or rental on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and elsewhere.
Sources: AFI.com, TCM