Paul Muni plays gangster Antonio “Tony” Camonte — based on Al Capone — as this film details his bloody rise from the bottom to the top of Chicago’s gangs. This film was directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes, who wanted another hit after 1931’s The Front Page.
Hawks and Hughes were not on friendly terms, as there had been a lawsuit between the two, alleged that Hawk’s film The Dawn Patrol had stolen from Hughes’ Hell’s Angels. Over a game of golf, they dropped the suit and came to terms. Hawks was also pleased to see Ben Hecht would be the writer. Hecht was incredibly suspicious of Hughes as a producer, so he demanded a $1,000 a day salary to be paid every day at 6 PM. A grand a day in 1932, adjusted for inflation, would be around $18,450.80 today. Talk about being a gangster.
Luckily, Hecht and Hawks gelled well and agreed that the story of the gangster in the movie should mirror the Italian Borgia family, right down to the hints of incest between him and his sister.
The movie starts with Camonte (Paul Muni) killing “Big” Louis Costillo on the orders of boss Johnny Lovo, which enables the boss to take control of the speakeasies and bars of Chicago’s South Side. Johnny promotes Camonte to his key lieutenant but warns him to avoid the Irish gangs on the North Side.
Tony ignores that and begins taking over, drawing the attention of rival gangs and the police. Johnny realizes that Tony is out of control and begins making moves against him, all while Tony goes after Johnny’s girl Poppy. He woos her with his extravagant apartment, including a view of a neon sign that proclaims, “The World Is Yours.”
Meanwhile, Tony goes to war with the Irish gangs, sending the coin flipping hitman Guino Rinaldo (George Raft, the gangster’s gangster) to wipe out the Irish leader in his florist shop headquarters. Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff!) takes over the Irish mob and comes after Tony’s men with Thompson submachine guns, but Tony even dresses up like a cop to wipe out his rivals, finally killing Gaffney in a bowling alley.
As the South Side gang celebrates, Tony dances with Poppy right in front of Johnny. That leads to an order of assassination to made against Johnny’s former friend and protege. Too bad for Johnny, who turns the tables. Once he kills Johnny, he’s the boss of all bosses, but the police start closing in. He’s also lost his mind, as he kills his sister once she secretly marries Guino, his best friend and most loyal soldier.
His sister calls the police on him, but in the end, she stays behind and defends him to the death. As tear gas fills his apartment, he rushes to the room, killed to the sounds of the cheering under that big neon sign. The world is, indeed, yours.
Scarface is a pre-Code movie, but was still screened for the California Crime Commission and police officials. None of them found it to be a dangerous influence, but the Hays Office insisted on changes. Hughes believed they had a vendetta against the film, which would go on to be one of the most censored movies in Hollywood.
That’s because the Hays Office wanted to avoid the sympathetic portrayal of crime. So criminals always had to be punished or shown the error of their ways. The strange thing is that the Office didn’t have the authority to actually censor films until 1934, but they’d often tried to delay films, which was damaging to the bottom line.
Maybe that vendetta is because the Office wanted changes to the script before the movie was even shot, but Hughes exclaimed, “Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible.”
After the censorship battles, the film released a year late and was behind similar films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Censorship boards in New York, Ohio, Virginia, Kansas, Detroit, Seattle, Maryland, Portland and Chicago all banned this movie until the Hays Office assured them that Hughes had made changes to the film. No completely uncensored version of Scarface is known to exist.
That said, the film was well-received, particularly by its inspiration, according to George Raft. However, it provoked outrage among Italian citizens and organizations.
Tony believes in that neon sign he can see outside his window. Yes, the world can be yours for some people, but that ascent — given his mania — is near impossible. His rise will come with an even bigger fall.