Scarface and the Gangster Films’ Scarcity of Shame at the Pre-Code Era
Scarface and the Gangster
Films’ Scarcity of Shame
at the Pre-Code Era
by Ioannis Tsirkas University of Sussex
What this Presentation is about?
We will discuss the gangster film Scarface (d.
Howard Hawks, USA, 1932) exploring the
forming relationships between the Pre-Code
Era and its context.
How we will approach our research
First of all, I will introduce you to the concept of the
Pre-Code era and to the film’s plot and general context.
Secondly, through an analysis of two illustrative articles
of the Movie Classic and The New Movie Magazine, I
will explore some contexts of the censorship’s
supervision to the film and in general.
Lastly, I will attempt a comparison between the film and
The Public Enemy (d. William Wellman, USA, 1931) and
based on the existing academic research will draw some
general conclusions on the subject.
 Donaldson, Robert (1932) 'Shall the Movies Take Orders from the
Underworld', Movie Classic, 2(3), pp. 42, 43, 62, 67. Media History Digital
Library [Online]. Available at: http://mediahistoryproject.org (Accessed: 9 October 2013).
 Irwin, Will (1932) 'WILL HAYS Tells of The Great Upheaval', The New
Movie Magazine, VI(6), pp. 42, 43, 99-102. Media History Digital Library
[Online]. Available at: http://mediahistoryproject.org (Accessed: 9 October 2013).
Deconstructing the Myth
In 1909 the American National Board of Censorship (NBC) was
created (Maltby 1996, p.235).
In 1922 ‘the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America
(MPPDA) [...] was established and Will H. Hays hired as its president.
The MPPDA would represent the industry in a variety of arenas,
including political lobbying and international trade negotiations, but its
immediate objective was to keep the reformers in check and [...] to
forestall any movement toward government censorship’ (Jewel 2007,
‘In 1927, the Association published a code to govern production,
administered by its Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in Hollywood’,
but ‘until 1930 the SRC’s function was only advisory’ (Maltby 1996,
‘In September 1929 he initiated the revision of the 1927 code, and a
committee of producers presented a draft code in November’ (Maltby
‘The “Code to Govern the Making of Talking,
Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures”
adopted by the Board of Directors of the
Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of
America, Inc. (MPPDA) in march 1930
contained a set of “General Principles” and a list
of “Particular Applications”’ (Maltby 2003).
According to the “General Principles” of the
code ‘the sympathy of the audience shall never
be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil
or sin’ and ‘[l]aw, natural or human, shall not be
ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its
violation’ (Maltby 1996, p.242).
‘In September 1931 Code procedures were
considerably tightened. […] The film most immediately
affected was Howard’s Hughes’s SCARFACE, which
was reconstructed on four occasions before it passed
both the MPPDA and New York’s censorship board in
May 1932’ (Maltby 1995, p.52).
‘The period from 1930 until mid-1934 is often referred
to as the “Pre-Code” era [...]’ and ‘[...] is recalled more
for its flagrant disavowal of both the spirit and letter
of the Production Code than any significant
infringement on the creative efforts of Hollywood
moviemakers’ (Jewel 2007, p.121).
‘There was no fundamental shift of Code policy in July
1934’ and the ‘change was gradual rather than
cataclysmic’ (Maltby 2003).
According to Richard D. Jewel (2007, p.127),
before Hay’s involvement, some SRC-suggested
cuts had been made in order to ‘reduce the
glorification’ of the main gangster hero and make
his ‘incestuous relationship’ less evident. Even a
new ending, with an explicitly moral meaning, had
been shot according to the requirements of the
New York territory’s censors. However, Hays
wanted more cuts and changes. After difficult
negotiations, Hays and the producer Howard
Hughes reached an agreement.
Heys ‘involved himself in specific censorship
cases reluctantly when there seem little alternative’
(Jewel 2007, p.115).
The classic gangster film Scarface
‘The crime film had been the subject of the municipal censorship as early as 1907
[...]’ (Maltby 1996, p.242).
‘Contrary to the mythology of a “pre-Code” cinema, the “classic gangster film” was
in fact the product of only one production season, 1930-1931, and consisted a cycle
of fewer than 30 pictures’ (Maltby 2003b).
Owing partly to Scarface ‘[i]n September 1931 Code procedures were considerably
tightened, submission of scripts was made compulsory, and further production of
gangster films was prohibited’ (Maltby 1996, p.242).
Richard D. Jewel (2007, p.127) says about gangster films like Little Caesar (d. Mervyn
LeRoy, USA, 1930) and The Public Enemy (d. William Wellman, USA, 1931) that ‘[t]o
many concerned viewers, these films seemed flagrantly to violate Code Prohibitions
against movies that “teach methods of crime”, “inspire potential criminals with a
desire for imitation” and “make criminals seem heroic and justified”’.
Scarface (d. Howard Hawks, USA, 1932), along with the pre-mentioned films, consist
the classic cycle of gangster films of the pre-code era.
◦ ‘[…] the talkies came tooting and bellowing over
the horizon. They added a new dimension to the
motion picture, and through a flock of new
troubles to Hays and his organization’ (Irwin 1932,
‘The technological complexities of sound
production necessitated a more exact
arrangement. Unlike silent film, talkies could
not be altered by local censors, regional
distributors, or individual exhibitors without
destroying synchronization’ (Maltby 1996,
◦ ‘When the word went out that “Scarface” was to be stopped,
gangdom immediately decided its strongest weapon wasCENSORSHIP. In every state where it exists, censorship is a
political matter. Censors are politicians, apointed by
politicians, doing the bidding of politicians. And it has been
proved-not only in New York, but in other cities-that
gangdom can often get to politicians’ (Donaldson 1932,
◦ ‘The word was mysteriously passed along to United Artists,
which was to release the picture, and to the office of Will H.
Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors
of America, Inc., that “Scarface” must not be shown in its
original form. The career of Al Capone was too touchy a
matter to tamper with’ (p.62).
Tony Camonte was a ‘barely disguised version of
Capone’ (Vasey 2012, p.187).
‘Mr. Hays insisted that various shooting scenes should
be eliminated from the picture, and wanted a new
foreword, advocating a law against carrying guns […]’
(Donaldson 1932, p.62).
The records of the Production Code
Administration (PCA) Archive reveal that the precode period ‘saw by far the most interesting
negotiations between the studios and the Code
administrators over the nature of movie content,
as the Code was implemented with efficiency and
strictness after 1930’. Also, ‘[t]hroughout the
period, movie content was changed – sometimes
fundamentally – to conform to the Code’s
evolving case law’ (Maltby 2003).
◦ ‘He announced to the world that, despite all gangland
opposition, he was going to
show the picture
everywhere in the United States where gangsters and
corrupt political forces didn’t rule’ (Donaldson 1932,
‘Hughes was a man of strong opinions and with
very little experience in conforming to the
requirements of the “organized industry” as
represented by the Studio Relations Committee’
(Vasey 2012, p.187).
‘Scarface was held up in production for nearly two
years while Caddo and the Studio Relations
Committee struggled to reach compromise over
the nature of the script’ (Vasey 2012, p.187).
What's the Matter with Scarface?
‘[…] extraordinary fast-paced, its soundtrack
laden with shots, explosions, screams, sirens,
whistles, and machine-gun fire’ (Vasey 2012,
Great performances of the leading actors: James Cagney and Paul Muni as special
figures. The ‘average look’ (Vasey 2012, p.182) of Cagney and the scar at Muni’s face.
Sympathetic characters in many ways. The funny Tommy Powers and the fearless
According to Tino Balio (1995, p.283), Cesare “Rico” Bandelo and Tony Camonte
were suggested by Al Capone and Tom Powers by Earl “Hymie” Weiss.
In addition, ‘[t]he milieu of the gangster was the city’ and his clothes were reflecting
his progressing success (Balio 1995, p.283).
The main heroes cannot fit into the heterosexual economy (Munby 1999, p.56).
‘[T]he immigrant backgrounds of the[ir] major characters’ (Jowett 1979, p.67).
‘[R]ising form humble origins to attain “The American Dream” […]’ (p.67).
‘[T]heir downfall is at the hands of their peers rather than the police’ (Roddick 1983,
Public Enemy was based on a novel with the title Blood and Beer. As the Hays Office
did not like the word “blood”, the film’s title, like in the case of Scarface, was altered
(Jowett 1979, p.59).
The caption at the beginning of the Public Enemy
The main hero of the Public Enemy does not grow up in the
city. In general, ‘[...] the gangster film’ is linked ‘with the
problem of violent crime among boys in the urban
elements […]’ (Jacobs 1991, p.5).
According to Fran Mason (2002, p.20), ‘The Public Enemy
therefore focuses on the everyday life of the enforcer
rather than the rise to the top as in […] Scarface’. Richard
Maltby (2003b; 2005, p.52) are mentioning this too.
‘The pervasiveness of excess in society is implied by the
family sub-plot in which Tony’s aberrance is highlighted by
his insectuous desires for Cesca. The paradox of this
relationship is that Tony also represents tradition in his
disciplining of Cesca and his refusal to allow her the same
pleasures of modern life that he experiences’ (Mason 2002,
Through ‘devising systems and codes of
representation […] “innocence” was inscribed
into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were
able to “read into” movies whatever meanings
they pleased to find’. The producers ‘could use
the Production Code to deny that they had put
them there (Maltby 1996, p.242).
Gangster Fantasy: Enemies and Heroes
‘Where the musical employed sound to invoke social harmony through the shared participation in song
and dance, the gangster movies used it as an assault on the audience, invoking dissonance and social
chaos’ (Vasey 2012, p.181).
‘The gangster picture was the most popular social problem picture of the early thirties. It is easy to see
why: first, the cult of the gangster had made headlines for a decade, ever since the start of Prohibition;
second, gangster pictures where relatively cheap to produce and easy to mount; and third, the gangster
picture could exploit the full possibilities of sound’ (Balio 1995, p.283).
‘[…] what the Hays Office were concerned about was the gangster film’s representational flexibility in
its consideration of modernity. The gangster film dealt with the excess that modern culture made
possible, particularly in the realist mode of the early cycle which presented a problematic
representation of the gangster world’ (Mason 2002, p.29).
Esther Sonnet (2001, p.93) supports that the ideology of the early 1930s film can be epitomized as
‘salutary warning to the lower orders to remain in their place within capitalist hierarchies or
dangerous/pleasurable fantasies of mobility that offer the sight of wealth acquisition and luxury
consumption without the real cost of the exploited labor’.
According to Gregory D. Black (1989, p.175) the main heroes of the gangster films of the classic circle
‘flaunted the traditions of the hard work, sacrifice, and respect for institutions of authority’.
Crime as a lifestyle (Bergman 1971, p.12).
Jonathan Munby (1999, p.54) goes even further supporting that ‘Tommy becomes, like Tony Camonte
(Scarface), a problem for the impetus of “classical” narrative economy’.
‘The movies [of the early 1930s], of course, now exist independently of that history, and can be
enjoyed and examined without reference to it. To reduce the history of their circulation to a
simplistic melodrama of subversion and repression, however, is to perpetuate the
misunderstanding of American cinema history as nothing more than a form of entertainment’
(Multby 2012, p.247).
‘The Production Code was a consequence of commercialism, and of the particular
understanding of the lack of aesthetic or ideological radicalism in Hollywood, no the
underlying cause’ (Maltby 2003).
The variation of the established patterns of audience pleasure and the greater experimentation
in the early 1930s ‘occurred within strict limits and existed, in large part, to test, negotiate and
reconfigure the boundaries of Hollywood’s convections (Maltby 2003).
‘The Production Code was a sign of Classical Hollywood’s cultural centrality, and its history is a
history of the attempts by cultural elites to exercise a controlling surveillance over the mass
culture of industrial capitalism’ (Maltby 2003).
Ruth A. Inglis (1947, p.377) and Geoffrey Shurlock (1947, p.142) had characterized the Code as
a ‘moralistic document’.
Balio, Tino (1995) ‘Production Trends’ in Tino Balio (ed.) Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business
Enterprise, 1930-1939. Oxford: Maxwell Maximilian International, pp. 179-312.
Bergman, Andrew (1971) We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: Harper
Black, Gregory D. (2013) ‘Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the
Hollywood Film Industry, 1930-1940’, Film History, 3(3), pp. 167-189, JSTOR [Online]. Available at:
www.jstor.org/stable/3814976 (Accessed: 11 October 2013).
Donaldson, Robert (1932) 'Shall the Movies Take Orders from the Underworld', Movie Classic, 2(3),
pp. 42, 43, 62, 67. Media History Digital Library [Online]. Available at: http://mediahistoryproject.org
(Accessed: 9 October 2013).
Inglis, Ruth A (1947) ‘Self-Regulation on Operation’, in Tino Balio (ed.) The American Film Industry:
Revised Edition. London: The University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 377-400.
Irwin, Will (1932) 'WILL HAYS Tells of The Great Upheaval', The New Movie Magazine, VI(6), pp. 42,
43, 99-102. Media History Digital Library [Online]. Available at: http://mediahistoryproject.org (Accessed:
9 October 2013).
Jacobs, Lea (1991) The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. Madison: The
University of Wisconsin Press.
Jewell, Richard B. (2007) The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Jowett, Garth (1979) ‘Bullets, Beer and the Hays Office: Public Enemy (1931)’ in John E. O’Connor
and Martin A. Jackson (ed.) American History, American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image. New York:
Ungar, pp. 57-75.
Maltby, Richard (1995) ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’ in Tino Balio (ed.) Grand Design:
Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. Oxford: Maxwell Maximilian International, pp. 179-312.
——— (1996) ‘Censorship and Self-regulation’ in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.) The Oxford History of World
Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 235-248.
——— (2003a) ‘More Sinned Against than Sinning: The Fabrications of “Pre-Code Cinema”’, Senses
http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/featurearticles/pre_code_cinema (Assecced: 11 October 2013).
13. ——— (2003b) ‘The Public Enemy’, Senses of
Cinema, 29, [Online]. Available at:
http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/cteq/public_enemy (Assecced: 11 October 2013).
14. ——— (2005) ‘Why Boys Go Wrong: Gangsters, Hoodlums, and the Natural History of Delinquent
Carrers’ in Lee Grieveson, Esther Sonnet and Peter Stanfield (ed.) Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the
American Gangster Film. Oxford: Berg, pp. 41-66.
15. ——— (2012) ‘The Production Code and the Mythologies of “Pre-Code” Hollywood’ in Steve Neale
(ed.) The Classical Hollywood Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 237-248.
16. Mason, Fran (2002) American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction. Hampshire: Palgrave
17. Munby, Jonathan (1999) Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of
Evil. London: The University of Chicago Press.
18. Roddick, Nick (1983) A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s. London: British Film
19. Shurlock, Geoffret (1947) ‘The Motion Picture Production Code’, Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Sciense, 254, pp. 140-146. [Online] DOI: 10.1177/000271624725400122 (Accessed:
11 October 2012).
20. Sonnet, Esther (2012) ‘Ladies Love Brutes: Reclaiming Female Pleasures in the Lost History of
Hollywood Gangster Cycles, 1929-1931’ in Lee Grieveson, Esther Sonnet and Peter Stanfield (ed.) Mob
Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film. Oxford: Berg, pp. 93-119.
21. Vasey, Ruth (2012) ‘“Let ‘Em Have It”: The Ironic fate of the 1930s Hollywood Gangster’, in Cynthia
Lucia, Roy Grundmann and Art Simon (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Volume II:
1929 to 1945. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 171-201.
Two intellectual questions…
Might we draw an inference from the last two aforementioned statements whereunder morality constitutes
a mode of control surveillance over the industrial
‘The Production Code was a sign of Classical Hollywood’s cultural
centrality, and its history is a history of the attempts by cultural elites to
exercise a controlling surveillance over the mass culture of industrial
capitalism’ (Maltby 2003).
Ruth A. Inglis (1947, p.377) and Geoffrey Shurlock (1947, p.142) had
characterized the Code as a ‘moralistic document’.
According to Richard Maltby (Maltby 1996, p.242), ‘[…]
censorship is a practice of power, a form of
surveillance over the ideas, images, and representations
circulating in a particular culture’. Which cogitating
process is set off if we consider that the gangster films
have to do with power?