Whenever athletes, actors, or musicians are asked to name their favorite movie, Scarface is almost always a good bet to be on the list. However, nowadays people are usually referring to the 1984 Al Pacino version. It’s a good bet that many of those people don’t know that’s a remake of a 1932 movie, and pretty damn good one at that.
The basic storylines are still the same in both movies—the rise and fall of a gangster. In the 1932 version, the gangster is a thinly veiled portrait of Al Capone, so thinly veiled, in fact, that several of Capone’s henchmen were dispatched to quiz screenwriter Ben Hecht about how he was planning to depict their boss. Hecht persuaded them that the main character was just a composite of gangland figures and they had nothing to worry about; one story has Hecht hiring them as “consultants.” Supposedly Capone was annoyed about the movie when it was first released, but eventually grew to like it.
And well he should. Paul Muni gives a domineering, forceful performance as gangster Tony Camonte. He’s self-confident and ruthless—whenever you wonder how some bad guy rose to the top, be it gangster, businessperson, or dictator, the answer’s always the same: he was the one who when he made a threat, followed through without hesitation, the one who throws the first punch, the one who pulls the trigger without conscience or fear. Muni’s Camonte believes he deserves to be at the top—when he shows off his new apartment to his boss’s girlfriend, he points out the neon sign on a nearby building, advertising Thomas Cook’s tours with the slogan, “The World is Yours.” To Tony, that’s not a possibility—it’s destiny.
George Raft plays Guino, Tony’s quiet but effective sidekick (Thug rule #2: always have a willing acolyte to do the dirty work). Ann Dvorak, giving another one of her jagged nerve performances, plays Tony’s sister, of whom he is too protective and perhaps a little too fond. I love Ann Dvorak—in every movie she seems like she’s one step away from exploding. She’s like a piece of paper being dangled ever closer to a flame (she also has a couple of fantastic dresses in this movie, particularly the one she's wearing in her first scene). Boris Karloff also makes a nifty appearance as the leader of a rival gang. There are lots of car chases and gunfights which are shockingly violent and a lot more fun than they really should be (Camonte is overjoyed when he discovers machine guns).
This is a movie that’s meant—perhaps a little unwillingly—as a cautionary tale. There’s one now very funny scene where the editor of a newspaper and various town leaders get together to bemoan the rise of the gangsters and violence; they often seem to address the presumably horrified audience directly, as if warning them that they had better take care of their own community or this would happen to them (it kind of reminded me of my favorite scene in Psycho where the psychiatrist explains in haute ‘50s analysis terms what is wrong with Norman Bates. “Yes!!...and no!!”). State censorship boards were unhappy with the original ending and planned to refuse to allow the movie to be seen. Howard Hughes, the producer, had Howard Hawks, the director, shoot a new ending, in which Camonte, cornered, surrenders to the cops, is tried, and executed by hanging. That still wasn’t good enough, so Hughes washed his hands (undoubtedly several hundred times) of the whole mess by deciding to not release it in states with censorship boards. The original ending was restored, in which Camonte, cornered by the police, is about to be taken into custody, when an officer who had previously arrested him, sneers that he’ll talk and turn on the others just like every other coward. Camonte, who had plead for his life rather ingloriously compared to his typical bravado, breaks away from the cop and dies in a hail of bullets, with “The World is Yours” sign blinking above him.
(The original ending also includes a scene where Camonte and his sister seemingly confess a rather more than sibling-esque love for each other; sure, Camonte had just shot his best friend Guino for seemingly shacking up with his sister, not realizing they were married, and she had been hysterical and vengeful, but family’s family, right? Anyway, the loverlike exchange between Tony and Cesca was cut from the failed alternate ending; you’d think that alone would have been enough to get it by the censors.)
Scarface is about one third the length of the 1984 remake, with half the histrionics. It’s fast-paced, vivid, and deserving of its place as one of the greats of the 1930s.
If Scarface is ripped from the headlines, then The Roaring Twenties, 1939, is an almost nostalgic look back at the days of bootleggers and speakeasies. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn are World War I buddies who meet cute in a trench during bombing. It doesn’t take long to establish their characters: Cagney is the likable regular guy with an extra dose of charm and moxie. Bland Lynne is a law school graduate who’s on the path to a comfortable corporate life. Bogart is the kind of guy who gleefully shoots a kid German soldier that Lynne had shied away from and is reluctant to give up his gun when word of the armistice comes through. In other words, he’s bad news.
Life’s tough for Cagney back in the States. It’s not long before he falls into a job smuggling alcohol into speakeasies. He works hard, makes money, and rises to the top. His lawyer buddy helps get him out of a few scrapes and he has a regular hangout at a nightclub owned by Panama Smith, the dame who first got him into the business. Cagney falls in love with a nice, sweet girl (Priscilla Lane) and uses Panama’s nightclub to help set her up in a singing career. It’s an easy life and things are going pretty well until he runs into Bogart again. Bogart proposes they go into business together by doublecrossing Bogart’s current bootlegger boss. Bogey’s bad news. Soon they murder a night watchman during a raid on a warehouse (btw, they show up for the raid dressed to the nines in sharp pinstriped suits, pocket squares, fedoras, and spats. It’s a sharp look). Bogey informs Cagney that his girl, Lane, and lawyer buddy Lynne are in love. Everyone begins to mistrust everyone else. Bogart, sick of being second in command, triple crosses Cagney, going back to his old boss, who rubs out Cagney’s sweet, none too clever taxi driver friend.
The stock market crashes. Cagney’s forced to sell the taxi company he’d used as a cover for bootlegging to Bogart. He’s left with one cab to drive and the loyal Panama Smith as his only friend. He becomes an alcoholic but still manages to pick up fares, including the one who matters most to him, Lane, who he runs into one day when she’s leaving a store after Christmas shopping. Lane and Lynne have gotten married, moved to Queens, and have a kid. Lynne’s become a crimefighting prosecutor who’s got the goods on Bogart. When his thugs come to see Lane to tell her to tell her husband to drop the case or else, she seeks out Cagney, who’s sober enough to understand her and to make his way to Bogart’s mansion (the Depression has suited him quite nicely). Cagney begs him not to hurt Lynne and Bogart says no way. Cagney shoots Bogart, runs out to the street, followed by Bogart’s men, who shoot him. He dies in the arms of Panama on the steps of a church. When the cops ask her who he was, she says, “He was a big shot.” The world is yours, indeed.
Again, there’s a lot to like about this movie. It’s snappy and fast-paced. Cagney and Bogart are as tough as you’d like, Cagney in a fun kind of way and Bogart in a I-wouldn’t-trust-him-to-drop-something-in-the-mail kind of way. Priscilla Lane is pretty, sweet and dull, but that’s what her character’s supposed to be like (she sings nicely but as if she hasn’t heard a lick of swing or jazz in her life; no way she’d be in a nightclub if she didn’t have the chief bootlegger to set her up). Lynne is doubly smooth, but again, he’s not required to be much more than that. Gladys George as Panama Smith fits into her Texas Guinan type role well. Faux newsreel footage and the typical “years go by flipping calendar” give the proceedings a documentary feel. Even though the events described take place only twenty to ten years before the film was made, the filmmakers really seem to want to make it seem as if it all took place in a long ago distant era—almost as if no one watching could possibly have been involved.
The main characters in both Scarface and The Roaring Twenties, while attractive in their own ways, are duly punished for their sins. The message of both films is clear: Crime doesn’t pay, but it sure makes great movies.