SCARFACE and the Italian

In the United States during the early 1930s, Prohibition became a gateway for criminal activity that led to a fight for control over the different aspects of illegal goods and services. This new era of criminal underworld, brimming with riches ripe for the taking, attracted the likes of those such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Frank Costello. America became fascinated with these gangsters and their illegal organizations, in part due to the economic status of the early 1930s, with the gangster representing a challenge to social institutions and the instability of the government and economy. Unlike the usual criminal, the gangster was smart and organized, an example of success and wealth, sought out public and media attention, and evolved into the embodiment of a Great Depression anti-hero.[1] Even though the Great Depression gravely impacted the United States’ economy and most industries, Hollywood managed to stay afloat through various marketing strategies and by providing a sought-after diversion.[2] To increase movie attendance, Hollywood quickly capitalized on America’s recent era of captivation with gangsters. Being the pre-code era, the lack of censorship guidelines allowed for the creation of three astounding gangster films during the Great Depression, The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932).

At the same time, the United States’ had been receiving an influx of European immigrants since the turn of the century. Not coincidentally, these gangster movies often featured the main gangster character as an immigrant with a particular emphasis on them being of Italian descent. Out of the three popular gangster films of the pre-code era, Scarface and its depiction of gangsters and the Italian ethnicity will be scrutinized. Scarface played a key role in the negative portrayal of Italians, contributing to the perception that the majority of Italian-Americans are in the mob or partake in criminal activity. In order to support this claim, archives, production code administration (PCA) files, trade publications, and primary and secondary sources will be utilized.

Before Scarface’s initial release, the film was already under heavy inspection due to concern with multiple factors including violence and that violence in relation to the representation of the Italian main characters. The PCA files demonstrate this since they contain documents and letters featuring various conversations about the film’s disrespectful treatment and continuation of negative media portrayal of Italians. The use of Italian ethnicity is blatant in its presence in Scarface with the characters speaking in accents, the characters’ names, the foods consumed, and Tony’s mother is an old Italian woman stereotype.[3] With how obvious the movie is focused on Italian ethnicity in relation to the mob and gangsters, after it had screened in certain places a the Italian-American population had sent a, “tremendous volume of letters” regarding their objections to the film’s handling of their race.[4]

Not only were Italian-American citizens offended, but the way Scarface had vilified Italians had also impacted the foreign market audience of the actual citizens of Italy, including the Royal Italian Ambassador. Unfortunately, Scarface was not the first movie Italy had reached out about, the ambassador had previously expressed concerns with how Hollywood treated Italians in their constant misrepresentation of the race as gangsters. However, for the Royal Italian Ambassador Scarface had prompted numerous letters and newspaper clippings being sent to him with citizens outraged at the audacity of Hollywood making another Italian-related mob-specific crime movie.[5] Those involved in the production of Scarface took into account the ambassador’s concerns with only their own agenda in mind, discussing that they could face the issue of having the movie barred from Italy and have other foreign market screenings protested. Disregarding the issue of the overall negative impact the film could have for Italian-Americans and Italians, those involved with production were more focused on the quieting down of Italian objections and had no intention of “curing that evil,” in the picture.[6] Not only were Italian-American citizens writing letters but a branch of an Italian culture society in Massachusetts, named, Order of Sons of Italy in America, protested and contacted the governor calling for a state ban of the film. Not taking the consequences of the film’s negative portrayal of Italians seriously, United Artists stated they would not make any changes unless forced to do so.[7]

For a high-grossing gangster film, Scarface perpetuated the misrepresentation of Italians by setting an example of Italian-Americans as unlawful citizens aiding the criminal underworld, leading to fellow Americans to take notice. During this time period, immigrants in general were treated poorly, segregated for culture “abnormalities,” and often resided in cultural ghettos. Similar to how those of Mexican ethnicity are generalized as criminals in today’s society, back then, “Americans debated whether all Italian-Americans were somehow all disposed to criminality by their genetic endowment or cultural inheritance.”[8] This thought process was harmful for a number of reasons including the continuation of the stereotyping, racism, and overall image of an entire race. Even though crime within certain ethnicities was present, the 1930s gangster films “neglect the deeper causes—historical, cultural, and sociological—of ethnic crime; the gangster’s behavior is a given.”[9] Scarface became an enabler in this systematic oppression by providing a narrative where because those who challenged American ideals were of Italian descent, “non-ethnic Americans were afforded the opportunity to blame the failure of American myths during the Great Depression on the individual ethnic characters and their respective ethnic groups rather than on the failure of the myths themselves.”[10] In a time when ethnic tensions were high with immigration and the Great Depression, Scarface added more fuel to the fire by associating Italians with the mob and gangsters. The film’s depiction perpetuates Italian stereotypes, and when the public’s perception of a race is taken into account, most rely on stereotypes to form a belief. These stereotype-based beliefs society forms play a crucial role in impacting policy attitudes on issues such as welfare, drive harsher punishments for those of a particular ethnicity, and continue to be portrayed in the media as a main source of representation.[11]

The main character of Scarface, the Italian Tony Camonte, is classified as a gangster with no moral code and an affinity for illegal activity, who throughout the film exhibits extreme violence the audience comes to associate with those of Italian descent. Tony Camonte “provided a visual and aural outlet for ethnic audience frustrations with American societal mores,” while also happening to be Italian, thus providing the audience with a correlation.[12] Paul Muni’s exaggerated performance of slowed speech, droopy arms, and poor posture, also contributed to another Italian stereotype seen on film, that of the buffoon. Arguably one of the most violent films of the 1930s and with Italians at the forefront of this violence, one could see how an audience can be overwhelmed by what they see rather than the actual facts. Those behind the production of the film knew this, and were sure not to associate gangsters with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants also known as WASPs.[13] Instead of the WASPs, Italians were subject to unfounded ethnic discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and general anti-Italian sentiment.[14] With a name like, Scarface: Shame of the Nation, this gave the implication that Italian immigrants were the “shame of the nation” and the reason behind America’s problems rather than a WASP.

Not only did Scarface strengthen the dehumanization of Italians and Italian-Americans in the 1930s but it also prompted decades of further media portrayal of gangsters as Italians. Scarface’s impact during its debut and theater run allowed for the assimilation of the Italian gangster into American culture. Audience’s continued fascination with gangsters in conjunction with their inability to sympathize with the vilification of Italians led to an increase of gangster related content in popular culture and media. With a movie as dominant in the theaters and culture as Scarface, to non-Italian Americans, the image of Italians as immoral and vicious criminals was ingrained in American culture for generations to come.[15] In 2009, the Italic Institute of America released a report with data from FBI statistics that stated even though only 0.00782% of Italian-Americans possessed any criminal associations, 74% of the American public believed Italian-Americans had ties to the mob.[16] By observing America’s perception of the gangster today, it demonstrates the lasting impact Scarface as one of the first violent Italian gangster films had on American culture. Not only has Scarface’s depiction of gangsters fueled a harmful belief within the American population but for Italians, especially Italian-Americans, who live in the country with this belief system, the effects are far more devastating. Beginning with Scarface and Little Caesar, a history of Italians featured as mainly gangsters in their media representation has given Italian-Americans a psychological/emotional association that clings to their American made image.[17] It is doubtful that the producers of Scarface had any idea how much of an impression their characters and choice of ethnicity for them would have in generations to come, but they definitely were aware at least of the immediate consequences.

When creating content for the masses, such as theatrical films or television shows, it is important to remember that viewers are easily influenced by what they see. Unlike other mediums such as radio, visuals are a powerful tool that play off of the idea of seeing is believing; films can reinforce and sometimes even create minority prejudices as in the case of Scarface. This phenomenon of film and television’s impact on one’s belief system can be attributed to the media theory of cultivation. Cultivation theory explores the relationship between television/film viewership and the perception of reality over a long-term period. The theory discovered that those who heavily consume media are more likely to, “perceive the world in ways that more closely mirror reality as presented on television than more objective measures of social reality.”[18] Cultivation theory is crucial in explaining the impact of Scarface and supports the aforementioned data from the FBI: that people are very impressionable, and the more depictions of Italians as gangsters, the more that association is cemented in their minds.

As one of the first films linking the gangster image with Italian ethnicity, Scarface, “immortalized a multitude of characters with Italian surnames,” setting an example for future films and media representation.[19] After Scarface, countless gangster films/television shows were released including but not limited to The Godfather, The Sopranos, Scarface (1983), and Goodfellas, that depicted Italians as gangsters in a trying move made to imitate the success that Scarface basked in.

[1] R. W. Rieber & R. J. Kelly, Film, Television and the Psychology of the Social Dream (New York: Springer, 2014), 118.

[2] Carlos Stevens, “The Screwball and Its Audience,” University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug03/comedy/historicalcontext.html.

[3] Scarface, Production Code Association, file 3.

[4] F.L. Herron, Scarface, Production Code Association, file 4, June 2, 1932.

[5] Giacomo de Martino, Production Code Association, file 4, June 3, 1932.

[6] Jason S. Joy, Production Code Association, file 4, June 14, 1932.

[7] Quigley Publishing Co., Motion Picture Herald (Quigley Publishing Co., 1932), 1282.

[8] Christopher Woolf, “A Brief History of America’s Hostility to a Previous Generation of Mediterreanen  Migrants – Italians,” PRI, November 26, 2015, https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-11-26/brief-history-america-s-hostility-previous-generation-mediterranean-migrants.

[9] Jonathan J. Cavallero & George Plasketes, “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 32, no. 2 (2004): 60.

[10] Jonathan J. Cavallero & George Plasketes, “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 32, no. 2 (2004): 53.

[11] Jon Hurwitz & Mark Peffley, “Public Perceptions of Race and Crime: The Role of Racial Stereotypes,” American Journal of Political Science 41, no. 2 (1997): 1

[12] Bryan Mead, “Rejecting the Ethnic Community in Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface,” Journal of Religion and Film 20, no. 2 (2016): 1

[13] Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 477.

[14] William King, “Of Gangsters and Bakers: Cake Boss, Stereotypes, and the Italian American Identity,” George Washington University, 2013, https://library.gwu.edu/sites/default/files/eckles/Of%20Gangsters%
20and%20Bakers%20%20Cake%20Boss%2C%
20Stereotypes%2C%20and%20the%
20Italian%20American%20Identity.pdf.

[15] Justin V. Lamberti, “Fagidaboudit: The American Dream and Italian-American Gangster Movies,” Auburn University, 2005, https://etd.auburn.edu/bitstream/handle/10415/305/LAMBERTI_JUSTIN_26.pdf?sequence=1.

[16] Megan Gambino, “What is The Godfather Effect?” Smithsonian (Online), 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-is-the-godfather-effect-83473971/.

[17] R. W. Rieber & R. J. Kelly, Film, Television and the Psychology of the Social Dream (New York: Springer, 2014), 118.

[18] Robin L. Nabi & John L. Sullivan, “Does Television Viewing Relate to Engagement in Protective Action Against Crime?” Communication Research, 28, no. 6 (2001): 802

[19] Charles J. Ciuffo, “The Italian-American Identity Crisis,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012.