SCARFACE: The Effects of its Censorship

Introduction

Scarface is a gangster film based on the life of Al Capone, a notorious gangster in Chicago during the prohibition era.[1] United Artists followed the public’s love for gangster films and produced one of the “most iconic gangster films ever made.”[2] The film was produced in the Pre-Code Era of Hollywood, an era where the Production Code and censorship were beginning to be established but before the code was completely enforced. Scarface had to undergo the compulsory submissions and discussions with the Hay’s Office Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in order to be allowed for theatrical release. Getting the SRC to okay the film was difficult, and then getting state censor boards to agree to present the film in theaters also proved challenging. There was much backlash against the release of Scarface by censor boards which inadvertently led to the public’s demand to see it and overall massive popularity of the film.

In this essay I will first be discussing the history of the Production Code and how that and  censorship boards affected Scarface through the examination of Production Code Administration (PCA) files. I will be using primary sources, such as fan magazines from the early 1930s, to show the enthusiastic reaction the public had to the film as well as their dissent, lead by the producer of the film, Howard Hughes, to the major censorship and restriction of Scarface.

The History of Censorship

In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that movies are not a form of art but a form of entertainment.[3] Consequently, films were not protected by the first amendment. Films were then subjected to a form of censorship. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), headed by Will Hays, was tasked with monitoring censorship and anti-trust legislation.[4] The SRC came out with a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” as a guide to producers to help them avoid objections by state censor boards. It warns producers of sex, violence, prostitution, childbirth, and much more. According to Bordwell, “the Production Code itself states ‘no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.’”[5] With this statement of restriction being ambiguous in what particularly would or would not lower the moral standards of the public, it thus created a loophole for producers. They would get away with putting in certain aspects of the film such as violence and sex through the “principle of deniability.”[6] Meaning that if the audience does not directly see the act, it could be denied that something actually happened. Filmmakers would resort to implications in order to get their meaning across. For instance, in the opening scene of Scarface there is an insinuation of a murder through audio averment and the notorious technique of showing only the shadow of the perpetrator. There is no direct visuals of the murder being shown on screen; only cues that make it obvious for the audience but allow it to pass through the censorships.

The Production Code of 1930, released by the SRC, encouraged studios to submit film scripts and rough cuts to be reviewed before the release of the film. In 1931 it became obligatory for studios to submit to the them.[7] The Production Code Administration (PCA) files is the communication between studios and the SRC. It is made up of letters, memos, telegrams, and newspaper clippings that directly discuss the censorship issue. Jason Joy and James Wingate head the SRC and would be the ones to review the submitted products and decide whether it was suitable for viewers.[8] If not, they would make suggestions on what to cut or to change. In terms of the film Scarface, there were many suggestions from the SRC which lead to much back and forth between the SRC and producers of the film.

The Censoring of Scarface

The censorship board seemed to have a specific vendetta against Scarface being released. The reshoots, cuts, and edits demanded by the censors slowed production down dramatically and changed the film significantly. According to Chris Yogurst, “Scarface arguably saw more censor intervention than any other film.”[9] Getting to the point of Scarface being released at all took a lot of negotiation. Before a script was even written, the idea of the film that Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks had was considered “startling” with Jason Joy already predicting the censorship difficulties that lay ahead.[10] One of the biggest concerns that the censorship board had in the early process of making the film was that it was to be based off of the true story of Al Capone. Already moral standards could be questioned with creating a film based off of a major crime boss. It was a great fear that representing him on the big screen would cause him to be seen with “more importance as a successful individual.”[11] Capone took great interest in the film in its release and wanted the film to play in Chicago, although the Chicago censor boards was one of the toughest for the film to overcome.

There was a newspaper article that presented direct concerns about the film straight to the public before the writers even knew the name of it. Eileen Percy wrote the article in early February of 1931 about the potential Scarface film when it was still just an idea in the director’s head. The point of her article was to express concerns on the effects of what these types of films had on the “untutored mind.”[12] She was worried about how audiences would be rooting for the protagonist despite the clear knowledge of them being bad. She hoped censor boards would take action in a film that could lower the moral standards of the public. Regardless of the concerns she had about these types of films, Percy recognized the entertainment value of these gangster films and the immense popularity they would have among audiences.[13] Percy predicted the censorship but she also saw the potential drive the public would have to see this kind of film.

After the script was written, Howard Hawks had to rewrite it because of the numerous suggestions the censor board gave him. Not only were there multiple rewrites of the film but there were scenes that needed to be reshot and entirety of scenes cut once production began. In the end, there ended up being three different versions of the film: Version A, Version B, and Version C. The producers and SRC would even try to pair different versions with different endings to find what would be the most suitable for viewers. Version C ended up being the final version that was released. Even with all of the changes and edits to the film, many states still refused to release it. The producers would travel from state to state in an attempt to convince the censor boards to show their film in theaters. Some were successful while others could not be convinced. Maryland originally was going to release the film but retracted that initial decision on April 4, 1932.[14] Out of all of the states, the New York censor board was the toughest to convince and continued to refuse the release of the film in the state. However, certain cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta are not affected by additional censor boards so Hughes had little to no issue in playing Scarface in those cities. A telegram from Jason Joy said, “this version will open on March thirty first in New Orleans and will follow the chevalier picture in Los Angeles either April fourteenth or twenty first.”[15] The first release of the film in New Orleans and had excellent turnouts resulting in a house record at its premiere. March 31, 1932 became the official release date of the film despite it not reaching all theaters nationwide for another few years.

The SRC and the censor boards were concerned about Scarface because they thought it was romanticizing the gangster lifestyle. With the film being about a real crime boss, Al Capone, censors did not want the public to believe that gangsters are morally withstanding in any way. Yogurst states how “there was growing concern over the iconography of the gangster in America culture, and the focus of that hostility was on Al Capone, which certainly did not help the production of Scarface.[16] It affected the ending of the film, forcing producers to make the protagonist reap the consequences of what he has done. The protagonist killed many people and to let him walk away would suggest that going down the path of being a gangster would be a good one and that audience members would want to follow in that path.

The Public’s Reaction

While the censor boards tried to protect the public from a film like Scarface through a multitude of rewrites, reshoots, cuts, and the restriction of the film entirely in certain states and cities only fueled the public’s desire to see the film. For two months the film was only released in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta and was breaking attendance records where it was being shown.[17] There was praise from both critics and the ordinary public. Critics raved about it being one of the best films of the time. The larger public’s demand to see Scarface was filled in fan magazines which came hand in hand with how good the film was. In an article that praises the best films of the month in the fan magazine, Photoplay, gave a critics review of the film, “Howard Hughes has issued an open challenge to every man and woman in America. And made a picture that will linger with us for many days to come.”[18]

Scarface did not become so famous among audiences just because it was good or because the gangster film was popular among the public. It was because of censors refusing to show the film. The public and critics were fully aware of the cause in popularity at the time as well.  In the June issue of Photoplay in 1932 an article begins with “Howard Hughes’ spectacular gangster picture, which censors in New York made famous by not okaying it.”[19] The states and cities of New York, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Chicago did not accept Scarface into their theaters which drew mass attention to the film. The struggle of Scarface versus the censor boards was all the promotion the film needed. The film was consistently mentioned in every issue of every magazine during its release giving audiences constant updates on the battle between the film and the censors. Movie Classic applauded Hughes and scorned the New York censor board by saying, “it took courage for Howard Hughes to produce this picture—but the New York censors had even more nerve to forbid New York movie-goers from seeing it.”[20]

Howard Hughes would not stand for censors boards keeping the film from being shown. The press would contend that the film is “important and socially relevant.”[21] Hughes indicated that Scarface is an “honest and powerful indictment of gang-rule in America” with “outstanding entertainment qualities.”[22] He went so far as to threaten the states that did not yet release the film with lawsuits.[23]  He called on the public to support him and in the month of May there was a whole article dedicated as a call to action for the public to go see the film. In the fan magazine Movie Classic, the article states, “it is the true, inside story of the greatest expose of gangdom ever attempted in the movies and the greatest effort ever made to keep a picture from the public.”[24] Hughes led an insurgency against the censor boards which the public immediately jumped on board with. It garnered major publicity for the film as well as helped Hughes get it released.

Slowly, Hughes got his way with the censor boards. On May 23, 1932 Scarface won against the New York censor boards.[25] The public was ecstatic and critics raved. Audiences were finally getting what they demanded. Variety published a glowing review of the film quoting, “regardless of the moral issues, Scarface is entertainment on an important scale…to keep people away from the theatre it plays will be about the same as keeping ‘em out of speakeasies.”[26] In light of the New York censor boards caving, the others that still refused to play the film quickly followed suit and accepted the film into their theaters. By July 15, 1932, Scarface managed to break through all censor boards with the exception of Kansas and Chicago.[27]

Conclusion

The mass popularity of Scarface came from the censor boards not okaying the film and being especially more strict with it. Scarface paved the way for gangster films which rose exponentially in popularity during the early 1930s. Although even with the record breaking attendance in multiple states, with the abundant amount of reshoots and overall large cost of production, the film was much closer to breaking even in terms of how much the film cost and how much it earned.[28] Scarface went down in history as a classic film even getting a remake in 1983 once censorship changed to the MPAA rating system 15 years prior. Today with the MPAA rating system, filmmakers have the ability to make the films they want with only the age restrictions.

Without the censorship struggles, Scarface would not be nearly as popular as it is now. It became a movie that everyone wanted to see because not everyone was able to see it. Certain audiences would hear about how good it was, the drama of Hughes versus the censor boards, but could not see what the dispute was over themselves. The censor boards are what created the film people see today. Scarface became a classic and popular film through coming out on top in its struggle to be shown.

Notes

[1] Scarface, (dir. Howard Hawks, prod. Howard Hughes, 1932).

[2] Chris Yogurst, “Hughes, Hawks, and Hays: The Monumental Censorship Battle Over Scarface,” The Journal of American Culture, (Wiley Periodicals, Inc., June 20, 2017).

[3] Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and The Hays Office,” in Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993): 42.

[4] Maltby, “The Production Code and The Hays Office,” 42.

[5] Maltby, 40.

[6] Maltby, 40.

[7] Maltby, 52.

[8] Maltby, 40.

[9] Chris Yogurst, “Hughes, Hawks, and Hays: The Monumental Censorship Battle Over Scarface,” The Journal of American Culture, (Wiley Periodicals, Inc., June 20, 2017).

[10] Scarface, “Excerpt of Joy’s Report March 7th,” (Hollywood and the Production Code Part I, March 7, 1931): 5.

[11] Scarface, “My Dear Mr. Hughes,” Letter, (Hollywood and the Production Code Part I, May 1, 1931): 7.

[12] Scarface, “Another Gangster Picture in the Making; Gloria Swanson May Appear on Stage,” Newspaper Article by Eileen Percy, (Hollywood and the Production Code Part I, 1931): 3.

[13] Scarface, “Another Gangster Picture in the Making; Gloria Swanson May Appear on Stage,” Newspaper Article by Eileen Percy, (Hollywood and the Production Code Part I, 1931): 3.

[14] Scarface, “W.H.H.,” (Hollywood and the Production Code Part IV, April 4, 1932): 8.

[15] Scarface, “Mr. Maurice Mckenzie,” Telegram from Jason Joy, (Hollywood and the Production Code Part IV, March 22, 1932): 5.

[16] Yogurst, “Hughes, Hawks, and Hays: The Monumental Censorship Battle Over Scarface.

[17] Scarface, “Hollywood—Howard Hughes,” (Hollywood and the Production Code Part IV, 1932): 15.

[18] “The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, (May 1932): 42.

[19] Ruth Biery, “We Present Two Splendid New Screen Personalities,” Photoplay, (1932): 66.

[20] Larry Reid, “Talking in the Talkies: Larry Reid’s Slant on the Latest Films,” Movie Classic, (June 1932): 10.

[21] Yogurst, “Hughes, Hawks, and Hays: The Monumental Censorship Battle Over Scarface,” 140.

[22] Scarface. “Hollywood—Howard Hughes” 1932, Scarface (1932), PCA Code Review File Part IV. 15.

[23] Yogurst, 140.

[24] Robert Donaldson, “Shall the Movies Take Orders from the Underworld?,” Movie Classic, (May, 1932): 42.

[25] Yogurst, 140.

[26] “Film Reviews: Scarface,” Variety, (May 24, 1932): 29.

[27] Yogurst, “Hughes, Hawks, and Hays: The Monumental Censorship Battle Over Scarface,” 141.

[28] Yogurst, 141.