“There are certain things that simply do not belong on the screen. The subject matter of Scarface is one of them,” The Film Daily wrote in its 1932 review of the now-legendary gangster classic. “It should never have been made.”
Audiences disagreed but Scarface producers Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks (the latter also directed) knew that they would. As if to show their distaste for the Eighteenth Amendment, movie-goers in the 1920s and early 1930s hungered – or should I say, thirsted – for the gangster movie: in 1927, when Paramount Pictures released Underworld (arguably the Granddaddy of the gangster genre) theatres had to keep the film playing 24 hours a day just to keep up with public demand.
Warner Bros. began 1931 with a bang when they released the influential gangster movie Little Caesar in January of that year and The Public Enemy in the spring. Both films made household names of their leading men Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectfully. Scarface, distributed by United Artists, is the third film to fill out the “Holy Trinity” of the great pre-Code gangster movies and, like its beer-and-blood soaked predecessors, it made a star of its male lead, Paul Muni (as the Capone-inspired Tony Camonte), and co-star George Raft. However Scarface also boasts two of the most interesting performances by women in the gangster genre: Karen Morley as tough moll Poppy and, most decidedly, Ann Dvorak as Tony’s ambitious younger sister Cesca.
Picture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with Al Capone as the protagonist and you have a pretty good idea of Scarface. Striking with its use of shadows and symbolism, Scarface is a tale of the American Dream…and in an America caught in the double fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it’s a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which can be poisonous if taken straight. Stylish and visually dazzling, Scarface is in many ways a precursor to film noir, particularly in its opening scene which depicts – largely by the use of shadows – Tony killing a rival gang boss.
Although the role of Tony is obviously based on Capone, no one in the movie actually refers to him as “Scarface”; this is due to a compromise of sorts between Hughes and the Hays Office, who wanted Hughes to change the title of the film, fearing that it glamorized Capone (…or maybe they just feared Capone). Thankfully, Hughes kept the original title intact but removed all references to the name “Scarface” in the finished film. Even so, the movie was on Capone’s radar. According to Thomas Doherty in his fascinating book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, one of Capone’s henchmen told director Howard Hawks that “the Big Fellow” wanted to look over the picture. “The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,” the unflappable Hawks replied. Screenwriter Ben Hecht – who also co-wrote the script for Underworld – allegedly convinced Capone’s associates to become consultants on the movie.
But let’s get back to those dames.
Molls are a standard of gangster pictures, the most famous perhaps being Mae Clarke, she of the grapefruit facial, in The Public Enemy. In that film, Clarke was able to bring flesh to a bare-bones character and Karen Morley does much the same in Scarface. As Poppy, the haughty and seemingly unattainable moll of Tony’s gangland boss, Morley is tough and confident; as graceful with a gun as she is with a pair of eyebrow tweezers. She is the “Daisy” to Tony’s “Gatsby” but Morley brings so much more to this character: in her eyes we see that she finds Tony both attractive and amusing. She always has the upper hand. Tony wouldn’t dare push a grapefruit in Poppy’s face because if he did, she’d throw the whole breakfast table at him. Of her work in Scarface, Morley said “I was just barely of age, and that set was an exciting place to be. It was all men, and there I was prancing around in gowns that barely got past the censors.”
Morley was blacklisted during the McCarthy era: “The Actors Guild had been held to a 10-year no-strike agreement, and when that 10 were up, the progressives in the Screen Actors Guild made all these forward-looking proposals, most of them written on my dining room table”, she said in a later interview. “I was blacklisted because of this activity…From that time on, I always had the studios on my neck.”
Morley had her pick of either the Poppy role or of Cesca, Tony’s sister. Although she realized that Cesca was the more interesting of the two, she chose Poppy with the intention of recommending her friend Ann Dvorak for the role of Cesca, since she knew that the dark and ethereal Dvorak would be all wrong to play a blonde bombshell. “(It was) probably the nicest thing I did in my life,” Morley said in an interview with Michael Sragow sixty-seven years later (note: the two other Morley quotes listed above are also from this interview).
Although Ann Dvorak made her film debut at the age of four in the silent film Ramona (1916), her performance in Scarface is her break-out role.
Christina Rice writes in her excellent biography Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel that Dvorak got the part when Morley invited her to a cast party at director Howard Hawks’ house. Upon arrival, Dvorak made a bee-line for George Raft and asked him to dance with her. When he refused, she began to perform a seductive, Salome- style dance in front of him, grabbing the attention of Hawks who, impressed with her brazenness, immediately invited her to do a screentest. Dvorak described winning the role of Cesca as “one of the big thrill days of my life!” (In Scarface, Hawks had Dvorak and Raft recreate their moment from the party. “The scene played like a million dollars because it was something that really happened between George and Ann,” he said.)
The relationship between Cesca and Tony is one of the most fascinating – and disturbing – elements of Scarface. Tony is fiercely protective of his younger sister – to the point of perversion. Surprisingly, the incestuous nature of Cesca and Tony’s relationship was actually encouraged – or at the very least not discouraged – by the Hays Office, perhaps because the censors liked that it put the gangster in an unflattering light. More interesting than this salacious element though is the idea that Cesca is the mirror of Tony. In the beginning of the film, their mother warns Cesca that she is “becoming just like” her brother. “You’re like Tony when you go after something, eh?” Raft’s character Rinaldo later asks her, as he realizes that he is helpless in the face of Cesca’s relentless romantic advances. In the movie’s best scene, Cesca appears from the shadows with a gun, ready to shoot her brother after he has shot Rinaldo in a jealous rage. Dvorak uses her eyes to great effect here: at first, steely and determined, then defiant and – as she is overcome with love and compassion for her brother – she visibly melts as she lowers her gun. “Why didn’t you shoot me, huh?” Tony asks her. “Maybe because you’re me and I’m you,” Cesca replies before picking up a machinegun to help Tony ward off the approaching coppers. “Sure, I’ll load ’em! I’m not afraid – I’m like you, Tony!”
Dvorak’s performance in Scarface was a hit with critics and audiences alike. Her career seemed to be on the rise – later that same year, she would enjoy another juicy role as a coke-snorting, neglectful mother in the pre-Code potboiler Three on a Match – but Dvorak’s shooting star would take a detour when she eloped with actor Leslie Fenton (most notable for his role as Nails Nathan in The Public Enemy – was this a match made in gangster-movie Heaven or what?!) and the two took off on a year-long honeymoon, travelling through Europe, in defiance of her Warner Bros. contract. Her movie career would never fully recover. However at the end of her life, among Ann’s most prized possessions were her photo albums of her honeymoon and travels with Fenton. If she sacrificed her career for happiness (however short-lived), was it really a sacrifice?
To learn more about Ann Dvorak, I highly recommend Christina Rice’s lovingly researched and enjoyable biography Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel. It’s a must-read for pre-Code movie fans!
I will be presenting at the twenty-ninth annual Vintage Film Festival this October for their Brown Bag Lunch Seminar on the topic of women in pre-Code gangster movies. Personally, I’m excited that the Festival will be screening Little Caesar, one of my all time favorite pre-Code movies. I plan to include Glenda Farrell’s performance in this film in my discussion. Hope to see you there!