In July of 1934, the Production Code Administration of Hollywood, or commonly recognized as the Hays Office, began to regulate Hollywood made films. But before this occurred, there was a brief four-year period from 1930 to 1934 where films had more ability to venture out and have free creative expression. Those four years, before filmmakers agreed to adhere to strict regulations of what they can and cannot show on screen, are now known as the pre-code Hollywood years. During these pre-code years, many films pushed censorship rules, as they were not heavily enforced, films such as Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson’s 1932 Scarface. The Hays Office was concerned films were doing a disservice to the public by allowing sex and violence on screens. Scarface is a gangster film that not only included many violent scenes and gun use, but is also based on the real-life events of gangster, Al Capone. The Production Code Administration was concerned that making this into a film would glamorize the gangster lifestyle. Taking nearly a year to be released due to censorship conflicts, the film was finally made and circulated but only with a public service announcement put before the film that read that the film was created to inform the public about the heinous crimes gangster committed and to serve as a warning about what this lifestyle brings to those involved. Being produced during the pre-code time and producer Howard Hughes’ refusal against the many revisions from the Hays’ Office, Scarface, played an instrumental role in the initiation of the gangster film genre.
An article written by Eileen Percy stating, “They plan to make their opening scene a replica of the famous Valentine Day massacre in the Chicago garage. If that is going to be the opening I wonder what they’re going to do for a climax.” The public was in clear uproar over Scarface even before it was being filmed. Concerned that their portrayal of gangsters was going to glamorize the immoral lifestyle, writers such as Eileen Percy, called for Scarface to be made as publicity against the existence of gangsters. Percy, continuing with her article, writes, “We want gang pictures. But we want them as propaganda against rather than for.” Clearly, already creating controversy Scarface was not an easy film to make, even being in the pre-code era. Percy’s article goes on to call upon the producer of the film, Howard Hughes, asking him to keep in mind that this film should not praise gangsters as they are the low lives of society. However, producer Hughes did not allow the complications facing the film to stop production nor did he allow the Hays Office to revise the script.
In an unsigned letter to Hughes from the Hays Office, they wrote to him in an attempt to persuade him not to make the script glorify Al Capone, who the main character was based off of, as they considered him one of the most dangerous gangsters. The letter showed heavy concern about misusing Capone’s name to the “law abiding citizens” just to create an entertaining film. They ended the letter by saying, in so many words, they doubted that this type of picture would even fall into the set requirements of the code and reminding Hughes that when the industry accepted the code, they agreed on not negatively influencing the “moral and legal standards of the nation.” In the letter from the Hays Office, it stated that they, “must always be conscious of interests of good citizenship, good government, law and order.” The office was clearly concerned a film on the life of a gangster that allowed the audience to see a more human side of a criminal would create sympathy for a gangster’s way of living and create more gangs throughout the country. Letters back and forth between the Hays Office and the filmmakers of Scarface were sent, the Hays Office expressing their concern that this gangster film would not go against their set code and Hughes and his team expressing that they understood the guidelines set and were treating the story carefully. Hughes had to send over the script to the Hays Office so they could revise anything they deemed immoral and harmful to the public of law abiding citizens. The office sent back a number of lines that had been revised or simply told to be taken out of the film entirely. This gangster film threatened the Production Code Administration office and set them into a frenzy about the film praising the lifestyle for the public.
The Hays Office was concerned that the film intended the audience to sympathize with the protagonist, instead of viewing him as immoral and criminal, because the crime he was arrested for was protecting his little sister by killing a man who betrayed him. This worried the Production Code Administration as the main character, Tony, was a mobster but also portrayed as a traditional Italian man who loved his mother and family and took care of them. The mobster lifestyle could have easily been interpreted by the public as something he needed to do to protect and provide for his family. The Hays Office again asked for some revisions in the script, this time about the dialogue between officers. They also asked that the character, Tony, not be depicted as a heroic character with his battle against the cops. One of the last scenes in the film shows Tony in a shootout with the cops over the killing of a fellow gangster in the honor of his younger sister. This representation shows Tony as the underdog of the story and unconsciously setting the audience up to root for him and in turn, cheering on similar gangsters.
With the many letters between the Hays Office and Hughes being sent back and forth, there were several attempts at revising many of the character’s lines as well as police officer’s lines in order to show distaste of a life of crime. The Hays Office showed concern that portraying the main character’s mother as someone who knows about the crimes her son commits and supports his lifestyle would create a negative impression on the Italian population in the country. There was a letter sent from Jason S. Joy on June 4, 1931 asking adjustments be made to the mother’s character and not have her be tolerable with her son committing crimes. The office wanted her character to have a scene with Tony stating that she was aware of how he made his money and that a life such as that one only ends badly for those involved as well as their loved ones. This would serve as a warning to the audience watching, to show that his traditional mother was not okay with his way of life and to foreshadow the death scene of his sister, whom he cared for deeply, which alone would show what a life of crime leads to. However, according to a meeting between Colonel Joy and Hughes on June 19, 1931, Hughes opposed the revisions and refused to change the scene between protagonist Tony and the policemen during the final sequence as it would capture him as “weakening” and a “coward.”
Jason S. Joy wrote a letter to Lamar Trotti of The Hays Office on June 29th of 1931 stating that he doubts anything will stop Howard Hughes from making the film but continues to urge him to tone down some of the more bad-mannered scenes. There were many meetings between Jason S. Joy and Howard Hughes and Howard Hawkins regarding the revisions that were asked be made. In one letter to Trotti, Joy stated that he had been told that all the revisions they asked be made were made and everything was going well. However, in a letter in September it states that Jason S. Joy and Mr. Trotti argued for an hour in a meeting about the complete revision of the ending of the film after a rough-cut screening. There was a letter from Lamar Trotti stating that the suggestions they made to Hawkins about changing the last scene were reciprocated effectively and positively and he will mention the alterations to Hughes.
One letter regarded the gangster film as a medium of public education for the American public. There was concern over the heavy use of guns in this film and Trotti and Joy even sent Hughes a speech by Governor Roosevelt regarding the use of machine guns. New York had just passed a law that was against the use of machine guns by individuals. The filmmakers suggest that they include a scene that shows children being shot by the guns in order to reflect how horrifying the use of these guns by gangsters were. Not surprisingly, those from the Production Code Administration vetoed that idea as it is even too gruesome for films that are made today…or ever. There was claim that without the use of guns, gangsters would not be at large as they were during that time. Jason S. Joy wrote in a letter that the completion of the film enforces more of an anti-gun law push as the gangsters are seen as more powerful with the guns and extremely cowardly when they do not have their guns to protect them.
There was clear concern from Hays Office about the creation of the film Scarface over the immoral effect it would have on the public through the many letters sent back and forth between the filmmakers and the officials at the Production Code Administration. There were agreements about some changes to the film and absolute refusal against other adjustments. One letter from Colonel Joy on June 17, 1931, stated that Scarface was easily “the most harsh and frank gangster film” they’ve ever had. I believe that this statement could also be interpreted as the most influential gangster film that was created at the time for the genre. This film made such an impact through the storyline and the expression of violent gang life for the gangster genre that it was remade in 1983. Though the modifications from the Hays Office were meant to condense the film to meet the requirements of the censorship regulations, it resulted in depicting Tony as a less intelligent, materialistic, and cold-blooded gangster. His character was fascinated with the need for material items, living in a lavish home with the most expensive clothing. Tony’s house even came equipped with bullet proof windows and an escape route through a door in his bedroom. With the need to accrue material items such as cars, suits and an elaborate home, it was deemed as motivation for the “American Dream” type of life. This in particular influenced other films as well as the gangster genre. Films such as The Great Gatsby, though not so obviously a gangster film, it is implied that it was Mr. Gatsby’s occupation however, did reflect heavily upon the American Dream. With the portrayal of the American Dream and it being a product from the Depression Era, it allowed for a new type of film to be made as well as the more recognizable gangster films.
Though it was during the pre-code era there were still a series of struggles with the creation of Scarface through a series of letters and meetings between Hays Office and the filmmakers Howard Hawkins and Howard Hughes. No genre angered the censorship regulators more than the gangster genre that illustrated gangsters as heroes and underdogs. Luckily, censorship was not as heavily enforced during these four years as they were still able to release a film that included the violent crimes of real life mobsters. Scarface pushed censorship regulations and was in discussion for a year before being released to the public due to its harsh violent scenes and the supposed glorification of the gangster and mafia lifestyle lead by the protagonist in the film. This film was influential in the gangster film genre as it pushed boundaries in what can be shown and what cannot be shown. It had more freedom for onscreen violence as it was during the pre-code era however, it was still revised many times before completion for distribution. This film was so influential for its time, it even had a remake decades later in 1983. Based off of a real-life mobster, Al Capone, this film is historical in the creation of the gangster film genre and paved the way for future gangster films.
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Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 137-170.
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