“This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”

Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • This film heavily implies incestuous feelings between a brother and a sister. Calling gangsters sisterfuckers is sure one way to try and de-glamorize them.
  • Brassieres makes several appearances, as well as women in lingerie.
  • Loose women jumping from lap to lap.
  • Oh, and everyone is running guns and booze around, there are plenty of on-screen murders, and our protagonist is a complete psychopath who his own mother hates and fears.

Calling one of the biggest and most notorious criminals in the country a henpecked man who wants to bang his sister is a bold choice. I will give this movie that if nothing else.

Scarface: Shame of a Nation, based loosely on the life of Al Capone, is famed director Howard Hawks’ attempt at a call to arms. Caught somewhere between gangster glorification and an unabashed libel suit is the titular Scarface, a man of deep ambition and shallow thoughts.

Paul Muni plays Scarface, and though he’s mostly been forgotten as an actor, that’s simply because the man always took challenging roles that required different looks and styles. Compare him here to his role as Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola or Wang Lung in The Good Earth and you’d be hard pressed to believe it’s the same person. Here he’s become a barely contained venue of rage, unable to overcome his base thuggish nature no matter how many nice pairs of silk pajamas he coats himself in.

You ain't sis, but you'll do nicely dollface!

The most important facet of his twisted nature comes into play as we trace the outline of Scarface’s obsession with his sister that borderlines on incestuous. The relationship twists closer and closer until the end of the film when it turns out to be his undoing. Though he tries to parlay these feelings onto the prostitute upon whom his boss partakes frequently, and she, as she sees his star rise, begins to reciprocate, he never escapes the shadows of his malignant disgusting feelings. And the worst part is he doesn’t even know it.

Muni is backed up by an excellent supporting cast, including Ann Dvorak as the impulsive sister and George Raft as the best friend. There’s even a young Boris Karloff making an appearance as one of Muni’s rivals– and has anyone else ever noticed that a young Karloff looks a great deal like Abe Vigoda? It’s almost eerie.

Howard Hawks’ place in the pantheon of great directors has never been in much doubt, and Scarface is a stunning reminder of just why. A visual tour de force, Hawk’s camera is a restless, foreboding beast. Hawks is so assured of his craft that it sometimes comes across as being cocky– every death scene includes the letter ‘X’ identical to the scar on the titular man’s face.

Hawks’ attempts to tread the line in this film between sensationalistic and fetishistic is real, and there’s almost a subtle struggle between the alluring side persona of Scarface. You can see how Hawks had to struggle with the media glorification of such criminals of the time as he repeatedly slams the man’s character: he likes his sister, he has mad bloodlust, he betrays his friends, he lies, he cheats, and he wants nothing more than to bathe in power. He’s a terrible person.

But he’s still the protagonist of the film, so it’s charming. He’s dumb, but funny. He makes mistakes, but he’s devoted, and he goes out in a blaze of glory.

Whoops, that's bad news.

And that’s the fascinating thing about Scarface. Whether you find yourself agreeing with the sermonistic moralizing or engrossed in the unbridled wholly-American machismo that Muni oozes, Scarface: Shame of a Nation revels in a great sense of seeing a time in history for what it really was.

Nowadays the glorification of these men seems natural, and seeing Hawks trying his best to defy creating a gangster story that the celebrates the hoodlum lifestyle remains unabashedly unique. While the world these gangsters absconded across was a real one, watching Muni and Hawks fight each other to determine whether or not they’re worthy of sympathy is a wholly engaging duel.


Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

1 Comment

Risingson Carlos · January 21, 2017 at 8:56 am

Unfortunately discovered your website a bit too late. Now, at 39, it’s that phase of my life when I got obsessed with pre code movies, mostly because they are not very well documented, and I must thank you for the discovery of Gold Diggers of 1933. I mean, I am a fan of musicals, I have been watching movies all my life, and then finding out that monster of a movie is like never ending being surprised by cinema, ever.

And this also has been a way to fall completely in love with William A Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy and Rouben Mamoullian. I mean, I knew their movies (I’m a fan of the really dark Wellman westerns, and Leroy, among Curtiz and a few others, could excel in just any film genre) but seeing how their talent was so developed and free in the early 30s has been… well, another discovery.

So, to Scarface. There is something with the tone of this one. I have a deep love with movies with unsettled tone, movies that sometimes are tragic, sometimes are violent, and sometimes slapstick comedy, but in Scarface Howard Hawks manages to have all of those tones at the same time. It’s not like you are unconfortable with some switch from comedy to violence (hello, Wes Anderson) but that it is in the same space for the whole of it. And it works. My God, if only he had treated Zinemann in a more fair manner I would have dedicated my whole room to Hawks.

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