A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1932 – Scarface

Yeah, boy. This one works out for me because I get an iconic film (somehow remade into an even more iconic film. Which makes me believe there’s another iconic remake in there somehow if they can hit the right notes. Which… this being Hollywood… they won’t), and I get to talk about pre-Code Hollywood, which is an amazing time period. Sure, it’s more glamorous sounding than it actually was, and it’s not as crazy as you’d think, but when you place it in context, knowing what movies post-Code looked like, it’s actually quite provocative. Hollywood wouldn’t reach those levels of openness for another 30 years after this.

But anyway, it’s Scarface. People know the story. Criminal works his way from the bottom to the top. Meteoric rise. Weird sister relationship. The World Is Yours. Each version is very different. This one is a gangster picture, directed by Howard Hawks. It’s very of its era. Very notable for Paul Muni’s charismatic performance, the stark use of violence, and Hawks’ use of X’s in the frame to represent whenever someone was going to get killed. (Scorsese used this in The Departed as well, which I’m sure everyone knows. It’s pretty well-known, as far as trivia goes.)

But what I really want to talk about here, as I said, is pre-Code Hollywood, which was a fun place to be.

I touched on it lightly in the Coney Island article – Hollywood was a pretty fucked up place in the 20s. Lot of money, no real rules, stars ran rampant. Lot of overdoses and crazy stories happening. Plus, there were a few risqué films going on at the time as well. There was a big court case in 1915 that said free speech didn’t extend to films (which is a joke), and since then, film kept saying they were gonna do stuff to clean things up, but it was mostly lip service. So now, political pressure was mounting on Hollywood, and they knew that pretty soon, if they didn’t self-regulate, the government was going to do it for them. And the last thing you want is the government bearing down on your ass. Like football is now, with the concussions. So they brought in Will Hays.

Will Hays was the Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and was a former head of the Republican National Committee. And a Presbyterian. (read: WASP.) So clearly the guy you want deciding morals. He made a list of recommendations as to how Hollywood could censor themselves and not go too overboard. This was 1924. By 1927, when nothing really happened, he said, “Hey, how about a committee. Those things get stuff done.” So the heads of the studios worked with him to create a list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which was basically this:

I’m giving you the abbreviated version:

  1. Don’t fucking curse. Don’t say God damn it or Jesus Christ.
  2. Don’t show nudity. Not even in shadow. Don’t even suggest nudity.
  3. Don’t show drug trafficking.
  4. No weird sex stuff. (They actually said “sexual perversion,” which could mean a lot of stuff, especially in 1927. So I’m guessing it means, don’t have Robin Hood shit on Maid Marian’s chest. No matter how much Fairbanks asks for it.)
  5. White slavery… ehh, probably not a good idea.
  6. Whites and blacks should not be fucking either. (Notice how black slavery… totally okay.)
  7. Nobody should wash their balls. Or catch crabs. No VD.
  8. Don’t show a child coming out of a vagina. Not even off-screen.
  9. Don’t show a child’s penis. (I’m sure everyone just went, “Oh, man!” when that hammer came down.)
  10. Don’t make fun of the clergy. (Those assholes.)
  11. Don’t willfully offend another country, another race or another creed. (Because we all love “My Sacrifice,” man.) (Also, love how they don’t consider blacks a race. Or think that the way they portrayed them is being willfully offensive.) (Also notice how gender is untouched.)

And now for the Be Carefuls:

  1. Watch how you use the flag. (That scene where Gary Cooper wraps it around his penis and fucks Hedy Lamarr was probably the cause for this.)
  2. Watch how you deal with other countries. (So, you know, don’t make fun of the chinks and don’t satirize the fat fuck those dot heads worship. But seriously, the best part about this is that you see it and immediately think of all the times they did the exact opposite of following it.) They basically said don’t paint other countries in an unfavorable light, or make fun of their religion, history, prominent figures, etc. Just wait til World War II. And what animation would do. If you want to see just how racist they can get when they want to, look up all the banned cartoons. My personal favorite for its astounding racism is the Popeye cartoon called “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.”
  3. Very simple. Just be careful how you depict someone deliberately burning someone else’s property. Because it’s clearly a very delicate process.
  4. The use of firearms. (This will be one for Scarface. They basically promote guns in this movie. He actually has a scene like, “Whoa! A machine gun! Look at this! If I had five more of these, I can take over the whole town in a week!”)
  5. Be careful how you depict theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. The best part about this… and there’s just so much… is that they don’t even say, “Don’t glorify it.” They basically say, “Don’t go into too much detail so people don’t actually try it.” Because people are stupid. And the rule actually says The wording is so good. “Having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron.” MORON! That’s incredible. They call their audience morons.
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness. So… no Hostel.
  7. Be careful of what technique people use to murder other people. Not murder. How you murder. The exact wording is to be careful of technique “by whatever method.” So you can kill someone by hooking up their nuts to separate horses and having them run in opposite directions, it’s just a matter of the technique. Those fisherman’s knots are tricky.
  8. Methods of smuggling. (Especially in regards to Christopher Walken’s father’s watch.)
  9. Third-degree methods. (No dicks in vises.)
  10. Actual hangings and electrocutions as legal punishment. So, don’t show the neck breaking or the body convulsing. Which is a shame.
  11. Sympathy for criminals. Which is why Scarface was retitled “The Shame of a Nation” and had a whole speech at the end talking about how crime is bad. Since the ending has him going out in a blaze of glory, rather than punished by the law. Because that’s way
  12. Attitude toward public characters.
  13. Be careful about showing people who say, “Fuck the government.” Especially since the government is about two steps away from pulling a North Korea on their asses.
  14. Cruelty to children and animals. Or rather… “Apparently cruelty.” Even though someone smacking a child in the face is one of the great comedy bits in film history.
  15. The branding of people or animals. Why animals? I guess maybe showing it. Red River style. But yeah, branding people. I guess that means no The Cheat remakes.
  16. Which is great. “I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t use hookers, since we all know them and love them and use their services, just be careful how you use them.”
  17. Or attempted rape. Again. “Be careful.’ Rape is fine, just… not excessive rape.
  18. Wedding night scenes. God forbid we mention people banging lawfully. But I guess they mean doing the Maurice Chevalier thing, where they leer at each other and talk about how much they liked fucking each other. (Which, have you guys seen One Hour With You? My god, that movie is great. The first half is a married couple talking about how much they love banging each other. It’s terrific.)
  19. Man and woman in bed together. That one actually held for a while. They were doing the double beds thing into the 50s, even. God forbid we show people sleeping in the same bed, even hinting that they fuck.
  20. The “deliberate” seduction of girls. Unintentionally is okay. Like, oh, she tripped and fell on my dick. Completely unintentional.
  21. The institution of marriage. Yes, be careful how we show marriage. I can’t even begin to… oh, never mind. The Divorcee.
  22. Surgical operations. Off-topic, but have you guys been watching The Knick? That’s what this is about.
  23. The use of drugs. So trafficking is a no, but using… ehh, be careful. Make sure you condemn those people, with their marijuana cigarettes.
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law-enforcement or law-enforcement officers. So, don’t make the police look like assholes. Idiots, all right. But assholes… ehh, be careful. Because we need them to not bust us when we have our orgies.
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character is a “heavy.” Don’t let the bad guys have sex. Okay.

So yeah, that’s the list. And that’s not even the production code. That’s just the pre-list. It’s just so much fun I had to list them all.

So they implement that and think, “All right, we’re good. The government will leave us alone.” And then this era happened, and shit was worse than ever. And then, after a few years, some random dudes (both religiously affiliated, of course. Religious people ruin everything) create the Code. And the studios, knowing the government is really coming down on them, agree to it. After some revisions. Basically they said, “let’s not have it lower the moral standards of the people who see it, and show the correct standards of life,” as dictated by the people you don’t want making standards for you. Basically, if you’re gonna show shit you shouldn’t… make the people pay for it. And Will Hays would be the judger of all that. You guys remember the scene in The Aviator where they talk about the tits? Well, this was basically that. They’re what the MPAA is, but with actually not allowing you to show stuff instead of, “You can show it, we’re just giving you an NC-17.”

Naturally, it took four years for the Code to even be enforced. Because that’s how Hollywood works. 1930-1933 was a fucking free for all of pre-Code films to come out and show really crazy stuff. Ever see Red-Headed Woman? They’re making blowjob jokes and dick references in the first ten minutes. It’s crazy. But then in 1934, when Joseph Breen took over, they required films to get a seal of approval before they could be released, which is really when the Code started to be enforced. Thus ending the era of “anything goes.”

And the code lasted for a good… 20 years, before is slowly started to be broken down, by people like Otto Preminger, whose The Moon Is Blue really just took an axe to the Production Code, as would his later films. And pretty much by 1963, the Code was abandoned entirely. (Plus, the MPAA came about in, I wanna say 19689. Or rather, that’s when the ratings system we know today started being used.) Which coincidentally is when Old Hollywood was just about out of style.

But anyway, Scarface is a great Pre-Code film and is iconic. And you all just got a nice history lesson.

That’s the thing with me. When I want to talk, I talk.


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