A call for gun control in the original “Scarface”

I’ve been revisiting the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the ’30s, along with some examples of the genre from other studios during the period, such as MGM’s “Beast of the City” (1932) and Howard Hughes’ “Scarface” (1932).

howard-hughes-presents-scarfaceAll too often today, the original “Scarface” is relegated to afterthought status, as the 1983 Brian De Palma remake is the first thing that comes to mind under that title. That’s too bad, because the original, which recreates several Chicago gangland murders of the period and was reportedly enjoyed by Al Capone, is very good.

Director Howard Hawks really knew how to handle action sequences, and the various drive-by shootings and other mayhem on display in “Scarface” truly get across the terror gangsters unleashed on the public, even without the advantage of being able to show blood or the simulated penetration of bullets into flesh.

Though Hollywood’s Production Code didn’t have the teeth it would be given just a couple of years later, producer Hughes and Hawks made a number of concessions to censors to get the film approved for release.

One of them was to strike a posture that implored the public to do something about the menace of gangsters. Just over 45 minutes into the movie, the Chief of Detectives (Edwin Maxwell) expresses disgust at the idea that criminals are “colorful.”

“They think these hoodlums are some sort of demigods … Colorful? Did you read what happened the other day? A car full of ’em chasing another down the street in broad daylight. Three kiddies playing hop-scotch on the sidewalk get lead poured in their little bellies.”

tmb_90_480In the very next sequence, an outraged citizen’s committee meets with a newspaper publisher (Purnell Pratt) to get him to stop putting gangster exploits on the front page. At one point, a citizen points out that the police don’t seem very effective in dealing with the situation.

“Don’t blame the police,” the publisher snarls. “They can’t stop machine guns from being run back and forth across the state lines. They can’t enforce laws that don’t exist … Pass a federal law that puts the gun in the same class as drugs and white slavery.”

And then, an appeal to that all-American urge to demonize ethnic groups: “Put teeth in the Deportation Act. These gangsters don’t belong in this country. Half of them aren’t even citizens.

He later advocates that martial law be imposed, if necessary.

Newspaper publisher Garston (Purnell Pratt) in "Scarface" (1932)

In “Scarface” (1932), Newspaper publisher Garston (Purnell Pratt) tells citizens to fight for tougher machine gun laws — and to step up efforts to deport Italian gangsters.

I couldn’t help but think about the current dilemma over machine guns. In the ’30s, at a time when I would guess that more citizens probably had guns than today (not least because hunting was more popular then), legislators were careful not to do anything that would represent a specific challenge to the Second Amendment.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the federal government’s reaction to gangsters and their Tommy guns. A tax of $200 was imposed upon anyone who  transferred a machine gun, short barreled rifle, short barreled shotgun, silencer or certain other weapons into other hands. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $200 in 1934 was equivalent to $3,426.78 in 2012 — and yet the tax on those firearms has remained $200 ever since.

“Congress found these firearms pose[d] a significant crime problem because of their frequent use in crime, and the $200 making and transfer taxes were considered quite severe at the time and adequate to discourage or eliminate transfers in these firearms,” the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence explains.

Of course, “Scarface,” like “The Public Enemy,” “The Roaring Twenties” and so many others, was a smash hit at the box office. A master storyteller like Hawks all but assured that nobody would remember anything other than the riveting tale he and his crew were spinning here, public outrage notwithstanding.

DVD: “Scarface” (1932), issued in 2012 by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Includes digital copy that can be downloaded until Dec. 31, 2013. Only extras are an introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne and an alternate ending. About $13 at Amazon.

Universal’s bare bones DVD presentation looks fine, but the absence of a commentary track and some kind of featurette is truly glaring. What a missed opportunity. In contrast, as will be discussed here in subsequent posts, Warner Home Video did a stunning job with its four-volume “Warner Bros. Gangster Collection,” with truly informative commentaries, very good documentaries, and all the advantages of the “Warner Night at the Movies” approach, which include trailers, a couple of short subjects, a newsreel and a cartoon, along with a state-of-the-art transfer of the main film.

So much for Universal’s 100th anniversary, which came and went with great pomp and circumstance last year.  Obviously Criterion will have to stir itself to give this film the treatment it deserves, or Shout Factory.

Blu-ray: Also from Universal, available as extra with 1983 version. The De Palma film’s presentation is loaded with extras, further underscoring the shoddy treatment given the ’32 classic. $24 at Amazon.

— David B. Wilkerson