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Howard Hawks' gangster film Scarface did not pass the Hollywood Production Code of the '30s. See a still from the film?

Howard Hawks' Scarface and the Hollywood Production Code

In 1931, director Howard Hawks' Scarface, the first movie in which a gangster uses a machine gun, attracts the attention of Will Hays. Hired by studio heads in 1922 to fend off charges of industry immorality, Hays has developed the Motion Picture Production Code, later known as the Hays Code. The code aims to sanitize movies -- no nudity, suggestive dancing, miscegenation, ridicule of religion, illegal drug use, or "objectionable" language -- and it also demands unsympathetic portrayals of criminals and minimal detail when brutal crimes are shown. Scarface offends Hays on almost every count, and the ensuing struggle over the film is characteristic of the role of the Code in Hollywood production.

Director Hawks refuses to alter Scarface in response to Hays' demands, but producer Howard Hughes eventually defers on certain points. Hughes changes the title to Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, and adds Hays' suggested prologue that describes the film as an "indictment of gang rule in America." In addition, an entire scene is inserted to address the Code's concerns, in which citizens confront the newspaper publisher, frustrated by all the publicity gangsters receive in the press.

Hays does permit scenes that hint at title character Tony Camonte's incestuous feelings for his sister, but insists on altering the ending of the film. In the original ending, Tony struggles against the police, despite a fatal wound. In the next version, completed by an unnamed director, a repentant Tony begs the police for mercy. The officers refuse, then gun him down to the cheers of the gathered crowd. Hays wants more than this implied judgment, and gets yet another ending, in which Tony is sentenced to hang by a judge who pronounces him "vicious" and "evil."

After Scarface's release, pressure mounts to end production of gangster films. Studios, still eager to attract large audiences, respond by emphasizing sex rather than violence as a selling point for films. In protest, the Catholic Church forms the Legion of Decency, and rabbis denounce Hollywood and the predominantly Jewish studio heads. The Church, which wields tremendous influence over Hollywood studios through threats of film boycotts, proposes an industry censor sympathetic to religious concerns, and in 1934, Hays taps Roman Catholic Joe Breen to head the Production Code Administration. Breen takes an active role in rewriting scripts and imposes heavy fines on studios not adhering to the Code. Threatened with financial failure in the heart of the Depression, the studios unilaterally comply. While some call Breen's reign stifling, many film historians see the Breen years as Hollywood's Golden Age.

Following Breen's retirement in 1954, an antitrust ruling against studio-owned theaters by the Supreme Court weakens the PCA's power. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America proposes a voluntary age-based rating system which is adopted by Hollywood studios. This does not quell debate about film content. And the 1983 remake of Scarface, rated R under the MPAA rules, is limited to adults or children with an accompanying adult. It is directed by Brian De Palma, a director attacked in the press for the "brutality" of his films.

To learn more about the Code and its impact, watch Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality & the Production Code, the third film in the 4-part Culture Shock series.


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