Back when I was in college, this wasn’t exactly a forgotten film. It was considered one of the best gangster films of the early 30s. But a funny thing happened: Brian de Palma did a film with the same name that was originally designed to be a remake. The remake was a sensation, and has vastly overshadowed the original.
Which is a shame. Scarface is one of the best of the gangster genre. It went over what was familiar ground even then (both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had come out the previous year), but Scarface was more violent, and overall was better than the other two because it had a bit more depth.
What it didn't have, was an iconic actor as the lead. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were strong film personalities that dominated the screen made their gangster films work. Paul Muni is pretty much forgotten. He was a big star in the 30s, but his films are rarely shown and he's been pretty much forgotten (though you have to see his classic I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to really understand parts of Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, which has scenes that are a direct parody).
Scarface is the story of Tony Camonte (Muni) who, like Tom Powers and Little Caesar, is a brutal, small-time crook who works his way up to be crime boss. Muni is abetted by his pal Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) and his sister Francesca, who is Guino's girlfriend. The most interesting bit is the relationship between Tony and Francesca, which shows them as more than just brother and sister. The hints of incest were quite daring for the time.
Boris Karloff has one of his few non-horror roles of the 30s as Gaffney, a rival gang leader and shows that he could have been quite successful without horror. George Raft's performance of Guino defined his entire career. Guino's habit of flipping a coin became Raft's trademark, so much so that he did cameos for years afterwards. Even more, it became a trademark for anyone parodying a gangster film.
I mention Osgood Perkins primarily because you probably know his actor son, Anthony. And the screenplay was by film and theater legend Ben Hecht, best known nowadays as author of The Front Page.
The film ran into censorship trouble with the new Production Code; Hawks and his producer, Howard Hughes, released it without code approval. That may be one reason why back in the 70s it was harder to see than the other gangster films. And with Paul Muni a forgotten actor, there was little impetus for its revival.
Hawks, of course, went on to a very successful career and it considered one of the greatest of American directors. This is definitely one of his major works, and a film worth seeking out.
More Great but Forgotten
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