|Screen shot from Universal DVD|
by far the most visually inventive and tonally anarchic movie that Hawks made. Among other things, it’s a tribute to the freedom that independent producers afforded directors then—and still do today.WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Castro Theatre at 7:45 PM.
WHY: Scarface is the ideal opening salvo in Elliot Lavine's I Wake Up Dreaming series of so-called "pre-code" films released before the enforcement of the a censorship code for Hollywood films began in 1934, which morphed into the MPAA rating system in 1968 (still in place and constantly obsessed over in certain quarters today). Lavine earned a reputation as one of Frisco Bay's most creative film programmers in part by putting together week-long or longer binges of these films to the Roxie Theatre beginning in the 1990s. Now, following on bringing last summer's successful series of film noir to the largest repertory screen in town, the Castro, Lavine launches a 14-title pre-code series in that venue, reserving each of the next six Wednesday nights for double- and triple-bills of films featuring sex, violence, political content and other subjects that would be taboo on American movie screens just a few years after they were made. I was able to interview Lavine briefly last week, and here is a transcript of part one of our discussion. Expect more of the interview in this space in coming weeks.
Hell On Frisco Bay: I noticed that this festival is focused very narrowly on films released during a twenty-two month period: November 1931 to September '33.HOW: Scarface screens on an all-35mm double-bill with another pre-code crime picture, Two Seconds.
Elliot Lavine: Yeah. It's the center of the apple. Especially '32. '32 is a ground-breaking year, actually. Some of the best films were made in '31. My personal favorite was made in '31, which is Safe In Hell. But '32 is endless. You could do a whole festival. It's to pre-code what 1947 is to film noir.
HoFB: I think New York's Film Forum did a 1933 festival at one point.
EL: Not a shabby year either. You even find some good ones in 1934 before the boom came down. The Black Cat is one that came out that year.
HoFB: Why is this the center of the apple?
EL: Maybe because in '31 they were perfecting things. Getting away with murder. A code that nobody chose to enforce. And I'm sure they were feeling really frisky. Like European artists, they could do whatever they wanted. People in bed together, smoking opium, getting away with shit. It was really kind of unbridled. It was like the Wild West in the 1880s or something. I think at some point you have to peak. There's a zenith. Call Her Savage came out in 1932. The Story of Temple Drake. One after another, and all of them are just phenomenal. It's wide-ranging. It's not just sex shows; it's things like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. Two Seconds- that's 1932. So it's film after film after film after film. And I think it was like the Alps, right up there at the peak. Which is not to say that '33 slipped off, but by '34 it was gone, so it gave you a very short window to measure. And you could almost get a micrometer in there and say, 'when did it peak'? 'Well, September 1932.'
HoFB: Do you have any theories on what was the impetus for making these kinds of films in the first place?
EL: I would say it was a combination of knowing that they could get away with a lot; that nobody was going to enforce any kind of censorial nonsense on them, up to a point. I mean they can't have people fucking in them but they can allude to it.
HoFB: Or saying 'fuck.'
EL: Right, but they didn't care about that. They just wanted to be able to deal with adult themes in a way that translated to an audience, especially an audience that was being kicked to death by the Depression. That is a big component to why the films work so incredibly well. That layer of doom and despair. It's like World War II's relationship to film noir- a horrible crisis that is complicating everybody's lives. It's a dominant motif of the world. So many of the stories reflect that. Wild Boys of the Road more than any- now that's 1933. Probably more than any film of that generation. I think it's a combination of smart directors who are artistically valid and interesting guys, in an environment where people felt desperate and in need of stories that reflected their own reality. Who the fuck wants to see happy-go-lucky musicals all the time? That crowd was being taken care of. But the other people who were making hardly any, or no money, and they would try to scrounge to keep things going. Scrape together that nickel, you know. They wanted to see something that makes sense. They didn't want an escapist fantasy.
HoFB: Of course some of the best happy-go-lucky musicals had a lot of sex in them too.
EL: That was de rigeur. It probably never occurred to these writers and directors that it would be any other way, ever. They probably thought, 'this is the way it's gonna be. It's gonna get better and better and better. By the forties we'll be showing everything, like Sweden.' Obviously that was not meant to be. There had to be a way of mollifying the great middle crossroads of America. People dug it in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. Everywhere in between, exhibitors were feeling the pinch because people just weren't coming. They were boycotting the movies. They were saying "we're fed up. We don't like all the sex and the murder, and it's not what we want to see. We're gonna stop coming to your theatre unless you start showing more wholesome entertainment." So [exhibitors] would say "Okay Warner Brothers, this is your friend Bob in Ohio, and I'm telling you my patrons are clamoring for cleaner entertainment." When you start hearing it from thousands of exhibitors, "we won't go to your shows." "We will boycott Warner Brother films." They had to listen. That was the sole motivating principle behind enforcing the code.
HoFB: Some of the histories indicate the provocative material was a desperate grab for box office.
EL: Yes because the marketing department of every studio was looking for hooks to hang everything on. What's gonna get people in New York interested about this movie. People have seen everything. They've done everything. Let's promise them a movie that will measure up to that level of recognition. They're gonna see people having sex, taking dope, committing murder, all kinds of fun stuff that you only get in the movies. It's a shame because censorship in any form is not welcome. It's not a good thing. However it did drive the industry in a slightly different way. I think we had a greater gravitational pull for directors who could work within those restrictions and still turn out interesting films. They may not have been as provocative or real as the pre-code films but they achieved some different artifice. I guess we should, just because it's what we wound up with, feel grateful for that.
HoFB: Speaking of directors, I want to talk about Howard Hawks and Scarface, because although it was released in 1932, it's the one film you're showing that was made before the others. I read it was originally slated for release in 1931.
EL: Ready to go in '30.
HoFB: And it was held up precisely for some of the things you've been talking about.
EL: It went farther than most other films were going at the time, and most films were going pretty far. But he kept running into problems. Censorial problems, essentially around sex. The violence was pretty extreme. Really casual. People were dispatched very routinely. That went against what would ultimately be deemed the moral tempo of the film- that people could just murder people casually! And kids in the audience are cheering.
HoFB: Do you think people in Hollywood found ways to see this film? Did it have a reputation before its release?
EL: Insiders probably saw it.
HoFB: Do you think it had an influence prior to its actual release?
EL: It's funny because when people talk about classic gangster films of the 1930s they'll immediately bring up The Public Enemy and Little Caesar- well, actually Little Caesar was made in '30 as well if you look at the release date [January 9, 1931], but nevertheless Scarface, by people only looking at the numbers printed on the pages, "well that was in the aftermath" But that was the predecessor. Had it gone out in '30 or even '31 it would probably be a better known film. It's not that it's not known. To be honest with you a lot of people who come to Little Caesar and Public Enemy, while they're impressed by certain things about it, they don't really enjoy the films that much. And they think, "I don't need another one. I don't need to see Scarface. I'm done with that. Show me a musical now, or a prostitute movie." So I think it suffered a little bit. It also had sketchy ownership issues for a while. You couldn't see the film, even after it had been released. I can't think of a single time, growing up, that I ever saw it listed on television. Maybe it did sneak in here and there but I was glued to the TV Guide. I was a nine-year-old kid with a subscription to TV Guide. So it comes as a big, pleasant surprise, because it wipes the floor with those other movies. Public Enemy, if you were to excise maybe 10 minutes...
HoFB: It doesn't exist in its original form anyway.
EL: Hardly any of them do. Freaks- can you imagine seeing a 90-minute version of that? Which is what people did see in a preview setting.
HoFB: Is that why so many of these films are so short?
EL: Many of them. They probably lose at least five minutes because they've gone too far somewhere. Someone says, "oh the hand is going under the dress..." Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde was re-released in the mid-'30s, heavily cut. Seven or eight minutes were cut out. They're back in the 97-minute version that Warner Brothers now has the print of.