Cook's Tours

22 April 2008

Some days ago, the subject of machine guns came-up in conversation with the Woman of Interest, and I noted to her that fully-automatic firearms had first come under tight regulation as part of a war on a drug — the drug in question being alcohol. Synchronistically, within a day or so I received and watched the original Scarface (1932).

The film is prefaced by text that declares that it's essentially doing no more than presenting events that have really happened, that the government is not doing enough to protect the citizenry, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to act. Part-way through the film there's a moralizing scene in which community leaders confront a newspaper publisher, claiming that he's glorifying gangsters. He responds essentially with the same message that had prefaced the film — that he is reporting the facts, that the government is not doing enough, and that the citizenry must act to get the government to do more. Then we learn what he thinks ought to be done: outlaw machine guns, effect martial law, and accept the offer of the National Commander of the American Legion to act as a militia against the gangsters. As part of the case for martial law, the publisher notes that the governor of Oklahoma had effected martial law to regulate oil production and claims that surely then we should use martial law against guns. (At some point, the publisher stops qualifying the attack as against any particular sort of gun.)

Many people might not know about that business of martial law in Oklahoma. What specifically happened is that, on 4 August 1931, Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray had 3000 oil wells forceably shut-down to reduce production and thereby drive-up price.

And let's talk about the leadership of the American Legion in that era. Here are the words of American Legion National Commander Alvin Mansfield Owsley, in January 1923:

Do not forget, that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.
In 1931, the Executive Committee passed a resolution praising Mussolini as a great leader, and the National Commander of that year, Ralph O’Neill, presented a copy of the resolution to Mussolini’s Ambassador to the United States. In 1935, during a trip to Italy, National Vice-Commander William Edward Easterwood pinned a Legion pin on the lapel of Benito Mussolini.

What the character of the publisher is preaching is the displacement of individual liberty and of procedural rights with command-and-control fascism.

The problem of that era wasn't alcohol per se, nor was it fully-automatic firearms per sese. The problem was Prohibition, that war on a drug. We didn't need even less freedom and even more government, we needed more of the former and less of the latter.

Most of the moralizing in Scarface is not well integrated into the film. One could discard the prefacing text and the publisher's speech without any apparent gap in the story-telling. What would remain would be what seems to be an objection to writs of habeas corpus being used to free gangsters before the truth can be beaten out of them, and perhaps just a hint of the notion that fully-automatic firearms are evil. That overt moralizing seems, then, an after-thought intended to mute or vitiate criticism of what was, by the standards of 1932, a very violent film, depicting fairly ruthless characters.

The 1983 remake was likewise violent for its era, and also controversial for what many took it to say about the Cuban immigrants of the Mariel Boatlift. The remake had its own bizarre moralizing, mostly effected around the film, as in proclamations by director Brian De Palma and in the advertising campaign for the film. The conceit was that this Scarface was an indictment of the profit motive. Of course, the profit motive shouldn't be indicted — objecting to the profit motive is no more or less than objecting to purposeful action. At best, one might object to how someone conceptualized profit. (As, for example, in For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?)

It is interesting to note what elements within the story were preserved in producing the remake, and how things were transformed. Antonio (Tony) Camonte is a distinctly less appealing character than is Tony Montana. Paul Muni looks like one of Joe Kirby's sloppy drawings for Timely. Camonte plainly likes violent extortion, and he dies like a panicked rat. Montana isn't vicious, his downfall is precipitated by a refusal to allow children to be killed, and he dies a berserker. But, because the dialogue in the original is vastly better, it is easier to understand Poppy being drawn to Camonte than Elvira Hancock becoming Montana's mistress. (Poppy's choice may not be more laudable, but it is more plausible.) On the other hand, while the visual device carrying the message The World Is Yours in the original has more potential than those in the remake, that potential is largely wasted in the original whereäs the the remake makes very effective use of its devices. There is the barest suggestion of incestuous desire in the original, and that's probably almost optimal; the crude references in the remake cause the characters to be both more disgusting and less interesting. On the other hand, the original treats Antonio as falling apart in the wake of killing Guino, but it isn't clear why Antonio falls apart; he expresses no regret for what he has done, and he has hurt 'Cesca in the past without apology or collapse. Further, Guino seems to chose to let Antonio kill him, without good reason for doing so. In the remake, Manny is simply an idiot, and didn't appreciate that, even if he and Gina were married, Tony might still reäct violently. Tony doesn't appear to regret killing Manny, and Tony''s collapse is a result of other things (problems with his business associates, a lack of anticipated gratification from material success, and drug use).

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