Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, ruthless Italian-born bootlegger and mob enforcer
Chicago, Summer 1927
Release Date: April 9, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks
Today’s #MafiaMonday post goes back to the Prohibition era, the age that gave rise to the modern American gangster… and the American gangster movie.
After Warner Brothers scored back-to-back hits with Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), effectively establishing the subgenre of the gangster film, Howard Hughes entered the fray with Scarface, an explosive, influential, and fast-paced criminal epic adapted from Armitage Trail’s novel that had been based on the life of Al Capone. Hughes had been warned against taking on Warner’s dominance in the genre, so he packed his production with talent including screenwriter Ben Hecht, director Howard Hawks, and lead actor Paul Muni, who was born 124 years ago yesterday on September 22, 1895.
In the wake of movies like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, the Hays Office had been increasing its efforts to censor what it deemed to be glamorization of criminal lifestyles in cinema, but its notoriously restrictive production code had yet to be put into place, giving Scarface full reign to arm its vaguely incestuous central character with a Thompson submachine gun, once dubbed “the gun that made the twenties roar,” as he rose the ranks of the criminal underworld in a series of violent vignettes paralleling the life and crimes of the infamous Capone.
One such event from Al Capone’s life was an assassination attempt from the rival North Sider gang led by Hymie Weiss. On September 20, 1926, eight cars loaded with gunmen drove to the Hawthorne Hotel, Capone’s then-headquarters in Cicero, firing nearly a thousand rounds into the hotel. The attack missed Weiss’ intended target as Capone was thrown to the ground by his bodyguard Frank Rio (Boardwalk Empire depicted the bodyguard in question to be Nelson Van Alden, aka “George Mueller”, the Prohibition agent-turned-mob enforcer played to pious perfection by Michael Shannon), but the incident re-ignited the Chicago Beer Wars, and Weiss would have less than a month to live as Capone engineered the North Side gang leader’s death outside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral on October 11.
In Scarface, Capone-surrogate Tony Camonte—having been swiftly released on a writ of habeas corpus (“hocus pocus,” if you ask the boorish Tony)—heads straight from the police station to a restaurant for lunch with his boss’ platinum blonde moll, Poppy (Karen Morley). The fledgling couple’s flirtation is interrupted by volleys of automatic gunfire pouring into the walls and windows of the restaurant.
“Lookit! They got machine guns you can carry,” exclaims Tony, more impressed with the degree of the attack than he is angry about being the target. “If I had some of them, I could run the whole works in a month,” he shouts over the din to his loyal bodyguard, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). Like the best employees, Guino reads between the lines and swiftly draws his .38, firing a round through the broken windows to dispatch one of the rival gunmen and relieve him of his Tommy gun… all while Tony’s other employee, the dimwitted “seck-a-tary” Angelo (Vince Barnett), struggles to comprehend that the phone call he took was merely a ruse.
Tony continues obsessing over his latest prize (“Hey, that’s swell! Look, it’s little, You can carry it!”) as he returns to his gang’s headquarters. His boss, Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), has been wounded in a separate attack and is infuriated with Tony for breaking the peace by murdering a rival.
Johnny: I told you to lay off.
Tony: I don’t hear so good sometimes.
Johnny’s influence is clearly gone as his gang—and even his girlfriend—have fallen under the spell of Tony’s animated savagery.
What’d He Wear?
Tony Camonte had been “entertaining” Poppy in his swanky bachelor pad before the police came calling, forcing him to change out of his printed silk dressing gown as he grabs the double-breasted suit jacket and waistcoat to match his striped trousers on his way to to the station.
The era’s promotional artwork had colorized Tony’s suit to a shade of brown, which turned out to be accurate when the screen-worn suit was sold in a September 2015 Profiles in History auction.
As described by the Profiles in History auction description, the chocolate brown wool suit with its “crème-colored pinstripe” was commissioned for Paul Muni by United Artists in the summer of 1931 and made by a tailor shop called Brown & Herman’s as printed on a maker’s label inside the interior right breast pocket printed, “Muni. United Artists. 6-13-31” and numbered “10633”. The timing is consistent with the production of Scarface, as the first cut was finished by early September 1931 when it was screened for the California Crime Commission.
Time seems to have treated the suit well and, aside from the upper row of vestigal buttons that had either been removed or fell off during the generations to follow the suit’s original on screen appearance. The auction also describes the suit as a three-piece, though the full wrap of the double-breasted jacket all but completely conceals the waistcoat for the suit’s screen appearances.
The narrowly spaced “pinstripe” described in the auction listing is very prominent and well-defined for a strong contrast against the rest of the bold brown worsted suiting, and it would perhaps be more accurately described as a “rope stripe”.
The double-breasted jacket is styled consistently with fashions of the early 1930s with wide shoulders made all the more prominent by the broad, sharp peak lapels and the roped sleeveheads. For an additional rakish dash, Tony wears one of his usual colorful silk display kerchiefs, this one in a dark print, in the jacket’s welted breast pocket.
The ventless jacket has straight flapped hip pockets and is described in the auction as lined in auburn patterned silk, matching the back of the barely glimpsed waistcoat. For most of the sequence, the suit jacket appears to have 3-button “kissing” cuffs, though the sleeves appear to be finished with four buttons in some shots at the First Ward Social Club.
As mentioned earlier, Tony had already been wearing the suit’s matching flat front trousers for receiving that morning’s visitors in his apartment, but the brief scene as he changes out of his dressing gown into his suit jacket provides the viewer with some more details of these trousers, which have straight pockets along the side seams, jetted back pockets, and tall belt loops for his wide dark leather belt. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
After the loud basketweave-patterned suit our anti-hero wore in a previous scene, Tony seems to be taking some measures to subdue his appearance. Rather than the fancy spats that accompanied that suit, Tony wears a pair of plain dark leather cap-toe oxfords with his brown striped suit, best seen when he hits the deck during Gaffney’s Tommy-gunning attack on the café where Tony was meeting Poppy for their date.
Tony’s fedora is made from a light-to-medium felt with a dark ribbed grosgrain-silk band of moderate width.
Tony wears a shirt uniquely striped with sets of two closely spaced stripes, separated by stripes of faint dots between them. The stripe is colorized to a light blue-gray in some contemporary lobby cards and promotional artwork. As the same artwork often colors the suit in its correct shade of brown, it’s reasonable to assume that the color of the shirt is also correctly depicted on these materials. The shirt has a point collar, front placket, and button cuffs.
Tony’s neckwear introduces a dangerous third stripe into the ensemble. His tie is patterned with an organized series of “uphill”-direction pencil stripes—alternating in color between white and a light shade—against a medium-dark ground suggested to be red by the same promotional artwork of the period that accurately colored the suit to be brown. As the boastful Tony sees the need to indicate his increasing wealth and status with flashy fashions, he accents his necktie with a diamond-studded horseshoe stickpin.
Shining from the little finger of his right hand is the “bargain” pinky ring that Tony had previously shown off to Poppy, misinterpreting her initial dismissal of the jewelry as “kind of effeminate, isn’t it?”
Some little typewriter, huh? I’m gonna write my name all over this town with it. In big letters!
Given how much Tony Camonte marvels over his newly obtained Thompson submachine gun, it behooves BAMF Style to note the iconic “gun that made the twenties roar,” as described by author William J. Helmer, in the gangster’s hands.
The Thompson submachine gun has achieved some notoriety over the past century as one of the most recognizable firearms, in part due to its military service primarily during World War II but more notoriously as the “Chicago typewriter” that armed many of the violent criminals of the Prohibition and Depression era.
General John T. Thompson had begun his development of an innovative “auto rifle” during World War I, even before the United States entered the war. He obtained a license for his design to employ the “Blish lock” developed by naval officer John Bell Blish, though this breech-locking mechanism limited the weapon to be chambered for the .45 ACP pistol cartridge rather than the .30-06 service rifle round. General Thompson envisioned that his one-man “trench brown” would annihilate enemies during trench warfare and raced to complete prototypes of the weapon by war’s end, but the November 1918 armistice sent the Auto-Ordnance Company marketing team back to the drawing boards.
The first Thompson submachine guns entered production in 1921, meeting with an initially lukewarm reception. Early buyers included the United States Postal Inspection Service, the United States Marine Corps, and the Irish Republican Army, who received less than a quarter of their initial purchase of 653 after the majority of their order was seized by U.S. customs authorities. While many agencies complained about the weapon’s weight, long-range inaccuracy, and clunky drum magazines, the chaotic nature of the handheld Thompson found it hasty favor among the gangsters whose business grew increasingly violent during Prohibition. To counter the heavily armed gangsters, more police and federal agencies were forced to add Thompsons to their own arsenals, culminating in the FBI—then known simply as the Bureau of Investigation—arming its agents with Thompsons after the deadly Kansas City Massacre in 1933.
By the time the FBI had finally come around to recognizing the power of what had become colloquially popular as the “Tommy gun”, Auto-Ordnance had been listening to its users complaints with updates and modifications along the way, most notably the 1926 addition of a “Cutts” recoil compensator on the end of the barrel. The new model with this muzzle brake was designated the M1921AC while the original Thompson with its simple front sight was now known as the M1921A. Two years later, the M1928A1 was developed for military usage, though it would still be ten years until the U.S. military would more comprehensively adopt the weapon.
After that, it would simplify the Thompson into two more combat-friendly variants—the M1 and, eventually, the M1A1—which removed the Cutts compensator and cooling fins, moved the charging handle from the top to the side of the receiver, and replaced the all-but-obsolete “Blish lock” with a straight blowback operation.
Aside from a brief appearance in the hands of one of Rico’s gangsters in Little Caesar (1931) and a bizarrely scoped version seen in the Laurel and Hardy comedy Pardon Us (1931), the Thompson submachine gun appeared to have made its first prominent screen debut in Scarface, where a M1921A Thompson was handled, loaded, and fired in the hands of a gangster before the strict enforcement of the Hays Production Code reduced the weapons in criminals’ hands to almost always being less powerful than those seen carried by the police.
Though clearly excited about Tony’s assertiveness, Poppy has little faith in the Thompson and eagerly loads up a revolver during the scene, tossing it to Tony on his way out the door “in case that bean shooter doesn’t work!”
How to Get the Look
Brown suits are an inspired addition to your fall office wardrobe and, thanks to a Profiles in History auction that included one of Paul Muni’s suits from Scarface, we know that Tony Camonte was no stranger to sporting brown suits for his business dealings as well!
- Chocolate brown (with cream-colored rope stripe) wool suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button suit jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button “kissing cuffs”, and ventless back
- Flat front suit trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White (with sets of blue double stripes) cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Red (with alternating white and light-colored “uphill”-direction pencil stripes) silk tie
- Diamond-studded horseshoe tie stickpin
- Black leather belt
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxfords
- Light felt fedora with dark ribbed grosgrain-silk band
- Diamond pinky ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Get outta my way, Johnny! I’m gonna spit!