"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Early Hawks: THE CRIMINAL CODE, TIGER SHARK, CEILING ZERO, BARBARY COAST, ROAD TO GLORY


Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for the Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked to name the three greatest American directors and answered "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our greatest director, Howard Hawks? Ford was brilliant visually and mythologically but easily mired in his misty-eyed Irish sentiment. He wasn't American -- he was "Irish-American."  Hawks is 'all-American' --he is what makes America great: knowing the difference between being brave in the face of death and just being an imperialist swine. It makes sense I guess for Welles to prefer Ford since Welles is first and foremost a visual director - packing his screen with baroque detail and anchoring it all with his one-of-a-kind voice and genius. Camaraderie means nothing to Welles. He's always been a one man show, presuming himself the center of attention at any restaurant communal table.  What Hawksian men do instead is to face danger, not just external but internal danger, so when violence comes their way it's already after they've conquered themselves; and they sing and play music together (rather than just listening to some Sons of the Pioneers Navy or Cavalry singing group), and they most importantly drink and smoke, but without wasting time on comical brawls. And when they die, they die like men, or they survive like men, either way without speeches about printing the legend and trying to forget the facts.

And if a Hawksian man meets a woman it's ten times faster and more disorienting than a Maginot line charge. There's no chaperone, no parson beaming, no dance, no time; the Hawksian man has to face that woman alone, and no amount of inner death-defying can prepare him for the Hawksian woman's forward advance. The whole fabric of the John Ford fort, the small town unity that extends in generations for centuries back, is sublimely pared down by Hawks to a gummy old cripple, a drunk, and a limping sheriff, holed up in a jail and visited daily by attractive women playing barely coded prostitutes who seem more modern and free of phony glamor than even Ford's wild Irish tomboys. There's no mutually consenting premarital sex in a Ford film, and nothing but premarital sex in a Hawks. No stern moral matrons, no kids (unless they're froggy-voiced old people in kid bodies, like in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).


Needless to say, John Ford John Ford John Ford has won the history, the legend's been printed; he's got dozens of boxed sets in his name; Hawks gets none (aside from R2 where he has one three movie set), and part of that may be that Hawks films are still very modern. There are very few misses in his canon but also nothing of bourgeois importance like GRAPES OF WRATH. The closest Hawks gets is maybe his most unHawkslike film, the Fordian SGT. YORK. Usually, instead of emotion, race, and historical accuracy, Hawks' films are fun, archetypal, witty, engaging, resonant more on a Jungian than Freudian level. It's as if Hawks films take place in the universe that Ford has set up, the same towns and valleys, but then the Hawks characters are never seen in Ford's films because they hide out from all the boring town functions (they don't go to church or square dances).

In the 30s, though, Hawks was still figuring himself out (comedies aside). He had some great writers, many of whom, like William Faulkner, had served with him in the Flying Escadrille (so had to deal with death daily) or gone hunting with him, BUT Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation. Anyway, maybe examining these five early films (in order of release) will help. They're all rather obscure, so I mention how to locate each film, be it available only on VHS, DVD-R, or TCM--which is a crime considering nearly every John Ford movie ever made is remastered out there on disc--and my own ratings.

I'm presuming too, by the way, you're coming to these films having run through all your other Hawksian choices as one does and craving more like a junky craving junk. To what extent these will satisfy is of course the issue each of us must answer.

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)
Avail. on VHS and Region 2 DVD
***
Walter Huston is a tough but fair warden who, as DA, sends a naive kid (Phillip Holmes) up the river for ten years on a manslaughter charge (the kid whacked a masher with a bottle in a notorious speakeasy, and the masher died). It's a bad break, but as Huston tersely snaps, "an eye for an eye - that's the foundation of the criminal code!" Waving a black book like a blackjack, Huston has to come to terms (once he becomes warden) with a whole different criminal code, the golden rule of which is you don't rat out your fellow inmates no matter what. And there's a climax wherein if Holmes rats out a killer of a squealer he'll walk out a free man, but he won't violate the code. He won't! He won't he won't! he won't! Huston gets in some intense acting, grabbing the boy by the lapels and demanding to know who did it. WHO DID IT!??


Other than some nice overlapping dialogue in a press room early on, Code doesn't feel particularly like a real Hawks film. Once he becomes warden, Huston gets some chances to be super tough, like walking unarmed into a throng of hateful prisoners, or getting a shave from a lifer who cut another man's throat, and Karloff gets to loom like a white tunic-sporting Frankenstein as he stalks a squealer, but otherwise these characters are all trapped in a polemic. The situations are clearly contrived for the demonstration of Big Moral Issues, and an air of existential gloom hangs heavy uber alles. There's not much room for Hawksian heroics in such a clamped-down situation (like if the whole of RIO BRAVO was told from the point of view of the imprisoned Joe Burdett).  In TARGETS (discussed here) it's the film Hawks devotee Peter Bogdanovich and Karloff watch on TV while getting drunk in Karloff's hotel suite, whatever that's worth to you.

TIGER SHARK (1932)
Occasional TCM airings, Warner Archive DVD
**1/2
There's some chilling documentary-style scenes here of tuna fishing off the coast of Steinbeckain Northern California, a crew of fishermen going into the heart of tuna schools and pulling them up one after the other, throwing them all into a big trough around the boat, where, thousands stacked one over the other, they flip and flop trying to escape, slicing each other up with their razor fins. It's disturbing, disquieting, an ugly reality the men on the boat are blind to. Huston and Hawks would both agree I'm sure that when one man fishes for himself or his family, it's the natural order; when a crew 'harvests' this many fishes, for the factory, it's mortifying.

Luckily man's not strictly the sole apex predator, because where there's fish there's tiger sharks, and they love the spicy tang of a Portuguese-a commercial a-fisherman for-a the nice-a dinner. Edward G. Robinson's jovial captan loses his hand to one, and so wears a shiny hook (he gets it polished on his wedding day). Another guy loses his legs, dies, and leaves his daughter (Zita Johann) powerless against Eddie's boastful charms. Johann's weird pallor worked in THE MUMMY but she doesn't have the inner fortitude of, say, Greta Garbo's Anna Christie, and so when she falls for Eddie's partner (two-handed hunk Richard Arlen) there's only the sense that he might have access to some benzos that would make the overacting of Robinson's angler bearable. Wrote Andrew Sarris, "Hawks remorselessly applies the laws of nature to sex.The man who is flawed by age, mutilation, or unpleasing appearance to even the slightest degree invariably loses the woman to his flawless rival." There's some good scenes and no bad ones in TIGER SHARK, but Robinson seems miscast. His constant chatter and Portuguese accent seem unduly weak for such a great actor. When he shoots at sharks from the safety of the crow's nest it only makes a sensitive viewer sick. When the illicit couple are making out below decks and the gun firing off camera suddenly stops--that the film's sole moment of 'whoa!', as how often does a cease fire signal the start of real danger?
 
CEILING ZERO (1936)
VHS
****
A chronicle of the early days of the Newark airport air traffic control room, wherein stray pilots are nursed through heavy fogs by hungover radio operators and ex-daredevil-turned air traffic warden Pat O'Brien deals with overlapping crises via radar and radio while old friends and a snoopy aviation bureau rep (Barton MacLane) try to interfere and/or say hello. We come to admire the way O'Brien can refrain from snapping people's heads off while engaged in life-or-death radio contact and some oblivious person walks in with an oblivious joke and a pat on the back.

Then, enter (tumbling) James Cagney, who served with O'Brien in the Signal Corp (where Howard Hawks served with William Faulkner). It's a bit similar to DAWN PATROL in that O'Brien doesn't fly the planes, and has to send men up in bad conditions (ceiling zero means the fog is so high even the sea gulls are grounded) and he doesn't like it.


A highlight is when they're all trying to help a lost Stu Erwin after his honing beam goes out, and he can't get their radio signal but they can all hear him shouting in panic and rage, him presuming everyone on the ground is off playing poker and they're all shouting into different phone lines all along the flight plan to various listening posts and police stations, and the one girl in the room cries and shouts "Why don't you do something?" and they all bark at once "SHADDUP!!!!" Awesome. We see a slight demerit in Hawks here, not misogynist per se, but his Hawksian woman was still being formed and while the girls are of varying degrees of toughness, they crack up in a crisis, throwing little tantrums when things get terse. There's also some surprising sexual frankness: June Travis offers herself to Cagney for succor after the death of the pilot who took the doomed flight so Cagney could have a date with her -- a shadowy prefiguring of Joe's death in the early section of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS two years later.

The ending is one of those trite bits where everyone's noble self-sacrifice has to constantly trump one another's, but it's almost beside the point; Hawks has found the zippy overlapping dialogue of a bunch of professional men united against the weather, and the (notably Irish blarney-free) velocity of the Pat and Jimmy chemistry is at full manly throttle, setting a benchmark for all the Hawksian bromances to come.

The VHS I got is blurry, not built to last. There is no DVD yet and it's never been on TCM. It is a crime. Criterion, put it out at once!

BARBARY COAST (1935)
(DVD)
**1/2
Miriam Hopkins is the first white woman in San Francisco, back in the 19th century gold rush boomtown days, when a pre-Panama Canal ship had to travel all the way around South America to get there and took the better part of a year. Arrivers found a city of unpaved mud roads so nasty they could suck a pedestrian under like quicksand, a dense pickpocket-filled fog, loose women and cutthroats, and inside the buildings nothing but crooked roulette wheels, overdressed floozies, murderous bouncers, and that pint-sized unlucky-in-love big shot Eddie G. Robinson controlling the works.


There's a few elements that let you know Hawks isn't fully himself here. One of the films he made as a hired gun of Goldwyn's, you can tell he's not particularly enamored with his leading man, Joel McCrea, a foolish poet-type who loses his hard-earned sacks of gold in one turn of Hopkins' fixed roulette wheel, a "cheap price for such an education." This after they fell in love as strangers both seeking shelter from a rainstorm at an old deserted cabin, the period equivalent of running out of gas. Think Eddie's fallin' for that? He's not, see? Myeah. Notes Cinephile:
"There’s little sexual tension, chemistry, or even the vaguest hint of innuendo between the two leads, it would seem a sign attached to one of the gambling tables in Robinson’s casino which reads “No vulgarity allowed at this table” is a rule disappointingly applied to the rest of the film as well. It has little visual identity beyond Ray June’s atmospherically foggy night-time photography (which does some fine work with shadows towards the end) and little of the cynicism or edge which marked out other collaborations with screenwriter Ben Hecht, instead opting for flowery, pretentious dialogue many of the cast clearly struggle with."

Gambling is a hard thing to make cinematically engaging and Hawks isn't a great one for making money seem important. Lugging sacks of gold through throngs of thieves too seems foolhardy, unrealistic, i.e. you can't show a guy getting his pocket picked one second then another one lugging overflowing sacks of gold around by himself and not getting his corpse picked clean insider of six seconds. This inconsistent financial environment takes us as far from the usually clear-cut Hawksian sense of group solidarity and danger pinpointing as you can get. As Old Atrocity, Walter Brennan alone seems to achieve some sort of noble 3-D savagery. His survival in this place, his disheveled, foul-smelling self being welcome even in the glossy casino (where he lures strangers for a cut of the trimmings) makes him one of those rare figures (like C3PO or John Holmes in WONDERLAND) who can wander back and forth between classes, enemy camps, nature and civilization at will.  Add some throw-away lines like "it's hard rowing when I'm so emotional" and it still adds up to a tritely formulaic but well-detailed socio-historic romantic thriller that's no SAN FRANCISCO (1936), nor even--when all is said and done--a TIGER SHARK.

THE ROAD TO GLORY (1936)
(Portugese DVD - Region 1)
***

William Faulkner co-wrote this name-only remake of one of Hawks' silent films. It's hard to imagine it was made a year after BARBARY COAST as it looks straight from 1930, which is a compliment. As a dreamy WWI Parisian combat nurse with a beautiful black velvet choker-wrapped neck, pale skin, bangs, sexy Red Cross on her cape, and a low-registered speaking voice, combat nurse June Lang has the air of Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 Harper's Bazaar --which first won Slims' notice. You can see the same prematurely world-weary petulance in Lang's face, her moment of self-reflexion (thinking about a dead soldier lover?) a prelude to walking through selfless sacrifice's vampiric portal.



The plot to ROAD is an uneasy mixture of inter-generational jealousy and the same old love triangle and how both are bad for victory: new officer Frederic March meets Lang when they take shelter together from a bombing raid in a blasted-out basement saloon. He plays some tunes on the dusty piano, and puts his coat over her as the rafters rattle. Unaware she's the mistress of shaky drunk Warner Baxter, his new C.O., March shows up at her hospital the next day, while she tries to bandage the wounded.  Once Baxter finds out, of course, it's suicide mission time for March, a bit like the situation in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY or Von Sternberg's MOROCCO, or any of a dozen other films (or FRIENDS AND LOVERS, reviewed a few posts ago). Adding to the trouble is Baxter's father (Lionel Barrymore) wanting to get into the young man's game of soldiering to prove his worth. He ends up hogging screen time before blowing up his own teammates. March puts up with it all stoically, and there's never a guess how it ends, DAWN PATROL-style.


A memorable segment of the film involves Germans digging underneath the Allied lines while the soldiers can do nothing but wait it out, rolling cigarettes with their shaky hands as the Germans scrape away below, knowing that as soon as the scraping stops the bombs are likely to go off. That's where the true courage is tested, that painful, prolonged waiting... and smoking. There's a rousing charge across no-man's land and a sneaky night time flank maneuver, but there's still the same auld love triangle, a dead horse gone long stale by '36, and sermons on the ignominy of war, the sense of being pawns in the grip of a writer with a theme and message rather than a director with the guts to let that highlighter pen fall to the floor and trust his own shoot-from-the-gut sense of comedy, overlapping dialogue, cigarettes, whiskey, coffee, and one damned good looking girl.

See also, the 1932 Hawks film THE CROWD ROARS, which I capsuled earlier. 
See also, the 1930 Hawks original THE DAWN PATROL which I capsuled later
See also - LATER HAWKS for reviews of RED LINE 7000 and HATARI

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