Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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 a one-man show like Welles, who with infinite booming wit and knowledge, inevitably makes himself the center of attention at any restaurant communal table.  What Hawksian men do instead is to face danger and they sing and play music together (rather than just listening to some Sons of the Pioneers Navy or Cavalry singing group ala Ford). Hawksians 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 her 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 no marriage in a Hawks, no stern moral matrons, no kids (unless they're froggy-voiced old men 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 OOP 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, too, knew the existential trauma of "hurrah for the next man who dies" toasts at the flight barracks) or gone hunting with him, BUT Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation mode, so he did all sorts of studio jobs, from costume dramas to prison films, war pictures (World War I that is) to racing films. He had found success in Hecht-scripted screwball farces like Scarface and Twentieth Century but the real great action films were yet to come.

Anyway, maybe examining these five early, more obscure, films (in order of release) will help. They're all hard to find, 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 a fix (once your annual viewings of the bona fide classics have run out).

 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
**1/2
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: you don't rat out your fellow inmates, no matter what. This code makes it hard to punish in-house murders. And there's a climax wherein if Holmes rats out the killer of a previous criminal code violator (i.e. turns 'squealer') he'll walk out a free man, but he won't break the code. He won't! He won't he won't! he won't!hewont!hewonthewont! Huston gets in some intense acting, grabbing the boy by the lapels and demanding to know who did it. WHO DID IT!?? He won't!hewont!hewonthewont --that kind of slow build-up to an impassioned tough sustain is the Huston Sr. specialty. But what else does this early sound Hawks offer that's well, Hawksian?


Well, in shades of His Girl Frieday to come, there's some nice overlapping dialogue in a press room, and 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.  Karloff gets to loom like a white tunic-sporting Frankenstein in the climax as he stalks a squealer through the warden's offices, 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 my fellow Hawks devotee Peter Bogdanovich and a barely-fictionalized Karloff (playing a horror actor named Orlok) watch on TV while throwing back drinks 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 disturbing documentary-style scenes here of tuna fishing off the coast of Steinbeckian Northern California: a crew of fishermen in the thick of the schools pull them up, one after the other, and into a big trough running the outer length of the boat, where they flip and flop trying to escape, gasping for air, slicing each other up with their razor fins, thousands of these poor animals, their death throes, six bodies deep, a blur of shaking fins and flapping tails. It's an ugly reality the men on the boat are blind to. When one man fishes for himself or his family, it's the natural order; when a crew 'harvests' this many fishes at once, it's death-out-of-balance.

Luckily for my conscience, man's not the ocean's sole apex predator, because where there's panicked fish, there's tiger sharks, and they love the spicy tang of a Portuguese-a commercial fisherman's appendage-a. It's hard to feel sympathy, therefore, when Edward G. Robinson's initially-jovial sea captan loses his hand to a shark in the intro and so wears a shiny hook (he gets it polished for his wedding day). Another guy loses his legs and dies, leaving his only daughter (Zita Johann) broke and powerless against Eddie G's boastful charms. Either way, what a life. Bad accents (though I'm not sure I'd recognize a Portuguese accent from a Spanish or Brazilian, Eddie's sounds terribly fake, like pidgin Italian), stereotypically trite local color, and inevitably, of course, a handsome young sailor to make a nice-a the nice-a love triangle. At the time an inescapable plot-line for all movies, they even shoehorned the 'young buck-steals-love-of-young-wife-from-older cripple husband' onto the 1930 Barrymore-starring MOBY DICK! What a world.

Eddie's accent isn't the only problem with TIGER SHARK: Zita Johann's ghostly alien pallor worked in THE MUMMY where she was supposed to be hypnotized most of the time, but here it works against her. She doesn't have the inner fortitude of, say, Greta Garbo's Anna Christie, she seems like she's perennially seasick, even on land. And so when she falls for Eddie's partner (two-handed hunk Richard Arlen), there's perhaps the forlorn hope that he might have access to some benzos that would make the overacting of Robinson 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." Yeah, but really it's the promise of benzos, and no fear of getting slashed in the face if he comes home a-drunk and in a short guy jealous rage. There's some good scenes all in all, 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--there's the film's sole moment of actual foreboding, a 'whoa!' here he comes, arned. How often does a cease fire signal the start of real danger?
 
CEILING ZERO (1936)
VHS
***1/2
A chronicle of the early days of the Newark airport airline dispatch/ traffic control room, wherein stray pilots are nursed through heavy fogs by tense radio operators onto the 'beam,' and ex-WWI-ace turned chief-of-the-skies Pat O'Brien deals with overlapping crises 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 when--while engaged in life-or-death radio contact with some fog-bound lost plane--some oblivious person walks into the office with an oblivious joke and a pat on the back. But then, enter (tumbling) James Cagney as Dizzy, the clownish daredevil who's been O'Brien's pal since the Signal Corp but is not fitting in with the stifling bureaucracy of the post-war commercial aviation world. Maybe you've already guessed the ending? Shhh.

Naval aviation pioneer Spig Weed wrote it and it's clear the usual Hawksian scribes of later years, Jules Furthman or Leigh Brackett, didn't. There's some distinctly un-Hawksian cockblocking, smug womanizing, lying, misogyny, and other sleazy gigolo machinations, all from old Dizzy as he makes a big play for student pilot June Travis even though she's engaged to a clean cut sap working on a wing de-icer.  If it wasn't Cagney, maybe the ambivalence with which we regard this ex-daredevil might be easier to contextualize. It's confusing as it is, since he's neither a good nor bad guy, nor even complex. Cagney's punchy but not nearly as sexy as he thinks he is. Cary Grant he ain't. And the overall result of his showboating is quite tiresome early on. It undermines the 'men in a group' thing (imagine if Dean Martin was hitting on Feathers / cockblocking Chance in Rio Bravo).


Plusses include the way Hawks knows how to break up interior action with dangerous effects like a streak of blazing gasoline outside the office window on the tarmac; the surprisingly nuanced tour de force by Pat O'Brien; the compressed time frame and extended real-time stretch when they're all trying to help a lost pilot (Stu Erwin) after his honing beam goes out, and he can't get their radio signal at all but they can all hear his end of things. His shouting in panic and rage, presuming everyone on the ground is off shooting craps and there's nothing the frantic control room can do but try to fix the receiver. One girl listening in the room cries and shouts "Why don't you do something?" and they all bark at once "SHADDUP!!!!" Awesome. There's also some surprising sexual frankness: Travis offers herself to Cagney for sexual succor after the death of a pilot who took the doomed flight so Cagney could have a date with her -- a shadowy prefiguring of the steak factoring into Joe's death in Hawksian masterpiece ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS two years later. It's a weird move on her part, considering her engagement, et al - and knowing it's coming from the pen of a career Navy man like Spig, kinda sleazy. Her willingness to two-time a nice respectable boy (the fella who played Maureen O'Sullivan's fiancee Tommy in THE THIN MAN) with this demonic mustachioed leprechaun (Cagney comes off like the sleazy guy who helps Maureen O'Sullivan almost take that first wrong step who Tommy knocks out in that film's climactic dinner) smacks of something Hawks deftly eschewed in better films, sexism.

BARBARY COAST (1935)
(DVD)
**
Miriam Hopkins is one of the first white women to enter San Francisco, back in the 19th century gold rush boomtown days, pre-Panama Canal, when a ship had to travel all the way around South America to get there from NY, and it took the better part of a year. Full of high hopes, anxious disembark, newcomers would arrive to find a city of unpaved mud roads so nasty they could suck a whole pedestrian under like quicksand, a dense pickpocket-filled fog, 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, once more controlling the works. Naturally Miriam comes to work for him, as a roulette operator, the honey in the trap, and--inevitably--as somewhat more. Boy you'd think he'd learn by now, if you're insecure about your height don't parade your pretty, taller woman around. Joel McCreas are everywhere!


There's a few elements that let you know Hawks isn't fully allowed to be himself here. This being one of the films he made as a hired gun of Sam Goldwyn's, he's clearly not particularly enamored with his romantic lead, Joel McCrea, a foolish poet-prospector who loses his hard-earned sacks of gold in one turn of Hopkins' fixed roulette wheel, intentionally, as he's disillusioned by her leading him on. It's a "cheap price for such an education," he notes sardonically. What's made him hate her so? Since it's yet another trite romantic triangle thing with the older wealthy short guy who knows the angles vs. the tall, naive and handsome young idiot, each competing for the hand of the fallen-but-not-too-far-she-can't-be-lifted dame, I don't have to tell you that this all began back when she and Joel fell in love as strangers both seeking shelter from a rainstorm at an old deserted cabin on the road outside of town. Think Eddie's fallin' for that old lame excuse, even if it is true? 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."
I keep forgetting Ben Hecht wrote this, maybe I block it out intentionally, see? Myeah!  It does show that nobody hits it out of the park every time and even great writers can sometimes resemble hacks fresh out of remedial poetry class.


Another thing: 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 like McRae does 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 in the thick of a hungry, eagle-eyed foggy night throng and not getting his corpse picked clean inside of 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 savagery, his prolonged survival intimating a hard-won cool that's very Hawksian. That his disheveled, foul-smelling self is 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 believably 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 triangle 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 (or two after TWENTIETH CENTURY!) as it looks straight from 1930, which this time is actually a compliment. Plotwise, it's FARWELL TO ARMS city again--but with a truly dreamy Hawksian woman as the WWI Parisian combat nurse. With her beautiful black velvet choker-wrapped neck, pale skin, bangs, a sexy Red Cross on her cape, and a low-registered speaking voice, June Lang has the air of Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 Harper's Bazaar --which famously first won Slims' (Mrs. Hawks') notice and led to Bacall;s overnight stardom in To Have and Have Not. You can see the same prematurely world-weary petulance in Lang's face all through this 1936 prelude.

Note the self-reflexion that gives this picture such power,
as if pausing to remember your dead soldier husband was a normal prelude to walking through
selfless sacrifice's vampiric portal. Or if she's just given so much blood she's
about to pass out.


An uneasy mixture of inter-generational jealousy (old needy fathers allowed to enlist way past their prime), and the same old love triangle we've already seen ad nausea in this post alone,  ROAD agrees with itself that war is hell, but sure spends a lot of time there. New officer Frederic March meets nurse Lang when they take shelter together from a bombing raid in a blasted-out basement French saloon. He plays some tunes on the dusty piano, and puts his coat over her as the rafters rattle and the dust falls and she lies down in a chair. Unaware she's the mistress of shaky drunk Warner Baxter (his new C.O., of course), March shows up at her hospital the next day, playing cute while she's being coy, trying to bandage the wounded and dying instead of fawning over him --how dare she? (most un-Hawksian of you, Fred).  Once Baxter finds out March is kicking in his stall, of course, it's suicide mission time, a bit like the situation facing one of the soldiers chosen to die in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY or Gary Cooper in Von Sternberg's MOROCCO, or any of six dozen other films from the era (like FRIENDS AND LOVERS, reviewed a few posts ago). Adding to the trouble is Baxter's father (Lionel Barrymore) showing up and--as Lionel loved to do-- hogging screen time before blowing up his fellow Frenchmen with a grenade thrown in the wrong direction. March puts up with it all stoically, and there's never a guess how it ends, DAWN PATROL-style. Oh wait, you guessed? How smart you are, Steve... do you know "Hong Kong Blues"?


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 also a rousing charge across no-man's land and a sneaky night time flank maneuver, but in the end it's still the same auld triangle 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 low-voiced girl. This time, well, at least he finally figured out the last part.

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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