Hawks Out Of France
Aspiring autuerists often choose Howard Hawks for beginner courses. Any nincompoop can pick up common threads among this director’s output. They could teach him in elementary schools, but there’s nothing simple-minded about wonders Hawks wrought over five decades making more great movies than virtually any of his golden age rivals. I’ve seen HH saluted web-side by any number of up-and-coming cineastes just beginning to discover his greatness. Hawks is funny and modern and unflappably cool. Young directors today who know their business (can’t be many) undoubtedly wish they could be Howard Hawks. Most of his work is available on DVD. Land Of The Pharaohs came out recently, and more than one thoughtful on-line review called it a great rediscovered fifties epic, perhaps the best of them (I’d agree!). What then of those Hawks stragglers yet to see daylight on video shelves? Again our French brethren come to the rescue on behalf of Yank directors, as they have previously for Minnelli, Fuller, and others. Ceiling Zero and The Road To Glory are two Hawks obscurities largely unseen of late. Ceiling Zero is locked out altogether in the US due to underlying literary rights. Who knows how long it will take to clear that up? It’s been MIA on TCM and nowhere on DVD horizons. The Road To Glory has surfaced on Fox’s Movie Channel, but how many subscribers have access to that? Both features were once syndication stalwarts. Region 2 now offers them. I got mine from Amazon France. Ceiling Zero goes by the name Brumes. They call The Road To Glory Les Chemins De La Glorie. As my own familiarity with French phrases extends not beyond Ooo La La and Sacre Bleu!, shopping for DVD’s on their site usually means trying to recognize box art images or cast names. No telling what else might be floating around over there we know nothing about (but thanks are due to ever vigilant DVD Beaver for monitoring and reporting on interesting Region 2 releases).
Hawks could always find humor in tension. His action shows are often funnier than his outright comedies. He worked ideally with actors who understood his lightness of touch with adventure yarns and could invest proceedings with fun aspects of their personas audiences liked best. Hawks had a way of bringing out the most in personalities like Bogart, Grant, Cagney, Cooper --- all unplugged when they teamed with Hawks. You wish there’d been ten of this man so he could work with all of them all the time. James Cagney was intuitive enough to understand gags Hawks was putting over in Ceiling Zero. Their breezy pacing and hopped-up dialogue anticipates The Thing. Pity these two never worked together again, though you can close your eyes during much of Torrid Zone and imagine that’s Hawks beside the camera, so thoroughly was his style and format co-opted by Warners for this and Cagney vehicles to follow. Hawks invented the whole action formula for talkies. Ceiling Zero is early among its application, but this is no mere rough draft (Zero was in fact a reboot of John Ford’s Air Mail, only with more tempo and laughs). Everything is in place and percolating. There’s attitude, danger, sex comedy, sacrifice --- all those elements lesser directors borrowed and bungled in efforts to be like Hawks. Before directors got auteur status, his was the name you saw in trailers. Hawks was always The Man Who Gave You …, and what he gave were the happiest movie-going memories patrons had --- the brand name for a certain kind of dynamic entertainment set apart from all that disappointment we invariably got when others turned a hand toward Hawks’ kind of movie. Lo the times I’ve watched flaccid shows, albeit with great stars, and thought --- if only Hawks had directed this. The King and Four Queens, The Left Hand Of God, Thunder Bay, Task Force, Legend Of The Lost, so many more. Think how each would have been transformed if only he’d been there. Here’s food for speculation --- Hawks nearly directed Casino Royale in 1966! Howard Hawks and James Bond. That would have given UA and Connery a run for their money.
Women were always better looking in Howard Hawks movies. He had a seasoned eye for what’s timeless in beauty. Hawks girls never went out of style, not for a moment. Even ones he used in the thirties hold up today (or the twenties --- think Louise Brooks). None of that dated Helen Twelvetrees stuff for Hawks. June Travis in Ceiling Zero would turn heads at any twenty-first century Happy Hour. So would June Lang in The Road To Glory. What of these actresses when they worked with other directors? Very little excitement came from either. Travis did mostly "B’s" and Lang was corseted in Fox period pieces. Hawks was known as a starmaker and discoveries fared well as long as they stuck with him. Lauren Bacall startles in To Have and Have Not. So what happened later, even continuing with Bogart? Heat generated in those first two for Hawks evaporated with Dark Passage and Key Largo. Angie Dickinson was another, floundering for nearly a decade in Warner’s talent pool after Hawks showcased her in Rio Bravo. It took another veteran with Hawksian panache, Don Siegel, to begin bailing her out with The Killers, while a fickle Hawks showed no interest in working with Dickinson again, despite entreaties from the actress. Even small part femmes score mightily passing before Hawks’ camera. That cute taxi driver in The Big Sleep looks transplanted from 2007, or 1992, or 1966, whenever. Not for a moment has current fashion dictated she look anything less than stellar. Styles and standards change. Hawks opted for simplicity and freshness of features that never wear out. Big female names doing Hawks movies are less effective, at least in appearance, than unknowns or beginners he could freely mould. For this director, adventures in courtship were the essence of man-woman relations. Marriage ends the fun. You watch Cagney sparring with June Travis in Ceiling Zero, then cut to staid Pat O’Brien playing board games at home with the wife. Henpecked Stu Erwin has to flame out in his aeroplane to get clear of nagging Isabel Jewell. Domesticity amounts to suffocation, if not a death sentence, for Hawks people, both the men and women. That seems to have been the director’s lot offscreen as well. Never a dutiful husband, even with trophy wives such as one that inspired the Bacall image, Hawks sought adventure in ongoing dalliance with women who no doubt reminded him of characters he’d put on the screen. None of them could live up to that ideal, of course. What woman could? Hawks dealt in fantasy figures as surely as Hugh Hefner would with Playboy and its out-of-reach centerfolds. Another reason this director might have been ideally suited to tackle James Bond.
Trench warfare and grimy uniforms are best left to directors like Lewis Milestone and King Vidor. We like Howard Hawks best in cleaner surroundings, where heroism addresses itself to rickety planes and gestures of individual enterprise are carried out for the team’s benefit. Hopeless battle waged in cramped quarters squeeze out what’s best in Hawks, one reason why The Road To Glory seems unlikely to win a place among his admirer’s favorites. 1930’s The Dawn Patrol gave warning of the stifling effect this overly serious material would have on a freewheeling artist like Hawks. His characters need room to breathe, move about, convey insolence where rules are concerned. Stakes are too high in The Road To Glory as well, consequences of rebel postures too grave. Attitudes toward WWI subjects were largely shaped by the stunning success of Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Glories of airborne dogfights celebrated in Wings and Hell’s Angels would sour with hopeless depictions of trench ordeals emphasizing the futility of not just this war, but all conflicts. Grim parables to follow like The Eagle and The Hawk, The Last Flight, and Hawks’ aforementioned The Dawn Patrol gave vent to a lost generation’s philosophy that WWI was itself nothing less than murderous fraud. The Road To Glory was built around dynamite footage culled from a French production Fox had purchased several years before. Les croix de bois (Wooden Crosses) was a critical and popular sensation on the continent, adjudged too grim to cut commercial mustard over here, so Fox took a next best route by pillaging its strongest story elements and most exciting battlefield action. Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland (shown together above on the set with camera operator Bert Shipman) were charged with matching everything up. Their result was much the old Hollywood bag of tricks (Les croix de bois remains barely seen in this country) with triangle love contests and at times woeful comedy relief, courtesy Zanuck’s (apparent) favorite jester, Gregory Ratoff. Scenes dynamic in the French film (Germans planting mines under trenches) remain so for Hawks' incarnation. He makes the most of (few) humorous interludes, and there is June Lang, torrid despite non-existent performing skills. Stars Fredric March and Warner Baxter are much too rigid to thrive in a Hawksian universe, reason enough he’d not use them again. Plagiarism suits were drawn like flies to the completed feature. Seems everyone thought he’d previously written (and submitted) the exact same story. Indeed, variations on its theme had been told ad nauseam by 1936. Within a few years, such indictments of war would themselves be driven off screens to make way for preparedness pics designed to seduce us into participation in the coming Euro conflagration. Ironically, it would be Hawks himself who’d deliver up the biggest smash among these --- Sergeant York.