Howard Hawks’ filmography is well-documented with with films like The Big Sleep, Red River, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In prepping for a Wilder/Hawks class I’ve been watching and re-watching several films of both directors, starting with their earlier filmographies.
A Girl in Every Port begins Hawks’ lifelong obsession with the bromance. In fact, A Girl is pretty close to the ultimate romance. As I was watching it I kept wondering what a film with the gender roles reversed would look like – I think it would be pretty awesome. Don’t steal my idea.
The plot: Spike (Victor McLaglen) is an itinerant sailor just looking to sleep with a woman. Every woman he happens upon, however, already has a tattoo or medallion of a heart and an anchor: the sign of his unseen rival. As Spike moves from port to port he eventually happens upon Bill (Robert Armstrong), himself a sailor, a drunk, a womanizer, and a fighter. A match made in heaven! Except…Bill is Spike’s long-anonymous rival. After several brawls the two men eventually become fast friends, leaving a trail of ruin wherever they go. It’s not until they come across Marie (Louise Brooks) that a woman comes between them.
A Girl is a pre-code film, meaning that it was made in the period between the late 1920s and approximately 1934, when the Production Code began to be seriously enforced. This shows. There’s plenty of sexual innuendo throughout.
Louise Brooks is the highlight of the film, as she is in all of her roles. I remember first coming across her in Pabst’s films Diary of Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box. Her flapper-attitude combined with a certain innocence is magnetic.
There are several traits of what would soon become Hawksian cinema present in A Girl. The narrative is fast, the scenes short, and the camera set-ups minimal. Perhaps most Hawksian, however, are the character traits that are introduced early and followed up on later. Think of Rinaldo’s coin flip in Scarface. Here, it’s Bill’s out-of-joint fingers and Spike’s habit of ordering two drinks at a time. The Hawks way is to intro these characteristics early and then play them later for a joke (when Spike is angry at Bill he routinely orders two drinks…only to knock one off of the table).
A great example of both Hawks’ visual jokes and his cinematic language is a scene at about the midway point where Spike and Bill (great names!) have been out all night. They burst into a bar wearing hats and head to the bar:
Spike immediately sees an attractive woman across the room, and Hawks dissolves to her in a medium-shot:
Bill sees his friend’s gaze and tries to convince him to do something else with this awesome line of dialogue:
But it’s not to be. Spike heads off with the woman, while Bill tries to get in as many fights as he can. What’s remarkable about the series of shots above is the fluidity, simplicity and clarity of the shot selection for 1928. Though he’s not inventing cinematic language, Hawks is packing it in and using it in the way that is becoming, and will soon further evolve into, the classical Hollywood style. Start wide (they enter), cut closer (the two shot), go into singles (Spike sees woman) and POVs, and cut back out for reactions.
Here’s the end of the scene. In one long-ish (frame size and duration) shot, Bill and Spike walk to the door. But they immediately run back in and throw their hats on two unsuspecting and unconcerned bar patrons:
Bill and Spike run back near the door and stand still…so that when the hatless cops come in, they don’t look like the culprits:
Hawks has a great camera position to capture all of this in one take. Bill and Spike play it perfectly in their quick movement back in and then stock-still-stance for the punchline. This is also a joke that takes the whole scene to unfold. When Bill and Spike first enter the bar there’s no big deal made of their hats at all. It’s not until the end, when the cops enter, that we realize that they’ve basically been on the run from these two bare-headed police officers the whole time.
After Scarface (1932), Twentieth Century is probably Hawks most celebrated film until Bringing Up Baby in 1938. It’s not my favorite Hawks – John Barrymore gets on my nerves – but it’s still an 0ften-funny romantic, near-screwball comedy.
Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe (OJ), a famed and arrogant Broadway producer intent on making a star of his pet project Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). When he succeeds and they eventually part ways they find themselves on the 20th Century Train together. OJ attempts – in his histrionic way – to offer reconciliation to the now-famous Hollywood star.
Like A Girl in Every Port, Twentieth Century finds Hawks up to similarly visual tricks, but his style has also progressed over the 6 years.
One of the best scenes of the film has OJ directing an amateur Lily for the first time. The scene not only incorporates what is now pretty obvious as Hawks’ style, but also a (slightly sarcastic) peek at the director’s actual style in the person of OJ. OJ approach Lily and starts drawing marks on the ground in chalk for her:
Once he’s done Hawks cuts back out to a wide-shot as the actors run the scene again:
Lily misses her mark and one of OJ’s two sidekicks, the frequently drunk Owen (Roscoe Karns), looks up from his perch on a nearby bench:
As OJ continues to direct his other sidekick, Oliver (Walter Connolly) approaches from behind with some news:
This leads directly into the joke. A wiping dissolve moves us to an overhead wide-shot, where the floor is now littered with chalk marks. It’s a clever way to move through time and to say, without saying, that the cast and crew have been there for a long time:
The scene progresses and eventually OJ sends Oliver up to the upper levels of the theater to test out Lily’s screaming ability:
With all of the other actors dismissed, OJ plays the part opposite Lily himself. In a medium-wide-ish shot he walks towards Lily, landing in a 2-shot. Hawks then pans back with OJ as he moves away from Lily and towards his coat on a chair:
An insert shows his plan:
And then the sequence continues as OJ delivers his line and sticks Lily with the pin, causing a tremendous scream…a star is born.
We can see several differences from the A Girl in Every Port scene. For one, the goings-on here are more rapid fire – everyone, particularly OJ, nearly runs, and for two, the set and shot selection are more 3-dimensional. We get an entire view of the room and the depth is really used when Oliver approaches from behind OJ and again when Oliver climbs to the top of the theater.
Further, there are two important insert shots in here, both of the pin. By my count there’s only one or two close-ups of faces in the entirety of Twentieth Century. Hawks keeps his camera generally in mediums and uses his tight shots only for informational moments (the pin, words on a card later, etc).
We also see Hawks’ habit of isolating side characters – Owen and Oliver here – to give them uniqueness and their own punch/taglines. It’s the glee that OJ takes in stabbing Lily with a pin that sheds some light on Hawks the director. Not only will he do whatever it takes to get the performance (this from a man who was said to have been one of only a few directors able to handle Wayne, Mitchum and Bogart), he’ll delight in doing so.