Friday, April 13, 2012

Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man

On Tuesday, April 17, the PFA closes out a three month long Howard Hawks series. With all the film festivals in January through March, I was not able to see very many of the 25 films in the series. Fortunately, I had seen several of them before. AMC seems to air Rio Bravo and El Dorado on a weekly basis. I have previously seen well over half of the films in the series; many at the Castro, Stanford or PFA in the past few years.

As they did with the Akira Kurosawa Centennial, the PFA and Stanford Theater seem to have programmed essentially the same series but without any overlap or competition. The PFA series ends on April 17 and the Stanford series begins on April 20 with many of the same titles except the Stanford series totals 36 films.

I only caught three Hawks films at the PFA in January before festivals took over. I had opportunities in March and April but I have already seen most of the titles screened during the last month of the PFA series. The three films I saw were:

The Crowd Roars starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell & Ann Dvorak; (1932)
Tiger Shark starring Edward G. Robinson, Richard Arlen & Zita Johann; (1932)
Fig Leaves starring George O’Brien; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg on piano; (1926)


At 70 minutes, The Crowd Roars looked like a B picture, but it was made in 1932 when Jimmy Cagney was well established as "You dirty rat" and the grapefruit masher. When I watched it, I thought there were coded messages in the in the Hays Code. However, 1932 was pre-Code. I was left scratching my head about the plot. Joe Greer (Cagney) is a successful race car driver. Ann Dvorak plays his girlfriend. Joe returns to his hometown to visit his family. Despite having a gal of his own, Joe feels the need to protect his younger brother Eddie (Eric Linden) from women. Sending Dvorak's character out of town on the train and keeping mum on her existence, Joe's misogynistic efforts run up against Eddie's girlfriend (Joan Blondell) and causes a rift between the brother. Eddie makes it onto the pro racing circuit and the Brothers Greer head in opposite directions - Eddie starts winning races and Joe starts losing.

Already, the synopsis has grown to nearly the length of the film. I thought the film was a minor chapter in Hawks and Cagney's filmographies. There were some exciting race car scenes but otherwise I didn't find much to hold my attention.

Tiger Shark, from the same year as The Crowd Roars, was much better. It was amusing to see Edward G. Robinson with a Portuguese accent but the classic love triangle was almost enough to derail it. Along with Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (1937), I can't think of two actors of the era who were better suited to play Portuguese fishermen. Actually it was Robinson's loud & boisterous Mike, the tuna boat captain, who provides much of the entertainment. Sporting a hook for an arm and an earring, Robinson seems to embrace this character as much as any gangster he every played.

After one disastrous cruise, Captain Mike goes to inform Quita (Zita Johann) that his father (one of the crew) has died. Not exactly ebullient before the news, Quita falls into a depression which only serves to stir Mike's ardor towards her. Unlucky with women, Mike proposes to Quita. After professing her lack of love towards Mike, Quita accepts the proposal with as much excitement as going to the dentist. Out of gratitude, compassion and self-indifference, Quita marries Mike. She immediately regrets it as Mike's handsome fisrt mate (Richard Arlen from Wings) shows up. From there, the film follows the standard love triangle plot. No need to cover that ground again.

Robinson's portrayal of the Portuguese fisherman is the primary reason to see the film. Whether he is waxing philosophical about the sea in Romanian accented English while trying to affect a Portuguese accent or acting declasse at his own wedding reception which he treats like another excuse to get drunk. Zita Johann's Quita has a detached apathy which is an interesting interpretation. Her performance was evocative of many of Marlene Dietrich's roles. Richard Arlen had the thankless role of playing a decent guy in love with his best friend's wife.

Japanese actress Toshia Mori appears as barber/manicurist in the film. Her role was minor (perhaps non-speaking) but her appearance striking for being the only Asian in the cast. The year after Tiger Shark, Mori would land her only notable role - the third lead in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Fig Leaves is a silent comedy which switches between prehistoric times and the contemporary period. The film mixes dinosaurs and the Garden of Eden for comedic if not accurate palaeontological effect. George O'Brien plays Adam in both eras and he has to deal with headstrong wife Eve (Olive Borden). I don't recall all the Flinstones like gags in the prehistoric setting. In modern times, Eve wanted a job which Adam adamantly opposes. With the "help" of her duplicitous neighbor (Phyllis Haver), Eve gets a job as a model.

Reminding me of Buster Keaton's Three Ages, Fig Leaves posits that the relationship between men and women has not changed since time began. There is also a strong paternalistic streak throughout the film...husband knows best. Without the dinosaur and cave man gags, the film seems unremarkable. Phyllis Haver, who broke into the business as one of Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties, commanded my attention with her appearance and conniving actions. When the third billed actor delivers the most memorable performance...


These three early Hawks films suffer in comparison to Hawks' later classics. Looking at his filmography, it seems like Hawks hit his stride with 1938's Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. I'm not sure if I can divine Hawks' later mastery from the three films seen. Each had some interesting moments but I was looking for more evidence of of Hawks' later greatness.

No comments: