September 17, 2013
It’s hard to conceive of Howard Hawks without sound. His films are focused on work and its downtime, and it is in spurts of chatter in which his characters define themselves. As physical as their occupations may be, it’s always their words that reveal their true selves. Which is why watching Hawks’ silent films are so disorienting. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a full retrospective of Hawks’ work, and this past weekend they screened many of his silents, including A Girl in Every Port (1928), which manages to set up many of the director’s pet themes before the arrival of sound allowed his talents to fully emerge.
After Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? minted box office gold in 1926, the Fox Film Corporation was eager to produce more macho globetrotting comedies. Walsh’s film adapted the play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, which followed two army buddies, Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirk (Edmond Lowe), as they battled over women in China, the Phillippines and France during the onset of WWI. Hawks wrote the original story for A Girl in Every Port in 1927, which is essentially What Price Glory? if you remove the dramatic war sections. At this early stage he’s already showing an interest in paring down genres to their basics. This reaches its apotheosis in Rio Bravo, in which the Western is reduced to a street, a jail and a hotel. His story has two sailors, Spike (McLaglen) and Bill (Robert Armstrong), who joust over women on their worldwide jaunts, until a few brawls make them best friends. While Armstrong’s character is credited as “Salami” in the AFI Catalog, his nickname is not present in the print I saw. Maybe censors removed it for being too sexually suggestive? McLaglen is the hulking goofball, an overeager lothario whose telegraphed moves are no match for Armstrong’s low key mystery.
A number of writers were brought on to polish his scenario, but Seton Miller received the final screenplay credit. These later drafts introduced a vamp character (to be played by Louise Brooks) who seduces Spike and threatens to upend their relationship. This conventional bit of melodrama was imposed in these later drafts, over-complicating Hawks’ simple tale of friendship.
Hawks famously told Peter Bogdanovich that the film was a “love story between two men”, and his depiction of their deepening platonic bond will achieve echoes in his later work. The act of lighting cigarettes will become an erotic emblem throughout his career, seen to charged effect in To Have and Have Not. In A Girl in Every Port, this gesture seals Spike and Bill’s bond. They are both soaked after an extended throwdown with some Keystone cops and an unintended dip in a bay. Bill’s pack of cigs is all wet, so Spike proffers his – and their bond is sealed. They are shown in a simple two shot, with close-up inserts for the lighting. A classical, maximally legible setup, although Hawks does show more camera mobility that we’re used to in his later work. There is a lovely tracking shot through the city streets as the two men look for an abandoned spot to slug each other. There’s also an expressionist touch in one shot, in which Hawks uses a low angle under Louise Brooks’ high diver, her body abstracted against the night sky as she soars down towards the camera. F.W. Murnau was in residence at Fox at this time, and exerted an influence over the whole studio. Even Hawks, an exemplar of Hollywood’s “invisible” style, was inspired to deploy some visual tricks of his own.
Louise Brooks is stuck in the role of gold digger, without the vibrant independence of later Hawks heroines. She does fill the role though, of the feminine presence that sets the professional male world on tilt, whether Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings or Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. When he had more freedom, Hawks gave more to his female characters. In A Girl in Every Port, Brooks is a narrative device, a carnival high diver who splits Spike and Salami’s indomitable bond. But whereas Arthur and Stanwyck challenged the masculine assumptions undergirding the boys clubs they crashed, Brooks’ obvious villainy only confirms the macho worldview of A Girl in Every Port. The film ends with Spike and Salami ready to continue their love ‘em and leave ‘em life.
Hawks knew Brooks because he was friends with her husband, actor/director Eddie Sutherland. He cast her because, as he told Kevin Brownlow, “she’s very sure of herself, she’s very analytical, she’s very feminine, but she’s damn good and sure she’s going to do what she wants to do.” That could describe all of his female characters following in the wake of Brooks. While he wasn’t able to provide her with a multi-faceted character, she certainly makes a visual impression, with her razor-sharp bob and form-fitting diving gear. She exudes a fearsome modernity which scares the hell out of every man around her – the shape of Hawskian women to come. Her small but pivotal role in A Girl in Every Port attracted the attention of G.W. Pabst, who cast her as the much-desired lead in Pandora’s Box – which turned her from an actress into an immortal image.