As a Brit who isn’t a great sport fan, I’ll admit I’m in difficulties when watching any movie about American football – since, as soon as the players head for the pitch, I can’t really work out what on earth is going on. Nevertheless, I was pleased to track down a copy of this William A Wellman pre-Code starring Pat O’Brien as a college football coach – and featuring a 23-second appearance by a very young and uncredited John Wayne! I’m just editing this posting (on October 6) to say that this title is now out on Warner Archive. (This was actually his second football-themed film – the first,Eleven Men and a Girl (1930), a comedy starring Joe E Brown, was also issued on Warner Archive recently.)
Anyway, back to the rules of American football, and my failure to understand them. I know that a touchdown is similar to a try in rugby, but that’s about as far as I’ve managed to get. I did try looking up the Wikipedia page about the rules but found it impenetrable. Therefore, I’m afraid my review of this satirical comedy-drama will be lacking – but, even though I found the action on the pitch bewildering, there was plenty to enjoy regarding the politics and corruption behind the scenes, much of which seems all too relevant to modern-day sport too. There is also some enjoyably sharp hard-boiled dialogue - as well as some startlingly amoral pre-Code plot twists.
Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.
Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version) who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long. Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.
Just a short review today as I don’t have time for one of my epics, you may be relieved to hear! In all honesty, I also don’t have all that much to say about Devil Dogs of the Air, which is a light comedy-drama, though it does feature some spectacular aviation footage. However, I thought I’d write something about it before it fades in my mind.
On the face of it, there are quite a few similarities between this movie, directed by Lloyd Bacon, and one of my favourite James Cagney films, Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, made later in the same year. Both see Cagney playing a daredevil pilot, and both team him with Pat O’Brien as a long-suffering old friend in a position of command. (They are mail pilots in Ceiling Zero, fleet marine force aviators here.) Cagney even makes almost the same entrance in both films. In each case his character has had quite a build-up before he appears, and is first seen in a plane doing daring aerobatics, before cheekily throwing himself into a dismayed O’Brien’s arms on landing.
Yet the two movies feel very different to watch – partly of course because Devil Dogs is mainly comedy and Ceiling Zero mainly drama, but also, I think, because Hawks’ film gives so much more complexity to the characters. In Ceiling Zero Cagney’s character, “Dizzy” Davis is in his mid-30s (with a thin moustache to make him look a little older and more dashing), getting rather old to fly and also finding his life of womanising starting to wear thin.
I’m getting in under the wire with another posting for the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema site.
After being enthralled by Hawks’ earliest sound film, The Dawn Patrol, I was interested to see another 1930s flying drama he directed – this time set in the world of peacetime aviation, among daring mail pilots. Another big attraction of Ceiling Zero for me was that it stars James Cagney, who is brilliant as the raffish, irresponsible Dizzy Davis, in one of his best teamings with real-life friend Pat O’Brien.
The movie isn’t available on DVD in the UK or the US as yet, but, as it was released on VHS in the US in the past and a French DVD was issued last year, here’s hoping Warner might release a DVD in other countries too in the future. Fingers crossed.
James Cagney and June Travis
In some ways, Ceiling Zero is very different from The Dawn Patrol. It’s more lighthearted, especially at the start, though the mood darkens later - and it focuses on aviators who have time to joke and enjoy life. However, there are also some striking similarities between the two films. Both focus on small groups of people under pressure and facing up to daily danger, who are intensely loyal to one another. The plot twists are also similar at times, especially when it comes to the dramatic climax in each case.
I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.
Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin
However, this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present, I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr, aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)
Before seeing this film, which stars Henry Fonda and Pat O’Brien, I don’t suppose I’d ever thought about how dangerous life was for early power workers. This gritty Warner movie brings home the risks, beginning with a voiceover tribute to all the linemen who travelled across America in the early years of the 20th century to string up the electric wires.
I was reminded of The Crowd Roars, an early 1930s Warner movie about racing drivers, because the power workers in this film are also shown as being under great stress and living under the shadow of death. There’s also the same feeling of impermanence and constantly moving on to another job – and the fear of settling down and marrying today, in case you die tomorrow.
However, unlike racing drivers, the linemen aren’t glamorous figures – except to the eyes of farm boy Slim (Fonda), who longs to leave the plough and join their daring ranks. They’re presented as firmly working-class – and delighted to be in steady work and earning a good salary. All the banter and cameraderie on the building sites seem to ring true, with the drinking and gambling sessions in the evenings to let off steam. I was quite shocked at the lack of safety precautions, with no sign of hard hats (were they invented then?) or adequate safety harnesses. If these men fall from the scaffolding, they plunge to the ground – and if they drop a hammer or a wrench, they probably hit a workmate on the head.
(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers and another picture.)