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.
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.
Spoilers below cut
The title of Ceiling Zero refers to the heavy fog which is the greatest risk to the mail pilots. That danger is present from the very start of the film, where a pilot is seen bailing out in conditions of zero visibility and losing his plane – only to be sacked on grounds of cowardice by the aviation company’s boss, Jake Lee (O’Brien). Later, the main drama centres on the desperate efforts by pilot Texas Clarke (Stuart Erwin) to bring his plane home safely under an equally heavy blanket of fog.
Jake has no time for pilots who aren’t up to the job, but he is far more forgiving to someone who is daring and talented but immature, like his old wartime pal Dizzy (Cagney).
As with several of Cagney’s movies (Torrid Zone, also with O’Brien, springs to mind, along with another aerial drama, Captains of the Clouds), his character gets a big build-up before he ever appears. Other characters get their say before he turns up, so we already know that he has a wild side and that Jake is devoted to him but others are less keen.
I get the impression that cinemagoers were being kept waiting to see the star. There’s an element of teasing here, cranking up the expectation before he finally makes his big entrance – and it certainly is a big entrance! As in Devil Dogs of the Air, made the same year, Cagney turns up in spectacular style, carrying out a breathtaking series of aerial stunts and then jumping out of the plane and into the arms of O’Brien, whose character tries to look stern but can’t quite manage it.
Often in 1930s films Cagney plays characters far younger than he really was, so it’s a refreshing change here to see him play someone who is his own real age, with a touch of world-weariness. Cagney was 36 – while Dizzy insists so many times that he is “only 34” that you mentally add on a couple of years, at least. Cagney’s pencil moustache helps to give a feeling of the character as someone determined to stay youthful and dashing – a sort of would-be Errol Flynn. (I recently got hold of a 1950s movie annual which includes an article by Pat O’Brien where he mentions that Cagney checked with him that he wouldn’t also be wearing a moustache in this film.)
Dizzy is soon revealed as a feckless womaniser, with a long string of failed romances in his past, including a secret one with Mary (Martha Tibbetts), who is now married to Jake but, it seems, has never quite got over him. Dizzy now moves in on young pilot Tommy (June Travis), ignoring the fact that she already has a boyfriend, another young pilot, and treating her to the full force of his well-worn charm. There’s a lot of chemistry between Cagney and Travis and their scenes together are great – she’s very much a “Hawks woman”, playing her part in a man’s world and wearing a flying uniform rather than flowing dresses. Some of their quickfire conversations have hints of what’s to come with Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Still on Travis, I was interested to discover that she learned flying, navigation and parachuting from Amelia Earhart to prepare for her role – so she really got into it.
I enjoyed Travis’ performance, and O’Brien is at his best as a slightly more subdued version of the responsible older brother figure. Erwin is great too – but the film really belongs to Cagney, who makes the character of Dizzy so complicated and multi-layered. He shows all his wit and charm and essential vulnerability, and yet doesn’t soft-pedal on the underlying killer selfishness. Dizzy regards the aerodrome as his home, and Jake and Tex as his only family – but he takes his friends for granted and shamelessly trades on their love for him.
Davis has a heart defect, like many Hawks heroes with physical disabilities. A key scene comes when he pretends to collapse in order to get Tex to step in and take his flight, so that he himself has time for a date with Tommy. This scene does so many things at once – it shows Dizzy’s irresistible charm and power over those around him, but also shows just how self-centred and thoughtless he is. As well as being hilarious to watch Dizzy hamming it up, it’s also poignant, because there’s the knowledge that he really does have “a bum ticker” and could end up playing this scene for real.
The moment has a more bitter kind of poignancy in retrospect, when the flight foisted on Tex turns out to be a journey into danger and ends with him crash-landing in flames, then dying in hospital – ironically, after his own heart really does give out. Tex’s weary flight through the fog, trying to communicate through a faulty radio, builds up the tension and steadily darkens the mood of the film.
There’s some dramatic aviation footage in the movie, but many of the key scenes are played on the ground, within the aerodrome offices. Hawks says in an interview with Richard Schickel in The Men Who Made the Movies: “If you’ll notice, almost all of my comedies have been in restricted areas. It is much easier to keep them going fast, and, actually, scenic shots haven’t much place.” This description is equally true of this early drama, as he shows characters pushed together in a small space. Ceiling Zero has a stagey feeling at times because it was based on a successful Broadway play, by Frank “Spig” Wead, an aviator who ironically came through the war unscathed only to be left disabled by a fall downstairs. However, as with his other early films, Hawks reshaped the script to give his own take on some of his recurring themes, from male bonding to sacrifice and suicide.
Like the hero of The Dawn Patrol, Dizzy ends up taking the place of another flyer on an obviously doomed mission, as a means of committing suicide. He decides to die after being dealt a number of blows, from Tex’s death and a fierce upbraiding by his grieving wife Lou (Isabel Jewell), who tells him “You’re just no good”, to the discovery that he has lost his own flying licence. A life on the ground is unthinkable to him.
Dizzy tells his love rival, Tay (Henry Wadsworth) to take care of Tommy, then knocks him out and takes over his mail flight, flying into the heavy fog which has already killed Tex. On his way to his death, he carries out vital tests on some new de-icers, which will save other people’s lives in the future – but I find it very hard to think this is a good enough reason for him to give his life now. I love this film to bits, as anyone reading this review might have gathered from the length of time I’ve spent going on about it – but for me there’s a sense of waste at the end. I can’t help wishing Dizzy would take Jake’s advice and cancel the mail flight until the fog has cleared.