Ceiling Zero is among the films in the BFI Howard Hawks season
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.
Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
I originally wrote this posting a while ago, but have now rewritten it as part of my William Wellman season here. I first watched Other Men’s Women on a dodgy bootleg copy, which was the only way of seeing it at the time, but am now delighted to have a beautifully remastered official DVD, issued as part of the Forbidden Hollywood 3 box set.
Mary Astor and Regis Toomey
This is a fast-moving film which really appealed to me because I am a fan of both melodrama and gritty early Warner films focusing on people’s working lives. The fact that it also features an early performance by James Cagney, though in a very small part, is another attraction. It has some dramatic, dark and grainy footage of trains in rainstorms – Wellman very often uses rain in his films, partly to give a feeling of his characters being up against it and facing a hostile world, as in the famous scene with Cagney in the rain near the end of The Public Enemy, made in the same year. I gather some of the train scenes were done with miniatures, but they still look convincing to me.
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.
This is my second – last-minute! – contribution to the Robert Wise blog-athon, being hosted at the Octopus Cinema website. I’ve just re-watched this Western starring my favourite actor, James Cagney, which is the tale of a tough, driven owner of a horse ranch in Wyoming, and wanted to write down a few thoughts about it.
James Cagney with the horses
This is a lavishly-produced film, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, with beautifully colourful, wide shots of the rolling grass prairies that almost take your breath away. The dazzling scenery does become disconcerting at times in the movie, as sometimes violent and disturbing events unfold against a backdrop almost as lovely as the Alps in Wise’s The Sound of Music (of course, bad things are happening inside the houses there too.) I suppose the contrast between the scenery and the events must be part of the point, but I’m not sure it always works all that well – sometimes I found myself wishing the lighting would be just a little less bright.
In the opening scene, young stranger Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) wanders into Jeremy Rodock’s valley, and almost immediately meets ranch owner Rodock (Cagney) himself, who is shot in a gunfight with horse thieves. Despite his wound, Rodock is determined to avenge himself on the thieves and insists on continuing to ride his horse until he faints in the saddle. He then insists that Steve must cut the bullet out of his back to save his life. There’s a moment of dark comedy afterwards when Rodock – the one who has just undergone the operation without anaesthetic! – asks a half-fainting Steve: “How do you feel?”
First of all, I’m sorry not to have posted here for ages – my working life has been busy and I’ve let blogging slip as a result. I’ll try to do better!
James Cagney and Mae Clarke
James Cagney walked out on Warner Brothers in the mid-1930s partly because he was fed up with being typecast as a tough guy. So it comes as a surprise that his starring role in Great Guy – the first of two movies he made with Grand National, a poverty row studio – seems such a typical role for him.
Typical at first glance, anyway. His character, Johnnie Cave (the hero of stories by James Edward Grant published in the Saturday Evening Post) is an ex-boxer, now fearlessly enforcing the law for New York’s Department of Weights and Measures. However, the very fact that he is working for such an unglamorous department suggests a certain distance between this character and the gangsters, G-Men and dashing pilots Cagney had played in his recent films.
It might be included in the Warner Gangsters Collection 3 box set – but the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher, directed by Lloyd Bacon, is really only a gangster movie in the loosest sense. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if there are any true gangster movies in this collection, since none of those I’ve seen so far really fit the bill. Not that I’m complaining, as they are all fascinating to watch anyway.
This film is a very slight offering and I don’t have all that much to say about it, but, as I’d eventually like to write at least something on this blog about all of Cagney’s movies, here are a few thoughts on this one.