I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday

iwasamalewarbride21Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood.  I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between  Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.

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Howard Hawks repeating himself

Following on from my post about To Have and Have Not, thought I’d pass on a link to a video at Youtube which shows how often Hawks’ women use the same lines.

I’ll just quote a bit of a passage in Richard Schickel’s book The Men Who Made the Movies where Hawks talks about the repetition: “You ask why did I repeat myself (in) business, characters, plots, things. Probably I could answer it better by saying if a man, a good boxer, hits somebody with a left hook, he doesn’t stop left-hooking in the rest of his fights. And anybody who is any good – any writer – is always going to repeat himself, so that you’re going to know who wrote the thing. And any director that I think is any good puts a stamp on his work. And he naturally will use things again. If it has been good once, it’s good another time. That’s the only answer that I can give to a thing like that…

“I like it when (people) say, ‘You repeated yourself.’  Because  if they can remember that long, the scene must be pretty good.”

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Continuing my current Howard Hawks obsession, I’ve just re-watched one of his most famous films, the one where Bogart and Bacall met. The chemistry between them is just as sizzling as I’d remembered it from watching the film years ago – but what really struck me this time, after submerging myself in Hawks in recent weeks, is how much the movie has his stamp on it.


Bogart and Bacall

The movie is loosely based on a famous Ernest Hemingway novel (I’ve read it many years ago but don’t remember much about it) and has a screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but the plot construction feels very Hawksian, all the same, and there are several lines which are similar or even identical to those in his previous films. “I don’t think I’ll ever shout at anyone  again,” a line spoken wearily by a wife who has just faced losing her husband, is one of these, almost identical to a line in Ceiling Zero in a slightly different context. 

 The central romance plot is similar to that in Only Angels Have Wings, as a woman turns up by chance in a turbulent setting, falls for a stranger, and stays around to see whether they have a chance together even when he tries to ensure that she leaves. Here, the setting is Martinique under the rule of Vichy France, where Harry Morgan (Bogart) sails a fishing boat for hire, but becomes fed up with his current client’s refusal to pay the money he owes. (In the book, Harry made his living ferrying contraband between Florida and Cuba.)

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Ceiling Zero: Old Time Radio version

When reviewing the Howard Hawks movie Ceiling Zero for the early Howard Hawks blog-a-thon, I completely forgot that I had a copy of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of this film, based on Frank Wead’s play. I’ve now remembered and listened to it – and found there were a few interesting differences from the film. Here’s a link to a site where anyone who wants to hear this production can download it – along with any other episodes of the Lux series which appeal to you. 

From all the OTR shows I’ve heard, I’m impressed by what powerful performances the actors give – they were usually performing in front of a live audience, which gives an extra excitement, and makes it perhaps the nearest we can come to knowing what it would have been  like to see many of these actors on stage.

A lobby card from the film 'Ceiling Zero'

A lobby card from the film 'Ceiling Zero'

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Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

After  seeing two earlier Howard Hawks movies about flying, The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero, I couldn’t resist watching his most famous airborne drama. Not surprisingly, I loved this one too. I’ve now watched it twice and am sure I’ll be returning to it in the future.

Cary Grant

Cary Grant

Hawks wrote the original story which was the basis for the Jules Furthman screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings, and set it in the same world as Ceiling Zero. Again he focuses on a small close-knit group of mail pilots who are determined to make sure the letters get through on time, whatever the weather, even at the cost of their lives.  The sheer number of dead and injured by the end of the film makes it feel almost like a drama set in a war zone – except that here the enemies are fog, hills, trees and passing birds. 

However,  intertwined with all the melodrama, there is also a strong element of humorous romance, making it hugely entertaining to watch.  At times the quickfire dialogue between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur almost seems to be taken from a screwball comedy like Hawks’ His Girl Friday. The blend of deadly danger and love works brilliantly, even if at times the plot twists seem a little unlikely.

Jean Arthur’s character, travelling piano player Bonnie Lee, doesn’t know quite what she is getting into when she gets off the boat in a small South American town. She is chatted up by two handsome young pilots, who offer to buy her a drink – but, next thing she knows, they are both being packed off to work, and their boss, Geoff  ‘Pop’ Carter (Grant) is the one turning his charm in her direction.
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Ceiling Zero (1935)

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

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.

Spoilers below cut

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The Dawn Patrol (1930)

This is another contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema blog – and, sorry, it’s a bit of an epic but I’m somewhat obsessed with this movie at the moment

One of the greatest First World War films I’ve seen is All Quiet on the Western Front , which I reviewed here a while ago, and which shows the conflict in agonising and sometimes gory detail. Howard Hawks’ early film The Dawn Patrol is quite different, tighter in its focus and leaving more to the imagination – but it’s equally intense and harrowing, and deserves to be much better-known than it is. I’d say it is also equally anti-war in its emotional message.

Most of its action takes place in the small, claustrophobic setting of the few rooms near the frontline where a group of British pilots are based. This restricted set gives the feeling of a stage play, although in fact it’s due to the limited scope of early talkies. In any case, the narrow focus becomes a strength of the film, giving a sense of just what the pilots’ lives have been reduced to – how all there is now is flights and the space between them. Ed Howard has written about the advantages of the limited sets and pared-down feeling of the film in his review.


Although the movie is based on a story by pilot John Monk Saunders, Hawks, who was also an air force veteran, says in Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies that he himself wrote the film’s story. Clearly he shaped the screenplay to fit his own key themes and preoccupations, with the focus very much on male bonding and sacrifice – and on the tensions of a small group of people forced together under an impossible strain, something also at the heart of two other early Hawks films about flying, Ceiling Zero and Today We Live.

For much of the film, the pilots, led by embittered veteran Dick Courtney (Richard Barthelmess) and his best friend Doug Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) mill around waiting for their next flight. They share endless drinks at the makeshift bar (there seems to be no shortage of alcohol to numb their pain), and join in maudlin songs, always about death. Names of the flight members are written in chalk on a blackboard, then rubbed out as they die and are replaced.

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