I’ve been enjoying contributing to a few blogathons lately, and this is my contribution to another one – the Universal Blogathon, celebrating the studio’s 100th birthday. Please take a look at the great range of postings.
Universal might be best known for its horror films, but the studio also produced many other types of movie over the years, including Westerns. The Alaskan gold rush is the backdrop for The Spoilers, a lighthearted film with a great cast, headed by Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. I’d remembered all the best bits of this film from a previous viewing, before deciding to revisit it for the blogathon, and, having watched it again, would have to admit there are quite a few flaws which had slipped my mind. So it isn’t a masterpiece – but it does provide a lot of fun and there is loads of chemistry between Dietrich and Wayne, who were an item in real life at this time. It’s also interesting to see Western hero Scott in a less than sympathetic role.
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.
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.)