The Spoilers (Ray Enright, 1942)

Dietrich and Wayne

Dietrich and Wayne

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.

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Howard Hawks season coming up at the BFI

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.

Central Airport (1933)

Central Airport is yet another of William Wellman’s lesser-known pre-Codes – but the good news is that this one is available on DVD, released as one of a batch of Warner Archive features starring Richard Barthelmess. It’s not one of Wellman’s very greatest, but it is still highly enjoyable – and highly characteristic of this director,  packing in a lot of breathtaking aviation stunts and following people who travel from town to town as part of an air circus. In his pre-Codes, Wellman always has a feeling for wanderers, and for people who have to put on a performance to earn their livings.

It is also a characteristic role for Barthelmess, who plays an aviator in several of his greatest films – so, watching him as a death-defying pilot in this, I found myself often reminded of his roles in movies like The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Only Angels Have Wings. The first time I watched this movie, I assumed his character was also a First World War veteran, as in the classic movie he made with Wellman a little later the same year, Heroes For Sale – but, watching a second time, I failed to spot anywhere where this is stated  outright, though I think it is suggested at one point.

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Heroes For Sale (1933)

Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’  The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.

This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes.  The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.

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The Dawn Patrol (1938 – and 1930 revisited)

Earlier this year, I reviewed Howard Hawks’ first sound movie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), a powerful tale of a group of British First World War pilots waiting in their small, temporary HQ near the frontline in France, to be sent off in batches to an almost certain death.

Since then, I’ve found myself often remembering the film,  and have been curious to see the 1938 remake,  directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Errol Flynn and David Niven as Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott, the roles played by Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in the original.

Errol Flynn and David Niven

Errol Flynn and David Niven

I’ve now managed to get hold of a copy of the remake, and watched it – then went back to the earlier version to see what the differences were. The thing that struck me most of all was just how similar they are – in many scenes the scripts seem almost identical, while a lot of the flying footage is clearly taken from the earlier film and sandwiched into the second version, with just Flynn’s dirty face in goggles substituted for that of Barthelmess.

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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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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.

dawnpatrol

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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