Two By Howard Hawks

I attended the first night of the Pacific Film Archive‘s Howard Hawks retrospective last night. The opening pictures, The Crowd Roars and Tiger Shark, made an odd choice. Made in 1932, soon after his classic Scarface, these are not amongst his best work, his earliest work, or his best early work. They’re merely pretty good melodramas with some Hawksian themes in embryo.

Both movies deal with men in dangerous jobs–a common subject for Hawks. The PFA screened both movies in 35mm prints that were recently struck by the Library of Congress.

(As I write this, the PFA’s web site appears to be down. If you can’t get to any of the links, my apologies.)

James Cagney plays a champion race car driver in The Crowd Roars. He’s got a girlfriend (Ann Dvorak) who–for some unexplained reason–he doesn’t want to introduce to his family. That’s bad to begin with, but worse when he brings his kid brother (the extremely innocent-looking Eric Linden) into the business.

The Crowd Roars Trailer

The characters and relationships seem silly and plot-driven. Why does Joe–Cagney’s character–feel ashamed of his girlfriend? Why does she stick with him when he acts like such a jerk? If Joe feels so strong about keeping his kid brother innocent, why bring him into such a rough profession? But then, this is the sort of picture where, early on, a sidekick kisses a pair of baby shoes and puts them in his car before a race–no way that guy will live to the fadeout.

The girlfriend’s name is Lee, which sounds very Hawksian; he liked giving his ingénues masculine names. But her helpless blubbering over a boyfriend who mostly ignores her is a far cry from Hawks’ usually strong women.

Despite the name cast and director, The Crowd Roars feels like a B movie–quick-paced, witty, and over in 85 minutes. I enjoyed it the way I enjoy Bs–with lowered expectations. If it were my first Howard Hawks experience, I would have left wondering what the fuss was all about.

I liked Tiger Shark a lot more, despite Edward G. Robinson’s awful Portuguese accent. He plays Mike Mascarenhas, the captain of a tuna fishing boat based in San Diego–a skilled fisherman and a decent human being, but with a fierce temper and utterly lacking in social skills.

He’s unlucky with the ladies, but has a very good best friend, Pipes (Richard Arlen). Hawks was great at male friendship, and the way they support each other, lie for each other, and protect each other is touching.

Mike eventually finds and helps a woman in need(Zita Johann), and she agrees to tiger_sharkmarry him out of gratitude. She doesn’t love him. Of course she’s going to meet the tall and handsome Pipes, and you can probably guess where the story will go from there.

Much of the film was shot on location, and some of the scenes of tuna fishing feel more like a documentary than narrative. Hawks really wanted to show us how those big fish get from the ocean to those tiny cans.

Houston Branch’s original short story was called Tuna. I guess someone felt that Tiger Shark made a better title. The title fish show up in several scenes.