Blu-ray/DVD: Only Angels Have Wings

OnlyAngelsBDOnly Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.

Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.

You could substitute any number of professions to make the same point—and Hawks did in other films—but there’s something romantic about these men who love flying so much they take a job at the end of the world just to pit their skill against a treacherous mountain pass in a night fog. And there’s something inviting in the way these men banter and argue and spin tales between jobs yet are ready to spring into action at the first hint of a pilot in trouble. It’s Hawks’ idea of a romantic world, which frankly sidelines women who aren’t actively involved in the team effort, but it welcomes all who embrace the philosophy that professionalism is the greatest measure of character.

Hawks’s adventures were love stories between men and Bonnie’s affable rival for Geoff’s affections is his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell), an aging flier with bad eyes who Geoff has to ground. Adding to the tensions is the new pilot (Richard Barthelmess), snubbed by everyone for a past cowardice that got a colleague killer, and his glamorous wife (Rita Hayworth, drop-dead sexy in her first major role), who has history with Geoff. Movies are built on such small world coincidences. The magic of Hawks is the way he turns contrivance into community and plot twists into tests of character.

Community is the key. Hawks had always been a master at male friendship in all its camaraderie, competition, loyalty, and sacrifice, and at romance that blossoms from conflict and clashing wills. Here he creates a society with its own rules and in Jean Arthur’s Bonnie, he offers a woman who is accepted into the brotherhood on both their terms and hers. He’s served by a marvelous screenplay by Jules Furthman (Hawks reportedly penned the story himself, based on things he’d seen and pilots he’d known), a piece of pulp fiction poetry and adventure story mythologizing filled with figures who are both dramatic points and beautifully sculpted characters. The dialogue is alive with wit and wiles and truths hidden in banter and metaphors, and the cast delivers it in volleys that collide and overlap.

It may seem crazy that this tropical adventure tale of independent flyboys in a South American port hauling the mail over the Andes is shot entirely in Hollywood (a few aerial scenes to the contrary). Even the exteriors are basically wrapped in muslin, which gives the film a strangely claustrophobic quality even when it isn’t smothered in fog. Even the Andes pass, where a lone radioman reports on the mercurial weather conditions, is more of an illustration from a Gothic German fairy tale (or the most lavish Guy Maddin set ever) than any realistic location. Yet the Hollywood-constructed fantasy of an American outpost and makeshift airfield chopped out of the jungle makes a fabulous backdrop, a fantasy yes, but also an insular, rarified world where life is lived minute to minute, men are good enough, and the highest compliment one can receive is “professional.” Welcome, professional!

The film has been on DVD and Blu-ray before. Criterion’s edition is mastered from a 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm negative. You might think that such clarity would lay bare the seams of the Hollywood artifice but the opposite is true: the rich detail of the sets and settings are a sight to behold in the cleanest, clearest, sharpest presentation I have ever seen.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature a new interview with film critic David Thomson, who offers a crash course introduction to the art and themes of Hawks (it runs about 17 minutes), the new 20-minute program “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies” with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, and excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 interviews with Howard Hawks (audio only, about 19 minutes), plus the 1939 “Lux radio Theatre” adaptation of the film with stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell all reprising their roles, and the trailer. The fold-out insert features an essay by Michael Sragow.

‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It’s both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.

Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn’t have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. “It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act,” explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks’ 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn’t like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

Blu-ray: ‘Red River’

RedRiver
Red River (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) – Howard Hawks’ 1948 ‘Mutiny on the Prairie’ is a frontier epic, the sweeping tale of a journey that can’t be made and the story of a son forced to battle the father he loves and adores. Monty Clift made his film debut opposite grand old icon John Wayne, playing the adopted son of the self-made cattle baron, and the opposition of acting styles is electric: laconic elder statesman Wayne wearing his character like buckskin, dominating the screen as upstart method actor Clift’s intensity burns a star right next to him.

Hawks’ style leans more to Wayne: measured and easy-going, he seems to let the characters take the story along with them, but behind that easy pace is a tale of madness, betrayal and vengeance that heats to a simmer under the sun of the parched prairie. “I never knew the big sonofabitch could act,” remarked Ford upon seeing Wayne’s performance, and he started casting Wayne in more complex and mature roles. But Clift was the real revelation and his internalized, psychologically-driven approach arguably pushed Wayne to reach for colors he’d never brought to a role before. The release was delayed while Hawks fought a legal battle with Howard Hughes, who claimed the film was similar to his own The Outlaw. Hughes lost but in the meantime Clift made The Search, which beat Red River to theaters and earned Clift his first Oscar nomination.

There are two versions of Red River and the longer pre-release version, which features “diary pages” of exposition between scenes and minute or two of additional footage, has been the version on previous home video releases. Hawks himself has said that he prefers the theatrical release, with runs 127 minutes (six minutes shorter than the pre-release cut) and features Walter Brennan narrating in place of the journal pages, and Criterion features a new 4K digital restoration of this version as well as a 2K restoration of the longer cut on both Blu-ray and DVD.

The four-disc combo release includes both films on Blu-ray and DVD plus new video interviews with Peter Bogdanovich (discussing the differences between the two cuts) and historian Lee Clark Mitchell (on the history of the western novel and the film’s debt to the literary tradition) and a video essay by Molly Haskell. Archival supplements include audio excerpts from Bogdanovich’s 1972 interview with Hawks and an interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. There’s a booklet featuring a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby, plus a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel, previously out of print.

More classics and catalog releases of Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

MOD Movies: ‘The Crowd Roars’ for James Cagney

The Crowd Roars (1932) (Warner Archive), a car racing drama directed by Howard Hawks (who had raced cars himself) and starring James Cagney as racing champion Joe Greer, is as rip-roaring a speed drama as you get in 1932. Hawks, who also wrote the original story, tells you exactly what the film is about in the opening shots: a spectacular wreck on a dirt track, the animated response of the spectators leaping up to get a better view, and then the title. We know exactly why The Crowd Roars. The rest turns on sibling bonds broken in rivalry (Eric Linden is his talented kid brother) and romance and a spiral into defeat after the fiery death of a teammate on the track. (The Tom Cruise race picture Days of Thunder borrows a lot form this film.)

Cagney is the most extreme version of the Hawks hero, whose callous dismissal of his long-suffering girl (poor, hopelessly obsessed Ann Dvorak) borders on abusive, but he’s also more hotheaded and less disciplined than the usual self-contained Hawks man: a hypocrite, a drinker, a risk-taker whose impatience and anger kills his best friend. Joan Blondell gets second billing as Dvorak’s best friend, who seduces Linden in revenge and ends up falling in love with the kid, and Hawks puts real-life driving champs in the pits and sidelines. You may not recognize them by face or even name today, but they’re easy to spot – they’re the ones who can’t act. But don’t worry, they don’t slow down the film.

Hawks fills the film with real racing footage, including some dramatic crashes, interspersed with his staged scenes, and he drives it with an energy to match the onscreen speed. The film was originally released at 85 minutes, then cut for rerelease. The original cut is apparently lost so this is the 70-minute version, which also may contribute to the film’s headlong momentum.

More manufacture-on-deman​d titles at Videodrone

‘Twentieth Century’ on TCM

Howard Hawks’ pioneering screwball classic Twentieth Century plays on Turner Classic Movies on Monday, October 6 (with replays in November and December). My feature article on the film was recently published on the website.

Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks’ rapid-fire farce Twentieth Century (1934), a comic collision of tempestuous personalities in the rarified world of Broadway, is the proto-screwball comedy. It’s a genre born of the depression where the airs of the rich and sophisticated were deflated through madcap behavior and zany antics, all pitched at a breakneck pace. The elements of screwball had been kicking around the early sound era in the rat-a-tat pacing of the streetwise Warner Bros. pictures, the lampoons of the decadent rich in such films as Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde (1931), and the show-biz pictures like Morning Glory (1933) and What Price Hollywood? (1932), but it took Howard Hawks to combine them in this screen adaptation of the Broadway farce. Hawks was a director more known for his male-centric action movies than zany comedies; his early thirties hits include the war picture The Dawn Patrol (1930), the prison drama The Criminal Code (1931), the race track thriller The Crowd Roars (1932) and the original Scarface (1932), the quintessential gangster film of the era. Twentieth Century was his first comedy of the sound era, but his mix of frantic pacing, whiplash shifts in tone and devil-may-care direction of glamorous stars in wacky parts launched the defining comedy genre of the thirties.

John Barrymore, on the downhill slide of his career, zings through the film as the self-promoting Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, showing a comic mastery that Hollywood rarely tapped. Carole Lombard, a pretty but largely undistinguished clothes horse of a leading lady, revealed a knockabout facility for physical comedy and a flair for tempestuous characters as Lily Garland, a lingerie model pulled out of the department store runway and transformed into Jaffe’s latest discovery….

Read the entire feature on the TCM website here.

‘Scarface’: Blasting to the Top

scarface_titlecard.jpg‘Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it’

The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.

The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.

Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.

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Paul Muni as Scarface with his latest toy

What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.

The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.