Howard Hawks, morbid and somber. Hats off to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for showing a rare double-feature of rare Hawks in their current retrospective of the director. Tiger Shark (1932) and The Road to Glory (1936), paired together for who knows what reason—rarity, perhaps? Or maybe because they re-work similar plot outlines, though then again Hawks more than anyone usually reworked similar plot outlines—was a great boon for audience members whose familiarity with the director is traced from his more known adventure films and comedies.
Tiger Shark works with a prototypical Hawks scenario: a manly adventure setting (the fishing milieu off the coast of California), an expert professional (Edward G. Robinson as a Portuguese fishing captain), and a threat to the crew in the form of both ravenous tiger sharks in the fishing waters and in a woman who marries Robinson but falls for his best friend. Tests of friendship, professionalism, and sacrifice are far from unusual in a Hawks film, but this movie takes them a bit further. As with the remarkable, cartoonish exaggeration of the immigrant banter between the broken English of the Portuguese—an exaggeration tempered by the warmth and earnestness of Robinson that radiates through the caricature, makes it delightful—Tiger Shark absorbs and expresses its sailors obsessions with amputations, death at sea, the ferocity of sharks, the inability to get into heaven, and all sorts of morbid awarenesses of death. It is staring these men so directly in the face that they actually have to boldly, baldly talk about it in order to stay courageous.
Well, not just talk, but work hard, and purely too: in the short running time of the film a great deal of footage is expended, as in Rossellini’s Stromboli and Visconti’s La Terra trema, on documentary footage of the fishermen simply doing their jobs. Nothing Hawks ever shot, not even the safari footage of Hatari!, is perhaps as thrilling as the sequence where on the back of Robinson’s boat the fishermen pull in humongous tuna after humongous tuna, whipping them heavily but easily out of the churning waters, depositing them on the ship in a tough, expert motion, and then dipping their rods back in for more. It is a very bodily movie in that way, talking about cut off limbs and incomplete corpses and showing the wresting of the fish and the sharks from the sea. And the morbid is always prevalent: even this almost joyful sequence of fishing ends with Robinson’s best friend getting a stray fishing hook stuck in his neck. For all its sentimentality and character excess, the darkness of Hawks’ world has perhaps never been more readily apparent.
Or so one would think, until you get to The Road to Glory, notably shot by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, among many beautiful others) and co-written by William Faulkner. More erratic and full of holes than the practically schematically Hawksian Tiger Shark, this 1936 World War I film is the more risky, more intriguing of the double-feature. It is also the most somber Howard Hawks film I have ever seen, even the characteristically enthusiastic and hammy Frederic March turning morose, beaten down, grave. Again, two very professional men, this time French Army officers, fight over a girl who feels she owes them both (June Lang, supple, luminescent, with an aura of composed mourning about her), amidst the action of war and the wonderfulness of masculine character that shows itself under such adventurous circumstances. (Hawks is nothing if not the enjoyer of the casualness of characters in tight situations.)
The ideal scene of the film takes place during a zeppelin attack, where March pulls Lang into his basement alcove by her shapely white calves to protect her from the bombardment, and maybe to get a little action. Wry and self-aware, March plays a romantic, mournful piece on his piano in the candle-lit basement, asking if it is putting Lang in the mood, then tells of how precarious and near death his life as a soldier is, then asking if the sentiment is getting to Lang. Amused but strangely solemn and sober, Lang remains loyal to her pill-popping, alcoholic officer lover for at least this basement rendezvous (the next one, also with piano music, will prove more successful for March). The delight comes not only in the remarkable seriousness of the scene within the romantic banter of the potential couple, but in the way the seriousness cannot be contained or cloaked by March’s charm or Lang’s candle-lit beauty. The Road to Glory, like many an eccentric and forgotten entry in classical Hollywood’s long history, is a peek at the adult world of could-bes. It is what Hollywood in the 1930s could have been, had the Production Code in the middle of the decade not clamped down on all kinds of complicated morality, and if literary imports of genius like Faulkner were actually trusted with scripting a significant part of a movie. How this one got let through, in part or in whole (and it sure is a mess of parts), is anyone’s guess, but The Road to Glory adds a solemn, somber note to the career of a director more often than not noted for its animation and energy.