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The Forgotten: Howard Hawks' "Tiger Shark" (1932)

An early Hawksian study of friendship degenerates into manic melodrama, but "Tiger Shark" has some striking moments.
The critical consensus about Howard Hawks' themes and talents strikes me as bang on. The Cahiers critics identified him as a classic auteur, continually exploring characters and situations he had an affinity for, and in a consistent style. The surprise is it took so long for style and characters to come together to form the Hawks we know: his best early films are outliers, and only gradually did he come to explore the kind of group dynamics, sexual sparring and codes of professionalism with which he's now justly associated.
Early 1930s Hawks just isn't quite all there yet, but you can see lots of Hawksian characters and themes struggling to come together and be their ideal selves.
This one has Edward G. Robinson as a "Portagee" fisherman with a Chico Marx accent and an earring. For some reason, Hawks didn't really connect effectively with the urban tough guy actors until Bogart came his way, at which point it's like magic—though he made Paul Muni into a gangster star for one film. Maybe I'm basing this mainly on Jimmy Cagney's awful mustache in Ceiling Zero (1936), and by his descent into self-pity in The Crowd Roars (1932). The stoic Hawks could never really sympathize with performative breast-beating (though John Ford had a special place in his heart for it).
Robinson is interesting here, and more successful maybe in Barbary Coast (1935), but never feels like a Hawksian figure. It's not that he can't give Hawks what he wants, it's that the kind of characters he's playing seem to derail the movie from being a Hawks joint. In both films he's an explosive and somewhat unstable tough guy, though his ethnic braggadocio here is meant to be lovable. And in both cases he's paired with a more quiet sort of male lead, Joel McCrea in Barbary Coast, and the less attractive Richard Arlen here.
The film's revelation is Zita Johann, playing plebeian, a million miles from The Mummy (1932). I think I spotted a scar on her brow from where John Huston put her through a windscreen. (He gave up driving shortly afterwards, but not before killing a pedestrian—he reportedly decided that drinking and driving didn't mix and he knew which one he preferred. Officially, he was sober at the time of the fatal accident, just a bad driver. Johann was married to John Houseman at the time of her crash. Whether she was carrying on with Huston, or just confused by the similar names, I don't know.)
Anyhow, here she's great, rather fiery and appealing and receiving loving attention, in exquisite close-up after close-up, from cinematographer Tony Gaudio. She marries Robinson out of gratitude but then immediately falls for his best friend, Arlen, and the two spend the remaining reels in a state of Unresolved Sexual Tension.
There's also a lot of strong documentation of the tuna fishing industry, for those of you who have no interest in Sexual Tension. A lot of Hawks films fetishize a private world of professional activity: this one, like Hatari! (1962), gets a little too hypnotized by its vérité footage, though the on-location filming is impressive and unusual for the period. The adventurous Hawks looked on films partly as an excuse for outdoorsmanship, and here he gets to mess about in real boats, eschewing rear projection a fair bit of the time. But the story punctures any sense of hardboiled professionalism by having everyone continuously falling in the water the moment a shark turns up. But we get the camaraderie, the closed world, and the little male-on-male intimacies: Robinson scratches Arlen's back with his hook, and yes, he has a hook for a hand, and a scar, and an accent, and an earring. All things Robinson can do very well without, as we know.
Then there's a tragic conclusion which clears the deck for Resolution of Sexual Tension. The friends turning into enemies bit reminded me of Red River (1948), which has that surprising conclusion where the Obligatory Scene, according to screenwriting manuals, is simply sidestepped at the end by the characters recognizing that they don't hate each other, they love each other (and it takes a woman to tell them, of course). Here, no such solution is possible because both romance and marriage are involved. Truly successful Hollywood films of the era dance around morality and audience requirements and make everything work out to our dramatic satisfaction. Intriguing but flawed ones like this run smack into a wall whichever way they turn.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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