Monday, January 12, 2009
A Girl In Every Port
[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]
Howard Hawks' 1928 silent film A Girl In Every Port is both a singularly fascinating glimpse into Hawks' early aesthetic and thematic development, and a massively entertaining action/comedy romp. It is, as befits the director who later became known for his dramas about tight-knit groups of men in high-pressure situations, essentially a buddy comedy. More than that, it is practically a love story, a romance, about the development of a masculine friendship closer than any traditional romantic relationship. It's the story of the sailor Spike (Victor McLaglen), who in his travels around the world is plagued by a mysterious other sailor who keeps leaving his mark (an anchor within a heart) on the girls who Spike tries to romance when he goes ashore. When he finally runs into this other sailor, Bill (Robert Armstrong), the two predictably brawl and butt heads, but they soon find camaraderie in their shared distaste for the police, who arrive to break up the fight. After a night spent drunkenly wandering the town — Hawks economically suggests a lot with a great shot of the pair's wobbly legs walking down the street together — they become inseparable friends, enlisting on the same ship and always carousing as a pair from then on.
So the film's real story is actually not about the sailors' quest to get girls. Despite the title, the "girls" in question are mostly disposable, forgotten by the time the sailors get to the next port; what endures is their affection for one another, and the fun they have getting into fights together. Hawks continually films them in ways that suggest a romantic couple, in tight close-ups or with their arms wrapped around each other. When they have an argument, the reconciliation is filmed as a series of sheepish back and forth glances, the two of them gradually shifting closer together from their initial standoffish positions across the room, the shot getting tighter and tighter as they make up. There's a suggestion of homosocial undertones here, particularly in the eye-rolling single entendre involved whenever Bill has Spike pull his finger after a fight to put his joints back into place. Even when the film isn't quite as blatant as that, there's a tenderness and compassion between the men that they never show with the women they meet.
Spike and Bill's friendship and their journeys from port to port provide Hawks with a simple but dynamic foundation on which to build any number of comic and adventure sequences. The film is frequently a riot, keeping the use of intertitles to a bare minimum and communicating its bawdy humor through the raw physicality of the action. The bar fight sequences are especially hilarious and effective, slightly sped up to give the action a frenetic, unhinged slapstick quality. Hawks rarely resorts to a title to sell a joke, and the few titles there are mostly just deliver necessary exposition or set up a change of location whenever the ship moves on. In the absence of dialogue or text, the humor comes across instead in the comic wildness of the action, or in the nuances of the actors' performances. Both lead men tend to mug broadly, especially McLaglen, who spends much of the film with a huge smile slathered across his friendly, open face. And yet their exaggerated actions are frequently packed with subtleties of gesture and emotion that would otherwise not be communicated without dialogue, like the way that McLaglen's courtship routine (slicking back his hair, adjusting his collar) has become a ritualized series of gestures that's triggered automatically whenever he sees a pretty girl. McLaglen is especially great in a pair of scenes that play on the sailor's fear that one of his "girls" has delivered his child while he was away. Twice he comes across old flames who now have babies in tow, and Hawks boldly accentuates the sailor's fears; it's some fun business that would disappear from Hollywood film a few years later, once the silents started to give way to sound film and then the Production Code.
In fact, the film's attitude towards sex is, in general, refreshingly candid and straightforward. The script makes no secret of the fact that Spike and Bill are going to bed with numerous different women in every town they visit. At one point, Spike knocks out his compatriot, who keeps interrupting him while he's trying to make time with a girl. A cut then elides some unspecified amount of time before Spike returns to wake up his buddy and cheerfully lead him out of the bar. Hawks leaves his audience to make the not-so-great leap as to what transpired in between the two scenes.
The film's attitude towards sex is even more apparent in the depiction of the women themselves, who of course never get beyond the status of empty sex objects, but who are nevertheless given the chance to be exceptionally alluring and open in their sexuality. Maria Casajuana, as a local girl in a South American port city, is a particularly electrifying femme, a dazzling dark beauty who glowers and grins her way to a sensational impact in just a few short minutes of screen time. There are other tantalizing glimpses of intriguing women in one port or the other, but none of them match the simmering intensity of Casajuana or, even more so, Louise Brooks, who appears as a Parisian carnival performer and weaves through the final third of the film. This is the role that essentially propelled Brooks to fame, leading directly to her subsequent part in Pabst's Pandora's Box, and she plays exactly the kind of man-eating prototypical femme fatale with which she came to be synonymous.
In fact, Brooks' character provides the drama in the film's final act, when Spike falls in love with her and abandons ship to stay in Paris by her side. It's obvious from the start that she's a gold-digger, her eyes lighting up when Spike tells her how much money he has saved up. Things only get worse when Bill meets her and realizes that he used to run around with her back in New York, and that she still has a thing for him rather than Spike. So Brooks' characterization doesn't amount to much more than a wedge to be driven between the two men, threatening their idyllic friendship, but she does the best she can with the flimsy, misogynist caricature she's given. She is always an electric presence, doing most of her acting with her expressive eyes. It's so easy to admire the way her glances suggest her emotions and thoughts that one nearly misses the even more powerful way she rations these moments, keeping her eyes veiled with the downward tilt of her head and her fluttering lashes. Her demeanor shifts fluidly between reticence and a bold sensual quality, her generally retiring shyness evaporating into moments of sexual frisson, her dark eyes flashing with mischief and lust whenever she looks up. One thinks of her as a bad girl, and forgets that she is often able to disguise her bold sensuality with a sweet façade.
This is a remarkable early effort from Hawks, already possessing his signature rollicking roughness, the good-natured raggedness of his finest films. A Girl In Every Port blends comedy, adventure, and masculine bonding in a speedily paced story whose rough edges are left endearingly intact.