Friday, January 23, 2009

Come and Get It

[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.]

Come and Get It is the result of Howard Hawks' second attempt, after the pleasant but totally uncharacteristic Barbary Coast, to work under producer Samuel Goldwyn at MGM. If in the previous film Hawks' style had been mostly subsumed by his producer's strong personality, Hawks is very much present in Come and Get It, although not for the entirety of the movie — in fact, Hawks either quit or was fired with about three-quarters of the picture done, leaving William Wyler to step in and complete it. Because of this, the finished film betrays the influence of two distinctly different directorial personalities, though with the basic narrative framework in place from the beginning, it is not nearly as disjointed as one would expect. Structurally, the film is a multi-generational tale, roughly divided in half, with a lengthy prologue set in 1884, before the action flashes forward to 1907. Both sequences center around the lumber baron Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), whose rise to power is accomplished at the cost of his happiness. Hawks' personal style is most evident in the raucous, bawdy humor and action of the first half, while the more sedate second half is more obviously suited to Wyler (though Hawks must have shot some of this more turgid material as well).

In the film's opening, Glasgow is just beginning his rise to wealth and power, working hard and shrewdly as an assistant to a logging company owner, but jockeying into position to become a full partner. With his plans set in motion — he need only marry his boss' daughter to consolidate his position — Glasgow takes a break after a successful logging run to celebrate with his friend, the gregarious Swede Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan) and the other loggers. In the process, he meets and falls in love with the lovely bar singer Lotta (Frances Farmer), a tough, brassy girl who's obviously a true Hawksian heroine. The scenes in the bar between Glasgow, Lotta and Swan are where Hawks really comes alive, having a ball with the raucous setting and his sneering, self-possessed heroine. Farmer sings a pair of songs, packed into typically cluttered Hawks frames: this is perhaps the first appearance of the distinctive way the director would deal with musical breaks in his later films. There's more than a little resemblance here to the later use of Lauren Bacall's smoky torch ballads in To Have and Have Not, and Farmer has a similarly husky, deep voice. The bar sequence climaxes with a great brawl, lovingly staged to maximize the violence and destruction. By the end, the three of them, Lotta included, have fended off the entire bar full of attacking thugs, hurling metal trays like discuses to take down the men and shatter every glass surface in the room. Hawks seems to be reveling in this destruction, celebrating the collapse of the entire bar.

There is a similar energy and pleasure in the early scenes that depict the process of logging from start to finish, following the progression of the lumber: trees being chopped down, the ice cracked so that the logs can be shipped downstream, the wood finally being carved and crafted into marketable goods. Hawks farmed these scenes out to his regular collaborator Richard Rosson, who often handled the documentary sequences in his early films. Rosson, as usual, has a keen eye for process, for capturing the raw physicality and rugged determination of men working in demanding professions. These scenes are extraordinary, finding an abstract poetry in the way thick logs careen down the carved-out paths that lead down to the river: the logs shoot out over the water like missiles, sending up tremendous geysers in their wake. Hawks always liked to ground his stories in physical reality, in the milieu of his characters, and in his early films it was often Rosson who allowed him to do this, though never quite as spectacularly as here.

These scenes give the film's first half a loose, vital atmosphere, bolstered especially by the fine performances Hawks gets out of Brennan and Farmer. Once the film jumps forward in time, however, much of this momentum is dissipated, perhaps inevitably since the narrative itself is about a man who trades this pure, unfettered happiness for his business ambitions. The budding romance between Glasgow and Lotta is shattered when the former realizes that he must return and marry his boss' daughter, or else lose his chance to become a full partner in the logging business. Glasgow makes his choice regretfully, and the kindly older Swan marries the wounded Lotta instead, settling into a comfortable life with her to mend the gulf left by his friend's departure. Glasgow, meanwhile, has married the plain, nagging Emma Louise (Mary Nash), and fathered two children, Evvie (Andrea Leeds) and Richard (Joel McCrea). He has become gruff and cold, a far cry from the playful, expansive carouser and rabble-rouser of the film's opening scenes.

When the action picks up, Glasgow is preparing to visit with his old friend Swan again for the first time in the twenty-three years since he left Lotta behind. He does so at the urging of his daughter, with whom he has an odd relationship with a typically Hawksian undercurrent of incestuous closeness: Evvie calls him "Barney" or "darling" and walks with him arm in arm, doting on and playfully teasing him. She has more of a wifely relationship with him than his actual wife does; Emma Louise primly tells her son that she has never called her husband anything other than "Mr. Glasgow," in a scene that makes the cold, businesslike parameters of their marriage readily apparent. Meanwhile, Lotta has died in the intervening years, though not before leaving behind a daughter who bears a striking resemblance to her mother.

In fact, it is this girl — also named Lotta and also played, with a much softer, quieter attitude by Farmer — who excites Glasgow's interest when he goes to visit his old friend. He sees in her a vision of the powerful love he now regrets leaving behind, and he becomes lecherously attached to her, conspiring to keep her close to him under the guise of helping her father, his friend. The plot becomes increasingly mired in layers upon layers of melodrama, irretrievably so once Glasgow's son Richard also falls in love with this new Lotta. It's around this point that Wyler takes over, his mannered deep focus compositions signaling his presence. His style blends fluidly with Hawks' despite the difference in approaches, and he contributes some undeniably striking images: particularly one in which Glasgow's looming back takes up the foreground as he discovers the two young lovers clenching, glimpsed in the far background over his shoulder.

But by this point the film's narrative has become unredeemably dull and plodding, and Wyler's stately pacing and heavily stylized compositions do little to lighten up or aerate the material, as Hawks might have done with full control over an unpromising story like this. Even Farmer, so fun and free-spirited as the first Lotta, becomes just another weepy delicate flower as the second Lotta, possessing the same face but little of the same spirit as her mother. Brennan remains a breath of fresh air in all his scenes — though he was still much more fun in Barbary Coast and would be even better in later Hawks appearances — and Arnold is fine in conveying his character's transition from party animal to dirty old man. Ultimately, though, it's a misconceived, uneven film that, perhaps because of its troubled production or simply the inherent weaknesses of the material, never really comes together as more than the sum of its often entertaining parts.


Adam Zanzie said...

Come and Get It is definitely an uneven film, but I found myself pleasantly enjoying it. Were it not for Wyler's involvement in the material--as much as I respect Wyler as a director--I might be tempted to call it one of Hawks' superior "early" films, since it's often skirting on the edges on greatness. The problem might be the way the material was adapted to the screen--Edna Ferber's book had told an ecologically-knowledgable story about "the rape of the world", but Jules Furthman and his fellow screenwriters were more interested in telling a simple human tale about age and temptation. On that basis, the movie is pretty successful.

Edward Arnold is excellent here, but Frances Farmer actually kind of steals the show. I read up a bit on her life, and it's very tragic how her career and personal life totally collapsed after making this film. She's radiant in her portrayals of both of the Lottas. But I guess what I admired most about the film is its core theme: Arnold's Glascow character has to come to terms with the fact that he is getting old, and--unlike Khufu in Land of the Pharaohs--he has to give up his lecherous longings and accept life for what it is. This type of theme isn't exactly characteristic of Hawks (or Wyler, I suppose), but nevertheless it resonates strongly. That final shot of Arnold ringing the dinner bell while looking out sadly at Lotta and Joel McCrea is really, really devastating. Apparently Hawks hated the experience of making the film under Samuel Goldwyn's supervision, but I don't think there's anything for them to have been all that ashamed about in the finished film. I might review it in the future--would you mind if I quoted from this piece of yours, Ed?

Ed Howard said...

No doubt about it, there's a lot of interest here, Adam, especially Frances Farmer's great performance. It's a compromised film and it sounds like you enjoyed it more than I did on the whole, but it's still pretty good and has some fantastic sequences. The first half is pretty damn great, too.

And yes, of course you can quote me in your own piece. I'm looking forward to reading it.

nem baj said...

I love Come and get it. The way the violence of the lumber works matches the bar fight. Frances Farmer, the original Hawksian woman, from the saloon encounter (which owes so much to Sternberg's Morocco) to the late scene when she gets in the way of the father fighting the son. The triangle between her, Bernard the masculine and Swan the sexless - that undressing behind the folding screen next to the two buddies.

Sure, the final result is heavily compromised. Sure, it is not even granted that, had Hawks and Furthmann kept control, they would have overcome the pacing problems of the story they were trying to tell, but... this film is the matrix of so many great Hawks movies to come. Once you've seen the later masterpieces, I find it hard not to be fascinated by the clay starting to get into shape.

Oddly enough maybe, I think Wyler (and probably Toland) did an interesting job on the last half-hour.  It is a good example of how greatly the visual result, with the same cast and script, can vary under two different directions. 

Of course, having a complete Come and get it by Hawks, and then a full Wyler remake might have been better for the history of film; but then, as 'cadavres exquis' go, this corpse is definitely exquisite!