Saturday, January 17, 2009

EARLY HAWKS BLOG-A-THON: BARBARY COAST (1935)

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The following post is my contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-Thon taking place over at Ed Howard's Only the Cinema. Ed is prolific every week, but during this one, he's been cranking out Hawks' posts so fast that even Peter Bogdanovich himself would blush. So do yourself a treat, head on over to his blog and spend some time checking out the various links to this long overdue tribute to an important man.
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In Ed Howard's write-up of A Girl In Every Port, he points to instances in that early silent "buddy movie" of Hawks' that signal the budding beginnings of what would form that non-comedic Hawksian trademark of men behaving honorably amongst each other in times of service, showmanship, and silliness. For me, I'll always recognize the sensitive masculinity of Air Force as Hawks' finest moment of inter-gender bonding and brotherhood. If we ever need to time capsule what real men were like, let's be sure to throw in stills of that film's cockpit and hospital sequences.

Well, I borrowed Ed's thinking cap tonight after watching Hawks' Barbary Coast, and couldn't help but read it as an out-of-genre precursor to, perhaps, his most acclaimed film His Girl Friday. Yes, if you've seen both films, it's true that on the surface these films feel fourteen shoulder lengths apart in tone, style, and drama. But consider this:

* Ben Hecht wrote both films (His Girl Friday by way of his play The Front Page).

* There exists a bizarre love triangle which one party is left unaware of until very late (the Hecht penned Scarface also has this).

* The drama of both films revolve around newspapers.

* The exchanges between Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in Barbary Coast are similarly sharp-tongued and filled with the bitter wit (McCrea tells a friend he feels like a "shorn lamb". Moments later, Hopkins orders some "lamb kidneys & liver" for dinner) of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.

Though Barbary Coast came out at the dawn of the production code-era, its limitations feel more as a result of some studio head's "happy-ending" pressure than any adherence to the enforced moral checkpoints of decency and flavor. Still, credit Hawks and Brecht for being able to jam the entire evolution of Hopkins and McCrea's love affair within an impossible fifty minute time frame (McCrea doesn't make his first appearance until the fourty-three minute mark). With these contraints, and the demands of the studio, Hawks incredibly makes the film's most unconvincing attributes and plot points ultimately convincing.

Film historians often site Japanese minimalist Yasujiro Ozu as the master of driving narratives through a strict reliance to the medium-to-long steadily held shot. No doubt he deserves that accolade, but it should also be respected that Hawks worked his way to that same economical and efficient artistic achievement within a much more commercial and watched-over environment. Though his frames weren't as evocative and rich as Ozu's, I would argue that Hawks' facial captures were just as brazen as was his ability to line-up subtext and subplot through the simple placement and direction of an actor's physicality.

What I really enjoy about blog-a-thons like Ed's is that they force upon their participants a demand to spend time with an earlier era. No matter how many films you've seen, everybody can benefit from slowing down and relearning appreciation from the designers of the early days. Just today, I went and saw My Bloody Valentine and then chased it with Barbary Coast. It's an extreme example, sure, but it still reminded me of what can be lost when too much devotion is given to a single era, genre, or director. That's why I have Ceiling Zero sitting over there next to my TV right now. Yes, it's on VHS, but I see that as just another reminder to remember and appreciate. Slow down & relearn, slow down & relearn, slow down & relearn...

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