Ceiling Zero

If you spend any time watching, discussing, reading or writing about movies, then the auteur theory is one which will inevitably cross your mind. I was first exposed to this concept in my teenage years, and it’s a notion which I first embraced and then rejected. Over time I’ve shifted my position on the matter frequently, mainly due to my acceptance of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. I’ve now become more comfortable with the label, no longer seeing it as inherently pejorative towards the collective efforts of the other people involved. The fact is it’s hard to ignore the idea of the auteur when you look at the body of work of the most significant directors. Howard Hawks provides a good example of what I’m talking about; his films are remarkable for the frequency with which they return to a broadly comparable milieu, setting and theme. Ceiling Zero (1936) is the kind of film I think it would be impossible to view without thinking: yes, this is clearly a Hawks movie.

The title refers to the kind of weather conditions that were the bane of aviation pioneers, the sky right down on your nose and visibility all but non-existent, compelling them to rely on a combination of fickle instrumentation and gut instinct to see them through. The story takes place in a Newark airfield, and the focus is on a group of pilots and ground crew responsible for the mail run. Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) is the superintendent, a former pilot himself who’s now the de facto boss, hiring, firing and calling the shots in the day-to-day running of the outfit. He’s a disciplined man, secure in his professionalism and apparently unsentimental. And yet that’s not entirely true, for there is a chink in his armor, a blind spot. Jake’s dedication to his job is superseded only by his loyalty to old buddies and former comrades in arms. It’s there to be seen in his easy friendship with veteran flyer Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin) and also his quiet concern for the welfare of an ex-pilot brain-damaged as the result of an accident and now reduced to the status of janitor/cleaner. However, it’s the arrival of another old pal, Dizzy Davis (James Cagney), which underlines this aspect of his character. Dizzy arrives at the airfield in spectacular fashion, indulging in plenty of fancy aerial acrobatics before touching down. It’s immediately obvious that Dizzy is a reckless individual, hard-living and wholly self-absorbed. His reputation as one of the flying greats precedes him, and he plays up to it shamelessly. What we’re watching here is, essentially, the final act in the life of a man who’s a victim of his own legend, coasting along on the reminiscences and indulgence of others. However, times change and a man can only subsist on his past glories for so long. With the job of the pilot moving relentlessly towards a more serious place, a guy like Dizzy is fast becoming a walking relic, a throwback to a devil-may-care era of swashbucklers. The crunch arrives when his selfishness and carousing brings tragedy to the tight-knit airfield, and puts both his character and his friendship with Jake under the microscope. But, as is the case with all the best movies, even those who have squandered the chances life offered before have the opportunity to achieve a salvation of sorts.

Frank Wead adapted Ceiling Zero for the screen from his own stage play and its theatrical roots are clear to see. The action is largely confined to one set, the airfield’s nerve center, where the human drama is played out. As such, it’s an ideal vehicle for Howard Hawks. His signature was always a focus on small groups, isolated in one way or another, and held together by their sense of professionalism. The characters here seem to exist within their own little world, a self-supporting community of like-minded individuals fiercely protective of each other and suspicious of the occasional incursions by those from the outside. A typical Hawks movie could be characterized as one where the characters’ interactions reign supreme, and the settings are merely cosmetic backdrops to facilitate the drama. Only Angels Have Wings (which bears some resemblance to this film) takes place in South America, Rio Bravo in the Old West, Hatari in Africa, The Thing from Another World at a polar research station. Yet in all those cases the location used is of much less importance than the dynamic between the people occupying them. And so it is with Ceiling Zero, where the whole thing revolves around the relationship between Dizzy and Jake.

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien became a recognizable and successful team during the 30’s and I’d rate Ceiling Zero right up there with Angels with Dirty Faces as one of their best collaborations. They both had that mercurial Irish quality that leads to some sparkling moments on the screen, their snappy waspishness colliding as the two stubborn personalities meet head on. Still, there’s the underlying affection and respect which gives it its heart – the sharp exchanges with the machine-gun delivery grab the attention yet it’s the quieter passages the two men share which reveal more. As Cagney’s bravado and vanity recede, and O’Brien’s simple humanity rises to the surface, a genuine friendship can be seen. And it’s there too in the reactions of both to the tragedies and losses they suffer – subtle, heartfelt and quite moving. While the film is really a showcase for Cagney and O’Brien – not that that’s any bad thing – there’s good support provided by Stuart Erwin, Isabel Jewell, June Travis and Barton MacLane among others.

As far as I know, Ceiling Zero has yet to make it to DVD in the US, but it has been released by Warner in France. The French disc offers a reasonable presentation of the film using a print which doesn’t display much in the way of damage but there is a softness to the image indicating a lack of restoration. French releases can have an annoying habit of forcing subtitles, although I’ve never found this to be the case with WB titles. It’s certainly not a problem with this movie – the option to watch with or without French subs is offered on the language selection menu. In my opinion, Ceiling Zero is typical Hawks, and anyone familiar with his work will need no further recommendation. Perhaps it’s not the easiest film to find but I reckon it’s well worth the effort.

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30 thoughts on “Ceiling Zero

  1. I’ll certainly check this one out Colin now that I know that it’s available from France. I’m a great fan of Hawks and “Only Angels Have Wings” is one my favourites of his. Your description of this did remind me of it…as you say yourself in the review. It’s surprising how many good films by famous directors remain very obscure due to lack of TV screenings or availability on disc. I have been on the lookout for this for a while and I can’t recall ever seeing it before. It sounds just my type of picture.

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    • I think TV showings of this one have been rare – I did see it long ago on, I think, Channel 4 in the mid-80s but I hadn’t seen it again until I got the DVD.
      If you’re a fan of Hawks’ work, or either of the two leads, then you should enjoy the movie, Dafydd.

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  2. Excellent review, Colin – I like your description of Cagney’s character playing on his past glories, and the comparisons you make with other Hawks films. I definitely agree that Ceiling Zero is a film which has Hawks’ stamp on it. I remember getting excited a couple of years or so back when I read that the film was due for a release on DVD in the UK, but sadly it never happened, so I wonder if there was some rights issue.

    I reviewed this film six years ago (how time flies!) on my blog and, looking back, I spent a lot of time going over the whole plot – it looks to me as if it was the first review of mine you commented on, so many thanks for that and for all your support over the years since!

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      • Very kind of you, Colin. I know it was shown at the Hawks season at the BFI, though sadly it was one I didn’t manage to see. I remember in Richard Schickel’s book on Cagney he quotes him as saying this was his favourite of his films with O’Brien – it’s a great part for him, I must say, though I don’t know if I’d choose it over ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’! There’s also an old-time radio version with Ralph Bellamy in O’Brien’s part.

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  3. I remember liking this a lot from a TV screening yonks ago – but then I’m sucker for the Hawks brand of macho bonding. Used to love all those Cagney and O’Brien movies though ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES most definitely comes first for me.

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  4. Hope this finally comes to Warner Archive here in the U.S. or the like. A Howard Hawks I’ve not seen, and through another fine review, one I’m itching to catch up to, Colin. Thanks for this.

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    • Thanks, Michael. The only reason for its absence in the US so far that I can think of is perhaps the matter of restoration – Hawks name and the leads alone would surely be a strong selling point.

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  5. Lovely stuff Colin, and thanks for making the link available to buy the disc (as long as the above commenters haven’t snagged them all first!) – as soon as I saw the review was there I looked around for it via the usual channels and came up blank. I’ve seen a few Cagneys recently, most notably 13 Rue Madeleine for a review that didn’t materialise, and was very impressed, so I’m looking forward to this one. The wallet, meanwhile, groans again…

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    • Thanks, Mike, and my apologies for any wallet damage I may have caused.
      Cagney is always good, most especially when he was given a role, such as this one, which plays to his strengths.

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    • Yes indeed, your post on Torrid Zone set me thinking about the film again and I decided to write something on it sooner rather than later – so thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

      As I said in reply to an earlier comment, it’s seems curious that the film hasn’t been given a release your side of the Atlantic – there are a few cases where that’s happened with WB titles, but not many.

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  6. It’s a big subject and I won’t go on about it at too much length, but I’ve spent my critical life as an auteurist, so thought I ought to address what you bring up about that.

    Your ambivalence is understandable. There are different ways to be an auteurist and I’m not in sympathy with some of them for some reasons that you say. It is ridiculous to diminish the creative contributions (and even the technical ones) of others to any film and to do so is to be willfully oblivious to how movies are made. But there is no need to do that because one is an auteurist, and I’d point out that good directors, and the greatest ones even more, tend to be very generous in giving credit and praise to the people with whom they collaborate.

    It’s simply that the director is the one at the center of the creative process, in a position to inflect everything from script to casting to editing even if not hands on at every stage, and especially in the actual shooting when I’d maintain the deepest inflections to the movie take place. This doesn’t mean that the director tells everyone what to do, rather he sets them in the right “direction” and if he is good inspires them, and to the extent he or she has a strong vision, they will then carry it within their own contributions.

    I write from an auteurist perspective and identify movies first by directors no matter who else is involved, but you may notice I never actually use the word “auteur”–it is not a productive word in itself. It’s better to talk specifically about ways one feels a director engages material and makes it his or her own even when if it was initiated by someone else, and all that is going on within the film as an organic cinematic whole.

    Another reason the word “auteur’ is not meaningful is that probably any director has some personality and makes some inflections, but it may be a boring personality and the inflections may also be boring.

    Since auteur theory came in, all directors claim to be one and people of very little talent tend to claim something is their creation, and often it is very hard to care. On the other hand, auteur theory is very meaningful in identifying as artists all those directors who preceded the theory and in providing a way to take a deeper look at so many classical works that were once looked at superficially.

    Even Howard Hawks was once not widely thought of as an artist, and may not even have spent a lot of time thinking of himself that way, even though he clearly is.

    I hope CEILING ZERO will become easier to see. It certainly deserves to be. I must acknowledge that I like the great majority of Hawks films and believe they will always hold up. There is a more serious problem with Hawks’ other movie with Cagney, THE CROWD ROARS (1932), a brilliant racing car movie but much diminished now for most people because it’s hard to find a version that is not the 70 minute rerelease. I once did see the original 85 minute film and I can tell you with a movie of that length, 15 minutes cut is a lot, especially as most of it involved early scenes setting in the crucial relationship of Cagney and Ann Dvorak that does so much to spur the whole drama.

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    • Thanks, Blake, it is indeed a big subject, much bigger than my brief comments on it here might suggest. However, I’m glad you stopped by to add your thoughts on the auteur question, and point out your interpretation of it. I’m particularly fond of this sentence:

      It’s better to talk specifically about ways one feels a director engages material and makes it his or her own even when if it was initiated by someone else, and all that is going on within the film as an organic cinematic whole.

      I think that’s an interesting way to express the notion, avoiding the potentially loaded term “auteur” while still acknowledging its existence.

      I’ve never seen The Crowd Roars but it’s sad to hear how significant portions of it have been cut – it reminds me of the way another of his pictures, The Big Sky, was trimmed.

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  7. Being a lifetime aircraft buff I watch anything with an air theme. Saw it quite a few years ago and liked it a lot. But I really need to give it a second look.Nice review.

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  8. Colin
    One rare one I have is HELL IN THE HEAVENS 1934. It is a WW1 air film with Warner Baxter that is worth a look if you can find it. Review up on IMDB. I love aircraft films.

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    • Yes, anything involving train, ship or plane travel will catch my attention, there is so much dramatic potential. I’d never heard of Hell in the Heavens so that’s one I can look out for.

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  9. Opps, I forgot to add that your review is spot on as always. Been awhile since I saw it but I do have a rather weather beaten lobby card from the film. Picked it up at a flea market for 5 dollars. Anything with Cagney is worth the cash.

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  10. Colin

    Ever seen the John Alton lensed POWER DIVE from 1941? It is a quick little low rent programmer that I found entertaining. (Some say I am an easy marker for this b-stuff, but I love them) Review up of course.
    Gord

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