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 Jake’s dedication to his job is superseded only by his loyalty to old buddies and former comrades in arms.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.