Women of Ceiling Zero


Over at ONLY THE CINEMA there’s been an Early Hawks Blog-a-thon going on, and like a slug I’ve virtually missed it. I did pop CEILING ZERO in the old VCR, but then I got distracted and didn’t really watch it. I’ve seen it before, and my general impression was that james Cagney’s moustache was a thing of horror. He hasn’t got the face for it, somehow. And it rebounded upon his characterisation in an unfortunate way, also — Cagney’s playing a zesty, reckless daredevil mailman of the air, and he does it with all the arrogant brio he’s capable of, which is A LOT, as we know. And that would be fine, because he’s Cagney and we love him, but with the moustache he’s not only the kind of jerk who flies his plane in a foolhardy manner, he does it while sporting a disfiguring hairstrip on his upper labial concourse. And that comes close to tipping him over into the realm of the appalling.

But this time round it didn’t bother me much at all. Maybe because I wasn’t actually watching.

It did strike me how strange it is that Hawks delays J.C.’s entrance for so very very long, beyond what a normal delayed entrance would be, but since everybody’s talking about Cagney before he appears, it’s all in the name of build-up. It’s just unfortunate that until then we’re left in the company of Pat O’Brien. I’ve talked before of the terrible POB Drag Effect, the lumpen-faced star’s ability to suck the lifeblood from even the zestiest scene, and it feels both boring and cruel to harp on about it, but really — the correct use for POB is surely to keep him offscreen, fully costumed, and only bring him on when things are in danger of getting just a bit to interesting.

Be that as it may, Cagney eventually shows up, a wild man of the skies with a “skippy pump” (his amusing term for a bad heart), and everything is fine and dandy, and we can see the Hawksian worldview coming together quite nicely in this one, groundwork being laid for the superior aerial mailman flick ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (that one’s magnificent, this one merely excellent), but all I can really find to say, based on a half-hearted semi-viewing of this fine work, is that it boasts a fine array of women, not all of them strictly “Hawksian”, but a nice thing about Hawks is that he doesn’t always feature the exact same female character. Even allowing for the variations created by casting, and admitting that H.H. certainly does seem to have an ideal woman in mind a lot of the time, such disparate femmes as Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, Carole Lombard in TWENTIETH CENTURY, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, and Joan Collins in LAND OF THE PHAROAHS represent a genuinely varied line-up of female characterisation, not all of them progressive and positive, but all clearly interesting enough to deserve Hawks, and our, devoted attention.


Martha Tibbetts.


June Travis — a real Hawksian woman.


Isabel Jewell.


Carol Hughes.


Mathilde Comont.

23 Responses to “Women of Ceiling Zero”

  1. Ceiling Zero should be regarded not just in the context of Hawks, but ALL the flyboy movies of the twenties and thirties, beginning with Hell’s Angels and Wings. It was agenre whose primary audience nwas teenagers longing to and/or fearful of flying in a post-“Lucky Lindy” world.

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    I’ve never seen CEILING ZERO but it has Cagney so I’d still like to see it.

    ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is a film I have had some problems with. The total misogyny of the characters and the way Jean Arthur just floats about in the film. I find it a profoundly moving and profoundly adolescent film. Hawks complained about Jean Arthur being a problem and he might be right but he was the guy who cast her when Miss Arthur just isn’t the showgirl type. And also the way the characters don’t seem to be aware of the homoeroticism.

    Speaking of flyboy films, one comparison can be John Ford’s AIRMAIL, the screenwriter was Frank Spig Wead who also wrote “Ceiling Zero” and years later became the subject of Ford’s biopic THE WINGS OF EAGLES.

  3. I suspect that if any of the characters in a Hawks film became aware of the homoeroticism, Hawks’ world would come tumbling down! But I don’t find OAHW misogynistic. The women have faults pointed out to them in a fairly harsh way, but so do the men, notably Cary Grant. Same with Cagney in Ceiling Zero. It’s very much part of Hawks’ gruff manner — you’re harshest with the people you care about, if you think they need it. I don’t really believe in this approach myself, but Hawks does, and his entire oeuvre is built upon it.

    I wondered about FS Wead, just based on his name — he obviously has quite a name for this kind of material, same as John Monk Saunders. But while Wead’s stuff celebrates the heroism and risk, Saunders is more despairing. I must watch The Dawn Patrol soon, ’cause I just loved The Last Flight.

    David E is right, it’s a whole genre, withs its own conventions. Different artists achieve different effects working within them, but it’s a very codified world.

  4. I’m not so keen on Only Angels Have Wings either–and my reservations are similar to Arthur S.’s… I’m far more interested in Jean Arthur than Hawks–and when the two come into conflict, as they clearly do in OAHW, I’m gonna take Jean’s side… the movie certainly has some very good things in it though…

    I’ve really enjoyed following this entire Early Hawks extravaganza–but it has definitely convinced me that, much as I love certain Hawks films (i.e. 20th Century, Barbary Coast, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, I Was a Male War Bride), I actually don’t like Hawks’ “auteur imprint” at all…. is it a good thing or a bad thing (auteuristically speakin’) if a person whose ruling preoccupations you despise manages to make bunch of movies that you really enjoy?

    on the subject of the moustache–it IS a bizarre instance of follicular folly, isn’t it? Still, the fact that JC wears it throughout Torrid Zone (perhaps my favourite of his flicks–or right up there with Roaring Twenties, Blonde Crazy and Strawberry Blonde, at any rate) forces me to accept it as a permanent part of the actor’s legacy

    oh! and Pat O’Brien! I agree he can be dull–but does your antipathy extend to the early thirties, when he appeared in things like THE FRONT PAGE (a forerunner of TORRID ZONE!) and BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS? I thought he was a’ight before they collared him with the priestly roles… and I even have a possibly indefensible love for everything about Dieterle’s THE GREAT O’MALLEY)

    I’ve never seen CEILING ZERO though… it’s queued behind a thousand other avi files that I plan to watch someday!


  5. I thought Pat O’Brien was great here, his barking fast dialogue style meshing well with Cagney’s equally frantic but very different style, as well as with Stuart Erwin’s more laconic drawl. The scenes featuring this trio in the film’s first half — particularly the ones clustered around phones — seem like obvious precursors to some of Hawks’ best later comedies, and there are similar scenes in both His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep.

    I also love Only Angels Have Wings, another film that this one looks forward to. I don’t really agree that Only Angels is misogynist; Hawks’ worldview is much more complicated than that. On the one hand, Jean Arthur’s character is forced to comply with the rules of a male-dominated world in order to be accepted among the fliers. On the other hand, of course, there’s the fact that she is accepted, that she’s seen as someone who could be accepted. The fliers essentially judge her by the same standards as they would one of their male friends, rather than simply dismissing her because she’s a woman. Hawks has little patience for traditionally or stereotypically “feminine” traits, but for him this doesn’t translate into a blanket dismissal of women themselves. Instead, increasingly in his films, he features tough, assertive, intelligent women who meet his exacting standards. June Travis in Ceiling Zero is one of the early, somewhat tentative appearances of this kind of woman, a young girl who works hard to be a great flier and who is perfectly capable of trading quick-witted banter with even the confident, lightning-fast Cagney. Hawks’ view of women is undoubtedly problematic, but it’s also complex and can’t be pigeonholed to simple misogyny

  6. I’d say it’s a sign of Hawks’ talent if you don’t like his imprint but love so many of his films. I do think his love of stoicism translates well in cinematic terms — far more interesting to have the characters suppress their grief than bawl about it. That works really well in OAHW, although most of those characters are probably storing up nervous breakdowns for later in life.

    POB can do the fast-talking tough-guy thing well, but somehow he doesn’t thrill me (indeed, it’s a struggle to force the word “thrill” into the same sentence as him, even in parenthesis and inverted commas). I like Bureau of Missing Persons a lot (although it’s far more offensive than any Hawks!), still have Front Page and Torrid Zone to look forward to.

  7. Ed — you said it! That encapsulates my view of Hawks and his women better than I could myself. I love Jean Arthur as an actress, but I never had a problem with her role in OAHW. She’s not a typical Hawks woman, but the tension that creates is productive — surely it’s a great performance in a great role?

    JA may have been unhappy with Hawks, but she was notoriously anxious as a performer, and had an equally difficult time on many films. I think she brings something interesting to the Hawks World — which could be in danger of getting airless if all the actors played it his way.

  8. oh I think I agree that Hawks’ problem ISN’T misogyny–it’s something more like “anti-femality”… he clearly has no use for any of the traits western culture has traditionally associated with women–which is a problem if you (like me) believe that radical change is going to have come from precisely that sector of the population (once it throws off patriarchy)–i.e. the Jean Arthurs and Barbara Stanwycks have the potential to change the world I dislike–the Lauren Bacalls just have the potential to enjoy living in it with people like Hawks

    yikes–I can’t even imagine how HH would react to the above quasi-paragraph–probably with a derisively curled lip…

    re: POB–oh you must see Front Page and Torrid Zone before writing him off completely! (although I’d be very sad to see you lose the muse of his dullness!)

    and I couldn’t agree more about Bureau of Missing Persons–it’s insanely creepy!–but as a (probably) unconscious indictment of American Blackshirtism, it really has no peer during its era!


  9. I don’t know what you mean by “if any of the characters in a Hawks film became aware of the homoeroticism.” Hawks alays spoke of his films being “a love story between two men,” and some of them are over-the-top homoerotic.

    Especially the ones featuring Dewey Martin.

    And who can forget the “Is There Anyone Here For Love?’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ?

    Not sure where all this is leading, but suffice to say that styles have changed over the years. “Male Weepies” of the past were full of scenes in which men sobbed buckets over their “Best Pal” — who was usually about to buy the farm. Only Angels Have Wings climaxes in a resolutely dry-eyed version of that scenario. Hawks always pulls away from emotionalism of any kind, thus leaving a subtle soupcon of emotion in its wake.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Liking the director’s entire oeuvre while having problems with his philosophy is close to my own reservations with Hawks. He’s a great director surely but there’s a near-total ignorance, a neglect of dealing with tragedy that’s irritating and much of the “stoicism” in his movies comes of as macho posing as it does in “Only Angels Have Wings”.

    I like it best when he’s honest about the ruthlessness of his characters. Walter Burns in HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a cold son-of-a-bitch who proudly manipulates everyone and bullies a nice guy like Ralph Bellamy but the uncompromising nature of his character(and that he’s played by Cary Grant) earns our respect without asking for it. Same with John Barrymore and Jack Hawkins. Similar to John Wayne in RED RIVER until that sabotage of an ending.

    Likewise I’ve never felt that Hawks was all that interested in romances either which is why he bestows on it the function of castrating the male. The exception of course is the films with Bogart and Bacall but he had an actual couple in love with each other going for him there.

    In any case that’s some of my reasons why however I admire Hawks he doesn’t command the same response as Ford, Walsh, Cukor, Sturges, Hitchcock, Sirk and Preminger do. My favourites are SCARFACE, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, HATARI! in that order and most of what he’s done is very good. In fact I’ve never seen a bad Hawks film.

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    That number was directed by Jack Cole who did all the numbers of that film. I believe Mr. Cole was gay. GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES isn’t a Hawks film perse since that was bestowed on him by Zanuck at Fox.

    What I meant by that is that the films keep skirting the edges and that the characters don’t ever seem to confront the conflict of their friendship. They and Hawks want it and have it both ways. Like RED RIVER, at the end of that long trail and all that killing, John Wayne and Monty Clift do horseplay only for poor Joanne Dru to make them reconcile at gunpoint. Of course that’s part of the enigma and the ambivalence in his films which keep ignoring the tragedy of it. It’s more to do with me rather than Hawks, I suppose.

  12. I think Hawks is secure enough to be able to talk about “a love story between two men” without having to add any provisos, but it feels like he’s very clear that there’s love but no sex. And I don’t know if he’d have accepted any talk of “homo-eroticism”. There’s affection, and even a kind of physical intimacy, but in such a way that’s only possible with these guys if they don’t verbalise it or make any admission that there could ever be a sexual element. And in a way that’s probably quite true-to-life for those kind of macho characters.

    Yes, Cole was as gay as they come, and can be credited with much of GPB’s camp value.

    David F, I see what you mean now. Hawks loves the world of men, and he wants his women to fit right into it. That makes them often more interesting and self-reliant than other female characters in films of the time, who might be stuck with more stereotyped roles. But someone like Stanwyck obviously had better choices.

    In my post on Come and See, I touch on the idea (without getting around to exploring it, really) that Hawks’s men are pretty destructive for our world, but he doesn’t see it that way, or doesn’t care.

  13. I remember a female film critic at the Voice (Carrie Rickey?) saying that she didn’t trust Hawks as far as she could throw up … but that she *did* respect his directorial instinct for performers. This was in a discussion of Frances Farmer and “Come And Get It.”

    My sense is that Hawks wasn’t so much anti-woman as he was anti-“femme.” If one left the girly mannerisms at home, one could play with him.

    As for the “if any of the characters in a Hawks film became aware of the homoeroticism” — I think the crucial difference is that between “became aware of” and “acknowledged.” Certain things One Did Not Talk Of. Or else left to people like choreographer Jack Cole who were too funny and/or too honest to play disingenuous games …

  14. That’s a good analysis of Hawks! I wondered why Joel McCrea was so harsh on him, calling him selfish for abandoning Frances Farmer. Presumably Hawks wouldn’t have been allowed near her after getting fired. I don’t know what the whole story is there.

    Yes, Hawks clearly liked women, but he liked them to be “one of the boys”. Possibly most men do, but we like the other kind too.

    Yes, “acknowledged” is better than “aware”. McLaglan may be aware he loves his buddy in A Girl in Every Port, but I’m not going to be the one to mention it to him.

  15. I yield to no one in my love for Howard Hawks, one of the rare filmmakers who worked in every genre, and made possibly the best Western (Red River) best musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), best gangster movie (Scarface), best screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, His Girl Friday), adventures (OAHW and Gunga Din)..etc etc. So, Chris, whichever female movie critic it was at the Village Voice, it wasn’t me.

  16. Welcome!

    I know people cite The Thing from Another World, but that’s not abolutely Hawks, so I don’t know if we can give him scifi/horror. But we could arguably add “best noir” to your list with The Big Sleep.

    I love Gents PB, and defend it against those Hawksians who see it as beneath his dignity or whatever, but I couldn’t call it the best musical or anywhere near. It doesn’t have superhuman singing/dancing talent to elevate it to the very top, although seeing the wretched Moulin Rouge! makes you realise again how very well interpreted those songs are.

    Gunga Din = George Stevens, but Hawks certainly does well in the adventure genre, if we add Hatari.

  17. Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love? Brilliant on so many levels and eliciting great moves from non-dancers.

  18. Yes, including the moment at the end when she gets knocked into the pool, apparently by mistake. “I think they fired the guy who did it,” says Jane. And then the reshot it without the pool fall, “But I KNEW they would use the one where I fall in.”

  19. James Cagney looked awesome In his thin moustache but apperently you can´t find any picture of It on the net that´s a shame

  20. Well, I could stick some frame-grabs up if you really want…

  21. Yes that would be cool!…

  22. My mothers name Is June

  23. Here’s the Cagney lip-fluff:

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