The Sunday Intertitle: Primeval Genius

Howard Hawks was probably right to reckon that his movies came into their own when they started talking, but that doesn’t mean his silents are devoid of interest — they’re just damned hard to see. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT at least ought to be more widely available, but it was made at Fox and so has vanished into a black hole (not even light can escape, though the great Ford & Borzage box set did manage to make it out, a lone blip alas). And so to FIG LEAVES —

A nice dinosaur with long eyelashes.

We open in the Garden of Eden, envisaged as part of stone age times, so Darwin and Biblical Creation co-exist happily. The scene-setter is a cave-man getting walloped by a giant chimpanzee, leant height by forced perspective sets courtesy of William Cameron Menzies. In fact, that might be one of the giant chimps from the Menzies-designed THIEF OF BAGDAD, minus the fetching black satin shorts Mitchell Leisen provided. How many chimpanzees in Hollywood were there willing to be subjected to optical illusion growth?

From there we go to Adam’s love shack, where he (George SUNRISE O’Brien) and Eve (Olive “the Joy Girl” Borden) snooze in their twin beds, a trickling sand device eventually tipping a coconut onto George’s noggin to wake him. This delightful prelapsarian Flintstones fantasy world segues into a slightly less interesting contemporary section, essaying standard domestic comedy situations with a pronounced sexist slant surprising and disappointing in Hawks (and his male and female writing partners).

I kind of wish they’d kept it all stone age — the main advantage of the modern stuff is some snazzy fashion show bits of catwalk finery by Adrian. I guess cro-magnon times offered fewer opportunities for flapper garb, although I did admire George’s fur mankini.

Generally, Hawks romcoms can be divided into those which have goofy gimmicks, and those that have strong, interesting and convincing story worlds. This one is firmly in the same category as MONKEY BUSINESS, which — hey! — had a chimp in it too. And begins with Hawks’ offscreen voice directing Cary Grant. I like MONKEY BUSINESS. It’s not great or anything, but it’s fun. And so with FIG LEAVES.


16 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Primeval Genius”

  1. The Dino looks a lot like the dragon in Die Nibelungen.

  2. Same principle — I believe he’s fill-sized. Later we see a wooden train carriage drawn by a smoke-breathing triceratops, and he’s full-sized, with copious foliage around to hide his wheels.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Did George EVER appear in a movie (aside from SUNRISE) fully dressed? He was many magazines “Sexiest Man of the Year” for 1927 . . .

  4. Haven’t seen Fig Leaves but I have seen A Girl in Every Port, a number of years back when “The Silent Movie” theater was running silent movies here in L.A. (Now it’s a general interest film club.)

    Quite a teriffic film and Louise Brooks is indescribably magnificent in it.

  5. I believe I saw this once, years ago (the dinosaur is very familiar), but in a lousy tape copy with no music at all. I don’t remember much else, sad to say.

  6. AGIEP is a real proto-Hawks, with its male bonding/competitiveness and the modernity of Brooks. I suspect most of the rest of his silent output doesn’t make so much use of Hawksian values or humour, but I’m desperate to see Trent’s Last Case, or whatever’s left of it. NOBODY likes that film, but it has Raymond Griffith in, so I’m sold.

    George is certainly a great Primitive Man. Cole Porter may have had him in mind.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I came to George O’Brien with his clothes on in B-westerns and Fort Apache and then went back to the great O’Brien silents..big difference,an early Ford regular

  8. He really had a pretty interesting career… which would be true even if he’d only made Sunrise, but the rest helps too.

  9. His son Darcy O’Brien wrote an interesting roman a clef in the 1970s which was recently reissued, sporting a forward by Seamus Heaney. (Darcy O’Brien was a professor of Irish literature.) It’s a bit painful if you cherish the image of Sunrise-era George O’Brien, though, as in the novel he’s a pathetic, manipulative old sponger.

  10. I remember this came up before, yeah… Poor George. Fortunately for his memory I suspect Sunrise will trump the book in the long run. Sunrise beats anything.

  11. I’ve been lucky enough to see AGIEP a couple times,first many years ago and then again this past summer. I had remembered Brooks on the trapeze in a diaphanous see-through something or other, but it turned out to be a mere swimsuit. Ah, memory.

  12. A swimsuit or a leotard…same difference. It was revealing, though not exactly see-through.

  13. Btw, I love Godzilla invading Manhattan…

  14. Thanks! I guess he’s looking for Kong.

  15. Re: Darcy O’Brien and “Way of Life. . . ” Ed Hulse knew both George and Darcy and recently wrote a blogpost about them

    Here’s the pertinent part:

    “I met Darcy in 1991 at a 60th anniversary screening of RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, the film that paired George and Marguerite and eventually led to their marriage. He told me he regretted that some people had assumed the George-like character in A WAY OF LIFE LIKE ANY OTHER was identical to his dad in every particular. Like most novelists, he created characters who were composites. (Although I later learned that his mother was closer to the MARGUERITE IN HOLLYWOOD protagonist than George was to his WAY OF LIFE counterpart.) And in any case, George didn’t take offense. In fact, he mentioned the book in a couple different letters to me, in one case proudly reporting that it had just won some literary award.”

  16. Thanks! Nice to know. I’ve only seen the 1925 version of Riders.

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