Early Hawks Blog-A-Thon: Ceiling Zero (1936)

Director: Howard Hawks

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is part of the Early Hawks’ Blog-A-Thon hosted by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema.

Richard Schickel reports in his book, James Cagney: A Celebration, that he was lolling around the set of Ragtime helping Pat O’Brien and Cagney pass the time between calls. Idly, Schickel asked them what they thought was the best of the nine pictures they did together. “O’Brien unhesitatingly named Angels with Dirty Faces, a logical choice, given the intensity and range of emotions it offered them, and the brooding quality of director Michael Curtiz’s striking mise en scène. Cagney, surprisingly, named Ceiling Zero, which I have always thought of as one of Howard Hawks’ lesser works, stagebound and talky. But, as it turned out, that is precisely what Cagney liked about it.”

It was based on a hit Broadway play penned by Frank “Spig” Wead, a crippled flyer who became a beloved writer of authentically detailed aviation screenplays in Hollywood. Cagney admired the writer, the play’s success, and Osgood Perkins, the actor who originated the part he was to play in the film. It was Howard Hawks’ idea for Cosmopolitan/Warner Bros to acquire the script for Cagney. As a story of the friendship between two pilots whose lives are heading in divergent paths, it was a natural for Hawks and for the team of Cagney and O’Brien. It would form something of a template for the acting pair’s future collaborations that would cast O’Brien as the angel and Cagney as the angel with a dirty face. Ceiling Zero also proved to be a warm-up for Hawks’ similarly plotted triumph, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Indeed, Hawks learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and could identify with his leading characters, Dizzy Davis (Cagney), Jake Lee (O’Brien), and Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin)—three war veterans who flew together, by the seat of their pants, when flying was still relatively new.

Jake is the head of the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Dizzy and Texas work for him as pilots, forming a sort of Three Musketeers, as does Mike Owens (Garry Owen), another war buddy who has been mentally disabled by a plane crash and who works as a janitor around the airport offices. Aside from Davis, all three men are married, though we never meet Mike’s wife. Jake’s wife Mary (Martha Tibbetts) was in love with Dizzy before he threw her over. Texas’ wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) henpecks her husband in part to domesticate him and also out of worry for his safety.

The district manager of Federal is constantly on Jake’s back to play by corporate rules. One rule Jake refuses to heed is to keep Dizzy Davis off the Federal Airlines payroll. Despite Dizzy’s lack of discipline, his lies, his inveterate womanizing, and his risky flying, friendship and history count more for Jake than anything the front office has to say. Dizzy makes his entrance into the film in his usual fashion—stunt flying upside down.

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Impressed by Dizzy is Tommy Thomas (June Travis) a 19-year-old novice flyer who has just completed her first solo flight. Although she is seeing a young pilot, Tay Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), she is bowled over by the 34-year-old Dizzy, who dodges a call from one of his seemingly endless stream of women to be free to put the moves on Tommy.

The pair goes out for drinks, and the following day, Dizzy decides to spend some quality time with Tommy by taking her out for a private flying lesson. To ditch his mail run to Cleveland he feigns heart trouble to Texas, who volunteers to take his place. On his way back to Newark, a ceiling zero fog and a faulty radio make it impossible for Texas to see the runway to land or use his instruments to navigate using instructions from the ground crew. He flies into electric wires and crashes into a hangar in a burning ball of steel. Dizzy not only has to deal with the guilt he feels, but also has his license to fly revoked because of repeated complaints.

Although he and Tommy have fallen for each other, Dizzy feels he has little to offer her, having lost his identity as a pilot and feeling “over the hill.” The weather worsens, but Lawson is scheduled to fly a mail run to Cleveland and plans to check out a new deicing system on the plane. Dizzy punches his lights out and takes over the run, a suicide mission if the deicer fails to work. He radios back to a furious Jake how the deicer is functioning—not well—takes on an inch of ice and crashes. In symbolic fashion, the disembodied voice of radio operator in Cleveland says that the weather is improving, and signs off with his standard, “That is all.”

Ceiling Zero is as typical a Hawks film as any he ever made—a buddy film with unusual depth. Despite its studio sets, intercut briefly with stock footage of stunt flying, that make the film feel stagy, the performances of Cagney and O’Brien are the most personal and natural I have ever seen them turn in as a team. Hawks manages to tame O’Brien’s blustery shouting about 80 percent of the time, allowing Jake’s thoughtfulness and quiet affection for his comrades, especially Dizzy, to balance with his more rigid, duty-bound, mature self.

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Stuart Erwin is winning as a drawling man who fears his wife but is in complete command when he’s in the air. The lengthy middle of the film in which we experience every stage of Texas’ plight is a real nail biter, hearing the Newark ground crew trying desperately to get through to Texas, marshalling airports along his route to track his progress and make their own attempts to contact him. Dramatically, though somewhat implausibly, Texas’ radio messages start to come through even as Newark ground remains mute. Texas’ final moments in the air are sadly reminiscent of many final moments to come with the advent of cellphones.

Cagney’s performance as Dizzy is nothing less than amazing. His silly pencil moustache makes him look like a kid trying to play dashing flying ace. He rambles through the world picking up nothing that would weigh him down, knowing he will always be able to go back to Jake, who will enable his failure to launch, and throw a mischievous monkey wrench into Texas’ domestic life in Dizzy’s attempts to lure him back into their men-only club. In a scene that could have come from the Andy Hardy series, Jake says that although he knows Dizzy lies to other, he always thought Dizzy would be on the level with him. He asks Dizzy point blank if there was anything serious between Dizzy and Mary. Like a son, Dizzy lies to Jake, embellishing the lie with a half-truth, “I’d cut my heart out for you” and finishing it with a child’s plea, “Please don’t be mad at me.” Dizzy is not exactly sparing Jake’s feelings, or even Mary’s, but rather is making an attempt to stay in his “father’s” good graces.

There’s another telling scene that shows Dizzy just doesn’t quite get it. At the hospital where Texas has been rushed, Lou confronts Dizzy. Lou understands that Dizzy didn’t mean any harm—his deception to get out of the Cleveland run having been confessed—but that “you’re no good. You’ll never be any good.” Cagney assumes a sheepish look, but he seems not to hear the words completely. He’s basically a narcissist who can see what havoc he wrecks, but generally delights in it. Even though he does the noble thing by giving Tommy up—much as John Barrymore’s Larry Renault sends Madge Evan’s Paula Jordan away in Dinner at Eight, and with much the same results—we get the sense that he is still acting in his own self-interest so that his suicide will be seen heroically by Tommy, instead of cowardly.

Like many of Hawks’ films, Ceiling Zero romanticizes the rebel, the elemental man. The business of flying is shown to be corrupt and petty—how could the government and Federal Airlines ground a daring and skilled flyer like Dizzy; how could a businessman try to sell Jake some second-rate airplanes? It is the experience of really being alive—being the flyer instead of the front man—that has Hawks’ sympathy, even though the impulse can cause so much unhappiness for other people just trying to live the way they want or know how.

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The character of Tommy is an interesting one. I remember telling my ex that a cycling buddy of his would fall for a female cyclist who was starting to ride with his club. Of course, I was right. Rather than having to join her world and compromise his male pursuits, he found a woman whom he could consider an honorary man. Tommy, in becoming a flyer, in espousing the joy she feels in flying (being alive by being free), has earned her male nickname. Like Wendy, she has been invited to join Dizzy’s Neverland as the only kind of woman he could really fall for—an honorary man. Lou, by contrast, is almost a copy of Tom Powers’ mother in The Public Enemy, her “you’re no good” as scornful as Ma Powers’ “Murderer!” Dizzy is not as willfully malevolent nor as unrepentant as Tom, but he’s just as self-centered and looking to his “family” time and again to bail him out.

In the end, Jake gives Lawson a dressing down to remember the guy who made flying safer for him and enters, once and for all, the adult world. The film aims for a sense of loss over the innocence of youth and adventure, which Jake will have to endure alone.

  • Judy spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 2:28 pm

    I enjoyed your review a lot – and especially liked your point about it “the experience of really being alive – being the flyer instead of the front man” that has Hawks’ sympathy, which is the feeling I have from the other early films of his I’ve seen too.
    Also like your point about Pat O’Brien toning it down and his relationship with Cagney, who I agree gives an amazing performance, seeming more naturalistic here than in some of their other films together. It’s good to hear O’Brien speaking softly, which he does so well, instead of shouting.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 8:32 pm

    Thanks, Judy. I really enjoyed this film and can understand why Cagney liked it best of all their collaborations. I also really liked all the details of flying – I used to fly with a private pilot, and I can attest that this film gets it right.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 8:41 pm

    Great review, Marilyn, I’m so glad you contributed. I just watched this film tonight myself (my own review will be up tomorrow morning) and I liked it quite a bit, even if Cagney’s sacrificial/redemptive arc in the second half is occasionally a bit overblown. What I found most interesting about it was the way it switches from a proto-screwball film in the first half — some of it reminded me very much of His Girl Friday — to, as you say, a “nail-biting” drama in the second half. Tex’s doomed flight is especially compelling, and its fiery denouement yields some of the most striking images of Hawks’ career, even in spite of the stagy sets. That shot of O’Brien silhouetted against the flames of the crash is stunning.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 8:58 pm

    Thanks, Ed. I agree that the crash was amazing, first-rate shots. I’m not sure I felt the same way about the screwball nature of this film – Travis is such a drip compared with Roz Russell. It’s interesting how Texas and Lou start off as a supporting comedy team and end up so tragically. I really loved how this film was able to switch tone so deftly. As I said, I know the film was supposed to redeem Dizzy, but Cagney really subverted that redemption, something he would do throughout his career to keep the characters from being schematic. He really was a genius.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 9:07 pm

    I don’t know: Travis is no Russell, for sure, but I certainly wouldn’t call her a drip. She struck me as charming and playful and kind of fun, a typical Hawks heroine willing to trade banter with her man.
    But much more importantly, I’m thinking of all the fun, fast-paced scenes between Cagney, O’Brien, and Erwin in the first half of the film — especially those scenes clustered around the telephones, which seem like templates for later comedic scenes with phones in His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep. Lots of great, very funny material there.
    I’d agree that Cagney totally carries the film, though, especially in the second half — it’s a great performance, and he makes that character much more complex and ambiguous than the script seems to call for.

  • goatdog spoke:
    20th/01/2009 to 11:39 pm

    I wish I had known about this ‘thon; it looks like fun, and I love early Hawks.

  • Campaspe spoke:
    21st/01/2009 to 12:51 pm

    Goatdog, the blogathon runs through Friday! so there is time, if you’re able. 🙂
    Great review, Marilyn. I liked this movie too, but as I am a Cagney fan, and a Hawks fan, I almost had to. Travis was adequate, but just. I completely agree that Hawks really got O’Brien to dial back the things that annoy me about some of his other performances.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/01/2009 to 1:05 pm

    Siren – I am a huge Cagney fan as well, but it is only in the past few years that I have really been able to evaluate his work critically, past my adoration. He really does a superlative job in this film and brings out the best in others.
    Thanks for agreeing with me about Travis. She reminded me of another actress I know I should admire but can’t–Karen Morley. They both favor flat line readings, though Travis is a little more peppy and attractive.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 8:17 am

    I must see this now. I never have, nor have I really made any effort but now it’s a definite. And I’d love to have been on the set of Ragtime by the way with Cagney and O’Brien talking about their old days. I hope Schickel knows how lucky he was.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 10:29 am

    Jonathan – There’s actually a documentary on Cagney’s life, James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy, that Schickel directed that includes clips from that dressing room. I taped it off TV years ago and treasure it. I don’t know if it’s available for sale on DVD or VHS.

  • Rick spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 10:36 am

    A fine piece, Marilyn. I agree with Jonathan — I’ve gotta see this. I’ll put it on the queue right after all the others I haven’t seen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 11:18 am

    Ha ha! I know that feeling, Rick.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 12:47 pm

    Rick, you’ll have to rent the VHS. It’s not on DVD.

  • Judy spoke:
    22nd/01/2009 to 4:38 pm

    There is an official Warner French DVD, oddly enough, available from the French Amazon site – this was mentioned at the Greenbriar site. Here’s a link:
    http://tinyurl.com/d5gouw
    If anyone has this, I’d be really interested to know if it’s possible to watch it without French subtitles, and also if it has any extra features.
    Marilyn, I’m also a big Cagney fan and have found just the same as you, that it is hard to get past my hero-worship and evaluate his films critically – I usually have to watch each one at least two or three times in order to take enough note of the other actors! Mind you, I’m happy to watch them time and again anyway.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/01/2009 to 8:06 am

    I know the feeling, Judy. And thanks for the info on the French DVD. I, of course, watched it on VHS.

  • miskybarton spoke:
    14th/01/2010 to 5:05 pm

    Nice work! I can’t get Welcome to the Jungle out of my head! ”Welcome to The Jungle, We’ve Got Fun And Games”

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    12th/11/2014 to 11:45 pm

    “Cagney’s performance as Dizzy is nothing less than amazing. His silly pencil moustache makes him look like a kid trying to play dashing flying ace. He rambles through the world picking up nothing that would weigh him down, knowing he will always be able to go back to Jake, who will enable his failure to launch, and throw a mischievous monkey wrench into Texas’ domestic life in Dizzy’s attempts to lure him back into their men-only club.”

    Great review!! I had missed this one, but no wonder as I hadn’t seen the film. Cagney was always trying to find the opening even when the material and style didn’t float his boat. Of course, working for Hawks would always bring out one’s best work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/11/2014 to 9:09 am

    Hi Sam. The fact that Hawks directed this made it stand a little taller in my eyes than White Heat in your poll. Cagney worked very well with Raoul Walsh, but I think his films lack a certain finesse, something akin to the Lubitsch touch, that Hawks has. I enjoyed this nuanced film and perhaps the most complex of the O’Brien/Cagney pairings.

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