Director: Howard Hawks
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.
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.
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.
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.