Ceiling Zero (Howard Hawks / U.S., 1936):

Further developments of The Dawn Patrol: One half points to His Girl Friday, the other prepares Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks’ speed, vitality and precision in both are startling. The Newark airport is the setting, given a rigorous present-tense dimension and dazzling effects rung out of details like the way Pat O’Brien’s voice slides from bark to murmur mid-sentence as he notices his wife (Martha Tibbetts) by his side in the control room. The returning daredevil (James Cagney) is "a menace and a liability" and "the best cockeyed flier in this airline," he enters flying upside down to the tune of "I Can’t Give You Anything But Love." June Travis as the young, eager novice who catches Cagney’s wolfish eye keeps up with the back-and-forth of come-ons with sensuality and snap, Stuart Erwin as the meek musketeer of the bunch and Isabel Jewell as his dominant wife prove that there are no "supporting" characters in a Hawks joint. "What do you do when you’re flying blind and your radio doesn’t work?" "Just sit there and sweat." The paucity of locations (control room, landing strip, cantina, hospital corridor) enhances the atmosphere of abstraction, which is filled with rivalries and flirtations, sharp women with masculine names and running gags about bald guys. Birds wait for the fog to dissipate, but human beings won’t stay grounded -- the need to dare one’s self by challenging Nature is always there, you have the exhilaration of an aerial loop and the horror of a blazing crash. Is life a waiting room between paradise (the freedom and weightlessness of the heights) and inferno (the flames licking outside the control room window)? That’s when people connect, break up, interact -- the real adventure, according to Hawks, and when heroism truly comes into play. From Frank "Spig" Wead’s play. With Barton MacLane, Henry Wadsworth, Craig Reynolds, Dick Purcell, Carlyle Moore, Jr., and Addison Richards. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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