#21 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is bread and butter Hawks. A professional man in a dangerous professions falls for another man’s girl, and he ends up having to make a serious, life altering choice that he takes fervently but lightly at the same time, making his choice like a man, one might say. Watching so many of Hawks’ movies in a row it’s becoming obvious where Hawks’ narrative tics were. I’m not saying this like a bad thing, he can say similar things endlessly as long as he’s entertaining, but what’s amazing is how he jumps between genres so easily from one movie to the next. Ceiling Zero is a solid entry in Hawks’ filmography that fits comfortably there, is what I’m saying.
Set in a small commercial airport (Newark) in the earliest days of commercial aviation, Ceiling Zero is about Dizzy Davis, an expert pilot with experience in The Great War who is as reckless as he is talented. He’s hired back by his friend, Jake Lee, after a stint out West with stories of his outrageous behavior (including delaying the delivery of his mail cargo in order to land and hang out with four attractive women by a pool). Together with Texas Clarke, the three represent the last of a dying breed, the last of the pioneers of the skies who figured out flying through daring, experimentation, and war, steadily being replaced by the newer generation of college educated flyers.
Now, I do feel like the core of this movie is good enough and carries the overall film well, but it does, at the same time, leave a lot hanging without much payoff. One of those things is the pioneer versus educated divide. The early moments of the film are dominated by Jake firing a young pilot who abandoned his plane in the fog because he didn’t have the nerve to take the blindness bravely, figuring out where he was relative to the airport and trying to land. This character disappears from the picture, and the movie never really makes anything of the comparison again, though we do see the nerve of the older generation in wonderful detail.
The other aspect of the film that seems only halfheartedly taken up is the love triangle. Dizzy meets Tommy Thomas, a young woman learning to fly who works at the airport. She has a beau, named Joe, but he’s barely a character and appears only a handful of times, usually at the periphery of scenes until the end. It would actually be pretty easy for a viewer to miss the quick moment of Tommy with Joe near the beginning and assume that Dizzy is just courting Tommy without her having any previous ties. It kind of feels like there were some scenes cut somewhere along the way.
Anyway, Dizzy falls for Tommy instantly. How much is hard to say since he’s been a womanizer for years, having broken romantic ties to Jake’s wife that Jake doesn’t know about. Still, he’s going to make his effort with her, and in order to get his first date with her, Dizzy convinces Tex to take his flight to Cleveland and back that night. They have a nice time, but fog descends over Newark with zero ceiling on the ground. Tex can’t see, makes his approach as best he can, but crashes horribly on the runway, dying in a fireball. Dizzy ends up consumed by his guilt, made all the worse by the fact that he couldn’t help enough in the tower to get Tex down safely.
The aviation board in Washington ends up refusing to renew Dizzy’s pilot’s license, but he knows nothing else other than flying. With a storm front coming in, and emotions running high because of Tex’s death, Jake leaves the airport and leaves Dizzy in charge, telling him to cancel the final flight of the night. This is where Joe becomes important, having developed a new kind of de-icing system for the planes and assigned the mission to fly that night. Dizzy, in charge and needing a way to make himself right with the world, refuses Jake’s order to cancel the final flight, but instead of sending Joe, he knocks Joe out and flies up himself.
Now, when I saw this is bread and butter Hawks, I’m talking about how this repeats a lot of little plot points from before. In The Dawn Patrol, one character got another character drunk so he could fly the other’s suicide mission. In Tiger Shark, one man gives up the woman he loves to another man she loves as his dying wish. In Today We Live, one man takes on a suicide mission because he knows that the woman will choose the other man over him. They’re all variations on the same idea (I have no problem with this), and it’s just that Hawks had his archetypes that he called upon repeatedly. It’s a note, not really a criticism.
Anyway, Dizzy does the heroic and selfless thing, taking on the risk of providing the first real world test of the de-icing system, providing real world observation as his wings get more and more ice, recommending fixes that will make it work perfectly, before his plane becomes too heavy and falls to the earth. This is solid stuff, nothing terribly affecting or amazing, but well built and told. Joe needed to be more integral early, and the pioneer vs. educated angle could have followed through by combining Joe with the early fired pilot. This might have provided enough material to really make the whole film more cohesive. However, the core of the film is Dizzy, and it’s really good.
James Cagney was obviously more than just a mob tough from Little Caesar and The Big Heat, and he plays Dizzy with suave confidence and cockiness, making his quick courtship of Tommy believable. He’s hot stuff as an ace pilot, and Cagney plays that really well. Props have to go out to the rest of the cast including Pat O’Brien as Jake, June Travis as Tommy smitten with Dizzy, and Stuart Erwin as Tex. It’s a well-cast and acted film, made all the more important by the fact that about 75% of it takes place on a single set, the airport control tower. It’s a strong mark in Hawks’ favor that despite the limited locations (add in the bar set and you’ve got about 90% of your movie in two locations) it never feels small or repetitive. This is a case study in making the most of limited shooting locations.
It’s a solidly good little drama, anchored by a very good performance by Cagney, but still open for a more streamlined script that took advantage of some of its more tangential ideas more. Still, it’s a good little film in Hawks’ very busy 1936.