Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ceiling Zero (1936)

I recently watched the 1936 James Cagney movie Ceiling Zero, and it was kinda good. James Cagney was great as Dizzy Davis, the playboy aviator who creeps me out. But he was annoyingly cocky to the point where I couldn't stand him. He wore that stupid mustache again and it drove me crazy! He was also pretty weird. But still, I couldn't stop looking at him for some reason. Pat O'Brien was also pretty good as the head pilot and the paterfamilias of James Cagney; I think I liked him better than James Cagney in this movie, which isn't really unusual because he's my favorite of Jimmy's male co-stars!


Ceiling Zero was a successful Broadway play and the film version was directed by Howard Hawks. Hawks, himself a pilot with combat experience win WWI, selected Ceiling Zero for its nostalgic appeal. The film's action is chiefly the changing weather. "Ceiling zero" meant total fog or similar atmospherics that prevented flight but that some daring flyers ignored, usually to their peril. One such is Dizzy Davis (Cagney), who is chief pilot and frequent heartache for Federal Airlines and is underling of old flying comrade Jake Lee (Pat O'Brien), head of the company's Newark, New Jersey airfield.



The critics ranked Ceiling Zero as near-prime Cagney and certainly a good example of its genre. A forerunner to Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Ceiling Zero, though dealing with aviation, is a very stagebound exercise primarily confined to an unconvincing airport control room. (God, was that set fake! You could easily tell it was shot in a studio or on the backlot! But I don't really care because that at least tells me how or where the film was made. Remember that I like learning how films are made; I don't, however, like learning about the literary symbolism in a film.) Frantically parrying loads of the original production's dialogue at each other, Cagney and (especially) O'Brien nearly chew the bad set to its very foundations.

James Cagney's characters was also pretty childish. According to the book "James Cagney: A Celebration" by Richard Schickel:


Actually, that pencil-thin mustache [that Cagney wore] spoke, if not
volumes, then paragraphs, about Dizzy Davis, the dashing flyer he portrays.
Cagney was trying to vary the characters he had been doing since Here Comes the
Navy, draining it of heroic overtones, and the facial decor said something about
the childishness of his vanity. So did the inveterate womanizing the script
called upon him to undertake. So did a line Cagney insisted on writing into a
scene where O'Brien, as usual representing maturity and responsibility, is
dressing him down. The script permits him to expose the fact that, without
family, and given the wandering nature of his barnstorming career, the
characters played here by O'Brien and Stu Erwin constitute the only family he
has [ever] known. 'I'd cut my heart out for you,' the script has him say. After
which comes the line, lovely in the simplicity with which it reveals the
permanent childishness of his nature and which, the minute he heard it, Hawks,
himself an inveterate scribbler [of] improvised dialogue on the set, told
Cagney to write in. It is: 'Please don't be mad at me.' And it is, of
course, a line most of us start practicing on our parents almost as soon as we
can talk, but which we hesitate to use once we've grown-up. To hear it here, in
this bustling, bristling all-male world is a shock. And a subtle blow for
psychological truth in a unlikely context.



I didn't really watch the crashing scenes because I thought they were too dramatic. And I did find one scene real amusing; it's James Cagney's introductory scene where he jumps out of his plane when he lands at the airport after doing some aerial acrobatic stunts. In a joyous reunion, he is tossed around like a football by the other pilots for hugs. I found that pretty funny; I'd toss him around like a football any day. I didn't feel for Cagney when his friend's widow yelled at him for how his irresponsiblility and recklessness caused her husband's death (he faked a heart attack get out of a mail run to Cleveland so his friend volunteered to take over for him) but I did feel sorry for him when he lost his license. This is one of the James Cagney movies I desperately wanted to see and I can't tell you folks how happy I was I first watched this film: I was overcome with euphoria!! Anyway, I would definitely recommend this film for any James Cagney fan--unless you hate seeing him in a mustache. Happy commenting!!! And have a Happy Thanksgiving and a Happy Holiday season!!


(Next blog [for sure]: Something to Sing About [1937]) Clips from Ceiling Zero:

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