For the Early Hawks Blogathon (Jan. 12-23) running at Ed Howard's most excellent Only the Cinema blog, the Siren decided to go with Tiger Shark, a movie she saw last year, took notes on and never wrote up. It's a pre-Code melodrama made at First National, the Warner Brothers forerunner. The Siren will be honest and say she found it dull in spots, but every time she considered changing the channel, Hawks reeled her back in. Ultimately it is more interesting as a way station in his development as an artist than as a movie, but Tiger Shark is still well worth catching for any of the director's fans, not just completists.
According to Todd McCarthy's Hawks bio, the original script contained a great deal of the then-current dispute between small-time Portuguese fisherman and the big cannery bosses with their large-scale fishing boats. Hawks, never much interested in any type of political filmmaking, largely dropped that angle. Instead, Tiger Shark, like eleventy gazillion other Hollywood movies, has a plot blatantly borrowed from Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted. It opens with Edward G. Robinson's character, a Portuguese fisherman named Mike, losing his hand to a tiger shark. The hand is soon replaced by a hook--shades of J.M. Barrie, but we're supposed to think more Melville. Mike soon falls in love with dark-eyed Quita (Zita Johann, to make The Mummy later that same year and essentially give the same performance). Quita marries him on the rebound from a broken affair with a married man. For Mike she feels a misguided combination of gratitude, compassion and yearning for security, but naturally she soon regrets marrying him. Instead she falls in love with Mike's best friend, the upright and handsome Pipes (Richard Arlen). And of course Mike finds out, so what will the volatile and sometimes violent Mike do?
Hawks, together with Wells Root, redid the original story outline to conform more to his own interests, and they eked out a script that followed the lines of Howard's play without ever being obvious or actionable. Hawks didn't even bother to tell Root which plot he was trying to steal. When Root's dialogue proved lacking in spots, especially for some of Mike's speeches, Hawks went out and got Scarface scriptwriter John Lee Mahin to polish the dialogue during filming. On set Hawks would feed Robinson lines and suggestions and Robinson would eagerly incorporate them, thinking the material was coming from his genius director. Meanwhile Root had no idea another writer was off doing a polish. To top it off, Johann's new husband, John Houseman, later claimed that Hawks also paid him to hang around in hotel rooms and write up different versions of scenes, not one line of which were ever used. That Hawks managed to take all of these cooks and come up with a movie that runs under 80 minutes shows you his superb focus. The film's tight, linear construction and thematic unity are two of its strengths. On the other hand, despite Mahin's intervention many of Mike's speeches are still full of overaccented whimsy--whimsy! in Hawks!--and missing the bite that is usually the director's hallmark.
McCarthy quotes Hawks talking about how he and Robinson worked out the way to play Mike:
'We started the picture with a dour man, thinking it'd have more drama and chance of violence when he found about his wife's unfaithfulness. We shot until about three in the afternoon the first day,and I stopped things and said to Robinson, "Eddie, this is going to be the dullest picture in the world. We have nothing to relieve. All we've got is a dour, unpleasant man."' Hawks told the actor about a man he knew who talked quickly and constantly to cover up his shyness, and suggested Robinson make Mike a blustering, happy-go-lucky fellow whom 'you felt kind of sorry for and who could also be pretty tough.' For Hawks, the 'whole tenor of the picture changed' due to the alteration, much for the better, and it also made Mike something of a brother to Muni's Scarface--brutal, insensitive, but also somewhat innocent.
Robinson, a sensitive man ever alert to real or perceived slights, at first found the upper-class mien of Hawks a bit snooty. But the actor later said, according to McCarthy, that he "didn't know anything about the difference between stage and screen acting until he worked with with Hawks." That alone is enough to make Tiger Shark a landmark film. Hawks brings along a rather Melvillian theme, in Mike's fear of and fascination with the sharks, and gives it his classic twist. By making Mike a chatterbox he's able to inject humor into a fearsomely dangerous job performed for a subsistence living.
Much more than Mike's occasional speeches about what he was a-gonna do when he encountered the Great Fisher of Men at the Pearly Gates, the trouble that the Siren had with Tiger Shark largely concerned its romantic leads, Johann and Arlen. They bored her stiff. Ed Howard finds Johann full of "emotionally rich realism" and the Siren can only respond that she wishes Johann had come across that way to her. Johann had a lovely, penetrating gaze but after a while the Siren decided there was nothing behind it. The actress is like the store clerk who's standing 10 feet from you and looking, it seems, right in your direction, and yet she sees nothing and reacts to nothing. Arlen is warm and stolid and basically adequate but combined with Johann he could do nothing to emphasize the stakes in the triangle drama--you care about Mike, but the lovers could live, die or elope to Lake Tahoe, it doesn't much matter. Robinson has to carry the entire weight of the film's interest, something even an actor of his stature can't do when he isn't on screen.
The Siren rises to one small point with Ed and Daniel Kasman, who wrote about Tiger Shark at The Auteurs' Notebook. There is a key part of Tiger Shark that is being attributed to Hawks, but he didn't shoot it. Midway through is an absolutely splendid scene of tuna fishing the old-fashioned way, with individual lines and reels. The men balance precariously on the side of a boat, water covering their feet, flinging lines and huge, wriggling fish around, and damn it looks dangerous, and it also looks familiar. Sure enough, the fishing scenes were shot by our old friend Richard Rosson, who did the splendid logging sequences for Come and Get It (which the Siren wrote about here). Hawks was one of the very few directors in the 1930s willing to consign key sequences to someone else, no matter how talented. Rosson was quite skilled in his own right, and I wish he had made his own features. Instead, McCarthy says, Rosson "almost single-handedly invented the job of second-unit director." It was also Rosson's unit that made the climactic shark battle possible, by capturing two huge ones, freezing them and then wiring them for movement. I wonder if a much-later shark movie, which McCarthy suggested was influence by Tiger Shark, might have been driven less crazy by Frozen Bruce than Mechanical Bruce? The special effects of the last shark sequence work quite well.
In reading about the making of Tiger Shark, you're struck by how the Hawks hallmarks were completely, confidently in place--the use of comedy to lighten the overwhelming possibility of death, the technique of giving actors a few pointers and letting them find their own way, the desire to trim away anything fussy or extraneous to the story. If Tiger Shark is not as supremely accomplished as either The Crowd Roars or Scarface, also made in 1932, it still shows Hawks already in complete command of his talent.