Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tiger Shark (1932)

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.


Ed Howard said...

A great review, even though I obviously enjoyed this a lot more than you. Yea, the plot's silly and standard, but it's done with so much enthusiasm, and Robinson's performance is as much over-the-top fun as Muni's in Scarface. Not necessarily great acting, but great hammy scenery-chewing for sure. And I thought Johann brought such a wonderful resigned, world-weary quality to her character, a lot of it coming through in those big eyes of hers. But then again maybe I just fell for her a bit, who knows?

Anyway, thanks for contributing! By the way, where'd you get the info that Rosson shot the tuna-fishing sequences? Is that in the McCarthy bio? I really need to read that soon, I was waiting until I'd actually seen most of the early films. Not that I'd completely take the credit away from Hawks even if Rosson shot it. After all, Hawks was the one who wanted it in there, and this habit of grounding his stories in the occupations of the characters persisted throughout his work, whether he farmed the actual shooting out to other units or shot it himself.

The Siren said...

Yes, it's in the McCarthy bio, which is really good. Hawks was an amazing tale-spinner and talked a lot over the years, and frequently his stories are, shall we say, highly unlikely. McCarthy does a good job of detangling the mythology Hawks built up around himself.

Hawks wasn't generally a credit-hog, however, and as far as I know he was always willing to discuss Rosson's work. I agree, it's still Hawks' film, and in the bio Hawks states that part of the reason he gave it to Rosson was that he knew the guy would do it so well, the sequence "would come back just as though I'd made it." But after seeing the logging sequences in Come and Get It, I really wanted to give Rosson some love too.

Johann was wondrous-looking but stiff to me. She was certainly sexy in a Laziest Girl in Town kinda way. Maybe if she hadn't retired to be Houseman's wife she would have developed more.

Gerard Jones said...

This is an excellent interweaving of history and criticism, Siren. Thanks for this. It almost inspires me to start a Top 20 list of movies about fish.

I never thought of the Howard play having such an influence on Hollywood stories...but from what I know of the play (never seen, heard the basic plot), that's making some sense. I don't suppose you'd be willing to expand on that a little, would you? It seems like an important piece of cultural archaeology...

Yojimboen said...

Not that unusual, farming out… I was once at a Q&A with Robert Wise and someone asked about the “March of Time” sequence opening Citizen Kane (which as we should all know, he was editor on); Wise was surprisingly modest about it, taking no credit. He said (roughly from memory): “Orson wasn’t stupid – he called Louis de Rochemont [Producer] at March of Time and had him send over a newsreel cameraman and a cutter. Orson gave them a rough draft of the narration and let them cover it. Two days later they gave me the assembled sequence and I dropped it into the Kane rough-cut. I don’t think I changed a frame."

Karen said...

A great piece, Siren, which leaves me determined to check this film out should it reappear, despite the uninspiring Richard Arlen. I saw him as a leading man somewhere else recently, and was distinctly underwhelmed.

But your description of Robinson's performance, and his process for getting there--that's fascinating enough for me to keep an eye out for this. Thanks!

The Siren said...

Thanks very much Gerard! Now that you have pinned me down, I realize I would have to leaf through some old books to come with a half-dozen ... and to be fair, the plot is a lot older than that. Older man/young bride/in love with best friend goes back to Le Morte d'Arthur, yes?

Yojimboen, I agree, but McCarthy claims that it was an unusual practice in 1932 and so Rosson and Hawks can be seen as pioneering the concept. It's something worth researching. Surely the big silent epics must have had second-unit stuff? or maybe not.

Karen, it would make for a fascinating double feature with Captains Courageous, or maybe even a triple with Tortilla Flat. Of Tracy vs. Robinson I'd have to say Robinson is less grating, but then he doesn't have to be all saintly either.

mndean said...

Although I've never seen this film (I've seen Scarface and The Crowd Roars), it's interesting that Hawks would drop the political angle in the same year it became big business at Warner/First National with I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Heroes For Sale. This is the sort of meat that people ate up early in the Depression.

Hawks wasn't temperamentally drawn to that kind of story. He seemed to be more interested in the testosterone-fueled man's struggle to master his fear and the world around him which is straight out of boy's stories. This comes across as fairly sexist today but was common to old Hollywood. From what I've seen of his work (about 75% of his films), he could depict a woman's side of things, but he wasn't comfortable with it. It surprised me that he could do screwball at all well in Bringing Up Baby, but he did it by turning Hepburn into something of a ditz, a trick that La Cava used with Lombard in My Man Godfrey.

The Siren said...

I usually don't find Hawks sexist at all because his female characters tend to be smart, strong and sexually aggressive -- Hepburn is a ditz, it's true, but she's also completely in the driver's seat in Bringing Up Baby. Hawks also doesn't have that unpleasant compulsion that some other directors of the era had, to humiliate the leading actress to "humanize" her.

Tiger Shark, however--don't know if I would call it sexist, it's just that the triangle has no juice. There is very often a two-men-and-a-girl relationship in a Hawks movie but it is unusual to get one that's so flat.

Operator_99 said...

Thanks for the great review. I will add it to the list of films to see. What I thought was a well placed bon mot was in drawing the similarity of Zita's performance here to that in the Mummy, which I have seen. I, as you might guess, find her alluring, but "performance" is a kind word for her work in the Mummy. But to be fair, those were only her second and third films respectively, out of only eight, so your comment about her perhaps not having time to develop may be true.

The Siren said...

Operator, I have been wanting to do a links roundup but it is a wonder I have been able to do anything what with this alleged holiday ... three-day weekends are a PITA if you ask me. In the meantime though I loooooooove your 20 actor list and hope everyone clicks on your name to go look at it.

mndean said...

Hepburn's in the drivers seat, yes, but due to being one of those people who are like Wile E. Coyote before he notices that there's nothing but space under him. She airily ignores and dismisses every danger and gets away with it. You can call her charmed or whatever, but it's not the most appealing version of womanhood.

In screwball, women are often NOT humiliated and subjugated - think of Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, Jean Arthur in Too Many Husbands, Easy Living and The Whole Town's Talking, and Carole Lombard in Hands Across The Table and True Confession.

Hawks tried to take Arthur down a peg in the early scenes of Only Angels Have Wings, having her experience that inhuman ceremony after Noah Beery Jr.'s character crashed and died. THAT was right out of a boy's book (grief is unmanly, as is fear and cowardice), and I always assumed Hawks meant that scene to be taken straight considering how the rest of the film played out. She had to become one of them to be accepted. It's not humiliation (that was left to Rita Hayworth's character), but it's not exactly enlightened, either.

D Cairns said...

Isn't Hepburn's character kind of a one-off in Hawks' work? She's far from a typical Hawksian woman, it seems to me. In the same way, you can't generalise from Marilyn's character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I suspect that for every archetypal Hawksian woman in the Bacall style (and there are considerable variations there), there's at least one totally different type of heroine. That kind of variety is in itself useful and interesting and mitigates against charges of sexism.

Karen said...

Older man/young bride/in love with best friend goes back to Le Morte d'Arthur, yes?

Gracious; farther still, Siren. The 15th-century Malory was re-working old material. The character of Lancelot--and the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle--dates back to Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century, pulling from the courtly love fashion at the court of Marie de Champagne.

Concurrent with Chretien's story was that of King Mark/Isolde/Tristan, so it was definitely in the air.

< /medievalist pedant >

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

> I wish [Rosson] had made his own features.

Actually, he did direct "Corvette K-225," a war drama which Hawks produced. Starring Randolph Scott and Ella Raines.

The Siren said...

MrsHWV, I read right past that feature when reading up on Rosson! So...have you seen it? any good?

Karen, you're cute when you're pedantic. :D Anyways, this one ain't Malory. Or de Troyes either!

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I haven't seen "Corvette K-225." I seem to remember that Agee said a favorable thing or two. As for the reviews I've found, no one's too enthusiastic.

This Tom Milne comment is typical: "As one might expect with Howard Hawks as producer, the accent is on how things are done, but the result -- complete with obligatory romantic interest -- is not particularly interesting."

I seem to remember that this was during the "Big Sleep"-ish period when Hawks was working with Charles Feldman and there was talk of involvement with Universal (the company that released "Corvette"). Ella Raines was being, um, worked on at the same time as young Bacall. Clearly the former actress ain't the latter, but ... what Hawks might've done with the star of "Phantom Lady" makes for interesting speculation.

LaBoheme said...

Howard Hawks is pretty great, and he has the same last name as me =cP Though We're not related.

I just watched His Girl Friday today for the first time. It was a lot of fun. But with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, what else would I expect.

Shawn Stone said...

Richard Rosson directed a number of comedies at Paramount in the late 1920s. I saw Blonde or Brunette, with Adolphe Menjou and Greta Nissen at a film fest a few years ago. It's a lovely farce which ends with the the leads being locked together in a bedroom (where they, naturally, um, reconcile). He also directed Menjou and Louise Brooks in the (sadly) lost Rolled Stockings.

The Siren said...

dr. giraud, thanks for the correction! That was careless on my part. I did see that Rosson had directed a few features in the silent era but I just didn't bother to mention them, not something an old-movie fan should ever be caught doing. I am glad to hear that at least one of his silents survived; Adolphe Menjou locked in a bedroom, hmmm. The Menjou/Brooks sounds delicious just from the title, doesn't it?