Hawks’ first flying picture was The Dawn Patrol in 1930, a fine movie but it’s obvious that Hawks’ characteristic approach to film-making hadn’t yet quite coalesced. By the time he made Ceiling Zero six years later his mature style was fully formed and with such ideal subject matter he could hardly miss. And he doesn’t.
Federal Air Lines runs passenger, freight and air mail services out of Newark Airport. When it comes to passenger flights safety is the prime consideration but with the air mail it’s a different story. The mail flights take off regardless of weather conditions, even with zero visibility, the pilots flying on instruments and guided in to land by radio beacons.
Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) runs the show. He has to answer to the airline’s owners but when it comes to day-to-day operations and hiring and firing of pilots he calls the shots. Nobody is very pleased when he hires his old First World War flying buddy Dizzy Davis (James Cagney). Dizzy had worked for the airline before and his reputation precedes him. It is a reputation for irresponsibility, selfishness, womanising, boozing and superb flying.
On arrival Dizzy behaves exactly as his reputation would suggest. Trouble starts to brew when he sets his sights on beautiful 19-year-old Tommy Thomas (June Travis), who has just made her first solo flight. Tommy is clearly an ideal match for a Hawksian hero, a spirited woman who shares the hero’s love for adventure and can trade wisecracks with the best of them. The problem is that another pilot, Lawson, is already in love with her and wedding bells are already in the offing. That’s a minor problem as far as Dizzy Davis is concerned. He can outfly any other pilot and he can win any other man’s woman.
Dizzy’s pursuit of Tommy will have fateful consequences. In order to make a date with her he swaps flights with one of the airline’s most experienced pilots, Texas Clarke (Stuart Erwin). The weather closes in and Texas finds himself making the flight in almost impossible weather conditions - ceiling zero, visibility zero and impenetrable fog. Texas is a fine pilot and in normal circumstances could cope even with conditions such as these but when his radio gives out on him he’s in real trouble. Without a radio his only chance of landing is to find a gap in the cloud cover, an outside chance at best. Dizzy knows that it was his selfishness that put Texas in this jam. Everyone else knows it too but they also know that it’s the luck of the game.
This movie divides neatly in half. The first half is zinging wise-cracking comedy in fine Hawksian fashion, a kind of dry run for His Girl Friday. Then, as it becomes obvious that Texas is in real trouble, the mood darkens and the movie switches to nail-biting tension. If the first half prefigures His Girl Friday then the second half clearly anticipates Hawks’ 1939 aviation masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings.
Hawks’ trademark rapid-fire overlapping dialogue is used to superb effect in both halves of the movie, providing sparkling comedy at first and then serving to ratchet up the tension as everyone’s nerves start to fray.
The classic Hawksian theme of men sharing danger and facing down death is very much in evidence. This theme was already in evidence in The Dawn Patrol but in Ceiling Zero it becomes even more Hawksian with the addition of strong very Hawksian female characters.
The criticism usually directed at this movie is that it is very stagey (and it was in fact adapted from a stage play). That criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the director’s approach to material like this. Hawks also liked to have his group of men facing danger of death cut off from the outside world. Having the action almost entirely taking place indoors, and almost entirely in a single room (apart from scenes of the flyers in the their cockpits where they are also cut off from the outside world), suits Hawks very well. It gives the movie the kind of claustrophobic isolated feel that he used so successfully in movies like Only Angel Have Wings and Rio Bravo (and The Dawn Patrol). This movie is very dialogue-heavy but the dialogue is always crucial in a Hawks film and in this movie it’s exceptionally important. Maybe a reliance on dialogue isn’t very cinematic in a purist sense but Hawks couldn’t have cared less. He wanted to make movies that worked and this one works very well indeed.
The acting certainly helps. This was one of James Cagney’s favourite movies and he’s in spectacular form. He’s in overdrive for the whole movie but that doesn’t prevent from revealing his character’s emotional depths. Cagney might be bouncing off the walls but he knows what he’s doing; he’s in complete control of his performance. Pat O’Brien provides the perfect foil. And as in any great Hawks movie the individual performances are important but more important still is the way the performances intermesh. In Ceiling Zero all the actors deliver on both counts.
The supporting characters are as strong as the leads. Stuart Erwin is delightful. Even quite minor characters such as Texas’s wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) are strongly delineated and complex. June Travis makes a fine Hawksian woman, strong in herself but equally strong in her willingness to support her man.
One outstanding characteristic of the Hawks action movie is the lack of villains. Hawks had virtually no interest in villains. Even in The Dawn Patrol there are no villains - the Germans are as brave and honourable as the British flyers. There is even a strong bond between them since both are actually facing the same enemy, the enemy being death. It was entirely logical that Hawks’ next two aviation movies should have peacetime settings. The battle against death and danger has no need for human enemies at all.
For an action movie Ceiling Zero has surprisingly little action. There is really only one major action set-piece, although it happens to be a very good one. The action itself is not all that important. The focus (as in The Dawn Patrol) is not on what happens in the air, it is on what happens to those on the ground waiting helplessly for the flyers to return. In spite of having relatively little action there is not a dull moment in the film, a point that some modern directors would be ell advised to take note of.
The only currently available edition of this movie is the French DVD release. The good news is that it is the original English-language version with removable French subtitles, and it’s a very good transfer.
Perhaps Ceiling Zero is not quite as good as Only Angel Have Wings, but it’s not that far behind. It’s absolutely essential viewing for admirers of Howard Hawks. It marks the arrival of the classic full-blown Howard Hawks style. The magnificent performance by James Cagney makes it a must-see movie. Very highly recommended.