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A Girl in Every PortA Girl in Every Port

(American, 1928, 79 minutes, b&w, 16mm, silent)

Directed by Howard Hawks



Victor McLaglen . . . . . . . . . . Spike Madden
Robert Armstrong . . . . . . . . . . Bill/"Salami"
Louise Brooks . . . . . . . . . .Marie/"Mlle. Godiva"
Myrna Loy . . . . . . . . . . Jetta

Piano accompaniment will be provided by Mike Schiffer

Jacques Rivette had yet to make his first film when, in 1953, he wrote admiringly of Howard Hawks: "The measure of Hawks’ films is intelligence, but a pragmatic intelligence, applied directly to the physical world, an intelligence which takes it s efficacy from the precise viewpoint of a profession or from some form of human activity at grips with the universe and anxious for conquest." The Hawksian universe, in films as outwardly diverse as Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Air Force (1943), Red River (1949), Rio Bravo (1959), is a place of professionals, whose society is founded on the job of work they do with deftness, humor, and even grace. They may be aviators (a favored Hawks’ occupation; he himself was a flyer) or frontier lawmen, or drivers of racing cars, or soldiers, but what they do is who they are. And sex is not, as it is in so many Hollywood films, a wall between men and women, a pretext for excluding women from the joys of this professionalism. Instead, Hawks’ characters, men and women both, are refreshingly sexual, and equally talented in what they do. Their exuberant, laughing sexiness is an expression of their ease not only with one another, but with themselves. Even the love triangles that are such a prominent feature of Hawks’ films are sources of benevolence, rather than the epicenters of melodramatic tension they routinely are in other directors’ films. Hawks was a rough-hewn Noel Coward, able to make of a threesome a remarkably civilized design for living, albeit one chock full of rowdy banter and physical humor. In love, as well as in work, the Hawks protagonist rarely suffers self-doubt, but instead goes about the world with sunny confidence in himself, supremely capable of handling every situation as it arises.

So it is with A Girl in Every Port. Sailors "Spike Madden" (Victor McLaglen) and "Salami" (Robert Armstrong) jostle one another over the women they court in various ports. Their rivalry becomes an expression of their devotion to one another, and, like Red River and many another Hawks film, A Girl in Every Port has been described as "a love story between two men." The most entrancing women they fight over are gorgeous, yet earthy; they are comfortable with being objects of passion, yet they are also warm and self-deprecating. The stunning Louise Brooks, the legendary "girl in the black helmet" celebrated decades later by an adoring Kenneth Tynan as a monument to mature, complex sexuality on the screen, initiates the long, honorable history of the Hawks Woman. It is a fault of the film, as critic Robin Wood writes, that, in the end, it mishandles Brooks, and women in general; it is a mistake Hawks would rarely make again.

The Hawks Woman is tough, funny, and beautiful, willing and able to fence with the man she loves. "What are you trying to do – guess her weight?" asks Lauren Bacall of Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1945), when he picks up a voluptuous woman who has suspiciously grown faint in his presence, and instantly, Bacall’s "Marie" endears herself to Bogart, and us, because we know she’d never resort to such deception to win him.

Louise BrooksThe Hawks Woman increases the hero’s attraction to her by her independence, by the barbs she directs at him, and by her coolness in tight spots. Hawks cast Hollywood’s most unusual and attractive women in this demanding role; Katherine Hepburn was a Hawks Woman, in Bringing Up Baby (1939), and so was Frances Farmer, in Come and Get It (1936). There was Carole Lombard, the great screwball heroine, who trades punches with John Barrymore in the anarchic Twentieth Century (1934), and Rosalind Russell, handsome, skilled, and compassionate as lady reporter "Hildy Johnson" in His Girl Friday (1940). Whether they’re saloon singers, or heiresses, or gun molls, the women on Howard Hawks’ screen are clear-eyed, intelligent people whose desireability is increased, not diminished, because of these traits. In A Girl in Every Port, Louise Brooks is the ancestor of Lauren Bacall, the greatest of all the Hawks Women, in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep (1946).

Other women in the cast of A Girl in Every Port might well have been Hawks Women, if only they’d been given the chance: Myrna Loy can be glimpsed in the role of "Jetta," one of a dozen Oriental temptress roles she played in silent films in the years before The Thin Man(1934). And, in a small role, there’s Sally Rand, who, in a few years, would outrage Victorian morality and delight the fantasies of millions of men as the most elegant of strippers on the Midway of the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition.

Hawks’ female characters were worldly and competent even in periods when other women on the screen were seen mostly as objects of desire and little else, to be either batted about by the narrative, or to pose a threat to men, diverting them from their more important work. The Hawks Woman is neither coy about her sexuality, nor a passive prop of the scenarios she finds herself in. She is, as Molly Haskell and other feminist film historians have noted, a rare example of a fully-developed female character the cinema encourages us to admire as unreservedly as we do the men in films. And because the films Hawks made were so warmly sympathetic to women, the male characters beside them are magnified in our affections, as well.

In many ways, A Girl in Every Port blueprinted the easygoing Hawks style he’d follow for a generation, well into the 1970’s. In the last years of his life, Hawks planned a remake of A Girl in Every Port. He constantly remade his own films, but this last project was especially dear to him. The title for the never-realized film could have been his epitaph, for it neatly signified both a union between sexual equals, and the reliance on professionalism Hawks celebrated in both men and women: the film was to be called When it’s Hot, Play it Cool.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

In the film that influential Swiss writer Blaise Cendrars declared "definitively marked the first appearance of contemporary cinema," sailor Spike Madden (Victor McLaglen) discovers that he has competition for his girlfriends in various ports of call. He finally overtakes his rival, Salami (Robert Armstrong), another sailor, and after a fight they become fast friends. When Madden falls in love with gold digging vamp Marie (Louise Brooks), Salami must decide whether to tell his friend the truth about her. "A Girl in Every Port" represents the first of director Howard Hawks’s great "buddy films." The film enjoyed moderate success in the United States, but in Europe it was hailed a triumph. It also brought Louise Brooks to the attention of German director G. W. Pabst, who would cast her the following year in the silent classic, "Pandora's Box."

The following is an excerpt from a New York Times review that appeared on February 20, 1928:

"Spike" Madden is the name of a philandering ship’s mate in "A Girl in Every Port," the picture now holding forth at the Roxy Theatre. Madden enjoys his periodical trips ashore; but he is quite perturbed, soon after this story opens, to learn that he has a rival, another man-about-the-Seven-Seas, who is impudently stealing the hearts and afftection of Madden’s girls. "Spike" discovers that this annoying individual is impelled to see that the young women of his choice wear his adopted crest—an anchor in a heart. Madden discovers this insignia either dangling from bracelets or tattooed on the fair arms of the captivating creatures.

This much you learn in the initial chapter of "A Girl in Every Port," and the incidents are set forth in a rollicking fashion with none other than the towering Victor McLaglen filling the part of Madden…. Robert Armstrong’s acting of the part of [Madden’s rival] Salami is natural. He gives you a good idea of the fearlessness of the individual. Louise Brooks figures as the alluring brunette of Marseilles. Maria Casajuana is a girl in Buenos Aires. The Panama beauties are impersonated by Natalie Joyce, Dorothy Mathews and Elena Jurado. Sally Rand is the Bombay charmer and Natalie Kingston is the joy of the South Seas.

The following is an excerpt from Hawks on Hawks, a series of interviews with Joseph McBride:

What is the reason for the running bit of business in A Girl in Every Port of one guy pulling the other guy’s finger?

You ever hit anybody hard? Your finger goes out of joint, and somebody takes it and pulls it back into joint. I hit Hemingway, and I broke the whole back of my hand. I wish it had just gone out of joint.

Why did you hit Hemingway?

He just said, "Can you hit?" I broke my whole hand. He laughed like hell, and he sat up all night making a splint out of a tomato can so that I could go shooting with him the next morning. It didn’t do my hand any good. It’s an absolutely different shape.

Was the finger business in A Girl in Every Port supposed to be a gesture of friendship? You used it again with Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin in The Big Sky.

Oh, it’s just like Wayne rolling cigarettes for Dean Martin. One thing you can do is look at all the pictures I’ve ever made, and you’ll see that nobody pats another on the back. That’s the goddamnedest inane thing I’ve ever known.

The following is an excerpt from The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers:

Whatever the genre of a Hawks film, it bore traits that made it unmistakably a Hawks film. The narrative was always elegantly, symmetrically structured and patterned, a sign of both Hawks’s sharp sense of storytelling and his good sense to work closely with very talented writers: Ben Hecht, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman being the most notable among them. Hawks’s films were devoted to characters who were professionals with fervent vocational commitments, men who were good at what they did, whether flying the mail, driving race cars, driving cattle, or reporting the news. These vocational commitments were usually fulfilled by the union of two apparently opposite physical types who were physically one: either the union of the harder, tougher, older male and a softer, younger, prettier male (John Wayne and Montegomery Clift in Red River, Wayne and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo), or by a sharp, tough male and an equally sharp, tough female (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century). This spiritual alliance of physical opposites revealed Hawks’s unwillingness to accept the cultural stereotype that those who are able to accomplish difficult tasks are those who appear able to accomplish them.

This tension between appearance and ability, surface and essence in Hawks’s films led to several other themes and techniques. Characters talk very tersely in Hawks films, refusing to put their thoughts and feelings into explicit speeches which would either sentimentalize or vulgarize those internal abstractions. Instead, Hawks’s characters reveal their feelings in action, not in talk, showing what they mean by what they do, not what they say. Hawks deflects his portrayal of the inner life from explicit speeches to symbolic physical objects—concrete visual images of things that convey the intentions of the person who handles, uses, or controls the piece of physical matter….

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