erik lundegaard

Monday June 07, 2021

Movie Review: Ceiling Zero (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Ceiling Zero” is both same-old same-old and not. 

It’s the fourth James Cagney-Pat O’Brien picture in two years, their second as pilots, with Cagney once again the hot-dog womanizer who endangers everyone while O’Brien is the firm man in command who teaches him how to be a team player. In “Devil Dogs in the Air” and “The Irish in Us,” Cagney steals O’Brien’s girl; here, he’s already stolen her. He had a relationship with her years before that O’Brien doesn’t know about. For good measure, he also steals aviatrix “Tommy” Thomas (June Travis) away from her fiancé. All of this is familiar.

What’s new is the movie’s pedigree and it informs everything else. The earlier flicks were directed by Lloyd Bacon, a solid journeyman, and this is from Howard Hawks, a famed auteur. But I think the big difference is the screenwriter. Frank Wead was a U.S. Navy pilot and early authority on flying who suffered a freak spinal injury accident in 1926 that left him paralyzed. At that point, along with his sober aviation manuals, he began writing fiction of pilot derring-do for the pulps, some of which were bought by Hollywood. Eventually he began writing directly for the movies: “Air Mail” (1932) and “West Point of the Air” (1935), among them. He became friends with director John Ford, and after Wead’s death in 1947 Ford made “The Wings of Eagles” in 1957, which was based on Wead’s life and writings. John Wayne played Wead.

Wead also wrote one play, “Ceiling Zero,” about pilots delivering airmail in zero-visibility conditions, which debuted on Broadway in 1935 to mixed reviews. He adapted it himself for the screen, but didn’t adapt it much. Most of the action takes place in a single location: the waiting area/hangar at the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Pilots come and go, radio operators try to reach them in hazardous conditions, planes crash. The action, and thus the drama, is concentrated, and feels like a filmed play.

Actually, you know what it reminded me of? Those theatrical showcases in the early days of television: Studio One, Good Year Playhouse, Playhouse 90. There’s a close, emotionally heavy, mano a mano sense to scenes. It’s a melodrama, truncated in time and space, and with a low budget. Even the DVD I watched, the French version called “Brumes” (no U.S. version is available for legal reasons), reminded me of kinescopes of early television.

I wish I could—
We don’t see Cagney’s character, Dizzy Davis, until 17 minutes in. I like that. I like it when movies keep the lead offstage but talk him up. With Dizzy, men tend to smile and women tend to frown. Management isn’t too happy, either, when they find out he's been rehired. An early bit of dialogue between Jake (O’Brien) and aviation boss Al Stone (Barton MacLane) is pretty much the movie in a nutshell:

Al: I’m telling you, Jake, Dizzy’s a menace and a liability.
Jake: And the best cockeyed pilot on this airline or any other.

The boss wants college men who are technically expert but we’ve already seen potential problems with them. Eddie Payson (Carlyle Moore, Jr.) is a pilot who checks all the boxes except one: reactions to emergencies. The night before, in the fog, his radio out, Payson panicked and abandoned his plane, and there went $40,000. Surprised Jake doesn’t use this bottom-line argument with Al. Also, what happened to the plane? He was over Pennsylvania. Where did it crash? Did it hurt anyone? Did no one sue anyone during this period? Anyway he gets canned. 

Dizzy’s the opposite. He arrives singing “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” lands crazily, gets tossed around by his pals, Tex and Doc (Stuart Erwin and Edward Gargan), and lands at the feet of Joe Allen, commerce inspector (Craig Allen). Everyone’s got an eye on Dizzy but he maintains his rascally ways. He immediately makes a play for Tommy, strikes out, then bets the others he can get her to come with all of them to Mama Gini’s—their version of the Happy Bottom Riding Club from “The Right Stuff.” He wins.

Hollywood movies are forever tossing together older actors and young starlets without comment but here they comment. Fifteen years separate Cagney and Travis (37 and 22), and ditto Dizzy and Tommy (34 and 19), and he tries to convince her it’s no barrier. Why when she’s 34, he’ll only be 49. They keep upping the ages, flirting all the while, until this:

She: Do you realize when I’m 49 you’ll be 64?
He: When you’re 49 you’ll be rolling around in a wheelchair. I’ll be out dancing.
She: Oh yeah? With who?
He: How do I know—she hasn’t been born yet.

How the times have change. What would be a feminist punchline on SNL today is a winner here. Both chuckle and Tommy seems to soften. They’re about to kiss when Jake butts in.

For all that, the screenplay isn’t too backward-looking. The women are tough, with male names—Tommy, Lou—while Tommy, the beginner, is as enamored of aviation history as she is of Dizzy. After she ditches him at Mama Gini's, he confronts her the next morning, and they all but reverse gender roles. He feigns the vapors at the humiliation of it all; and when he corrects her when she says he's 35, she tells him not to be too sensitive about his age. She’s also up front about her sexuality. She admits she’s attracted to him but “I finally got a hold of myself and said, ‘Tommy, this is alright, but how does he look in the morning?’” 

Still, he doesn't give up. He offers her flying lessons on the condition she’ll have dinner with him. His Cleveland mail run? Oh, he’ll get Tex to take it. And does—by feigning a bum ticker in the locker room. Think of it: He hasn’t even done one mail run for the outfit and he’s already shirking his duties.

That moment, 40 minutes into a 90-minute movie, sets up the rest.

The movie opens with a description of the term ceiling zero: “... that time when fog, rain or snow completely fills the flying air between sky or ceiling and the earth.” According to Wiki, the service ceiling is the maximum usable altitude of an aircraft, so ceiling zero is when nothing should be in the air. That’s what Tex winds up flying in. Jake observes that even the seagulls are staying on the ground. So the men, behind radio operator Buzz (James Bush), try to talk Tex home.

Not sure when the movie is set—the opening titles indicate it’s a time when airmail pilots “challenged and conquered ceiling zero” but no date is given. I’m assuming the 1920s or early ’30s? Before radar anyway. Tex not only winds up flying in adverse conditions but he loses radio contact. The men on the ground can hear him but he can’t hear them. Earlier, Tex was the cool, calm counterpart to Eddie Payson’s panic, so when panic begins to creep into his voice, it’s startling, and sets up his end: his plane bursts into flame as he cuts through wires trying to land. All because Dizzy shirked his duties.

The rest is Dizzy’s attempt to make good. Dizzy gets Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), Tommy’s fiancé, and the pilot working on the new de-icing protocol, to tell him all about it; then he decks him and takes his place. It’s again ceiling zero weather and he radios back the dope on the de-icers: “Pressure has got to be doubled. And the rear tube has to be moved back at least eight inches, so the ice won’t fall behind it.” Eventually the wings ice up too much and the plane plummets. These are Dizzy’s last words:

Give my love to everybody and pay Mama Gini the four bucks I owe her. So long, baby, don’t be mad at me. I wish I could—

I wish I could. Not bad last words. The last thoughts for most of us, I imagine.

Dizzy and Tex redux
“Ceiling Zero” has a lot of similarities with another Frank Wead-penned Hollywood flick, “Air Mail,” directed by John Ford in 1932. There’s a character named Dizzy, another named Tex, and a member of the ground crew who keeps getting chastised for wearing his cap backward—instead of being chastised for not wearing it at all, per “Zero.” A crash at the beginning necessitates the hire of a reckless ace, “Duke” Talbot (Pat O’Brien, ironically), who has an affair with Dizzy’s wife, and who later saves the life of the stolid man in command, Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) during ceiling zero conditions. Most of the action takes place in the waiting area/hangar.

One of the most affective parts of “Zero” is Mike Owens (Garry Owen), a former ace pilot who suffered brain damage in a crash and now does menial work around the place. All this unbeknownst to Dizzy, who is excited when he sees him, calling him “the only guy in the outfit crazier than I was,” and referencing their WWI-era 59th Squad at Kelly Field. “Oh, I remember you,” Mike says slowly. “You were a pilot.” “I still am,” Dizzy responds. The collapse in Cagney’s face, the dawning realization in his eyes, is so well-done. Owen is quite good, too, but sadly never broke out. He has 186 credits between 1933 and 1952, uncredited in 146 of them. He died in 1951, age 49.

I also liked Erwin as Tex, Travis as Tommy and Isabel Jewell as Lou. Early Warner Bros. had some fast talkers—Cagney, Bogart, Bette Davis—but I bet O’Brien could give them all a run. He barks orders here that are impossible to keep up with. Coffee at the studio must’ve been strong.

This was the last Warners movie Cagney made before his mid-1930s break from the studio, and, as mentioned, his second go-round as a pilot. When he returned he would make two more: “The Bride Came C.O.D.” and “Captains of the Clouds.” In both, he's the hot-shot pilot who steals women. Not bad for a guy who was notoriously aerophobic and monogamous.

Posted at 07:25 AM on Monday June 07, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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