Ceiling Zero

Screening on Film
Directed by Howard Hawks.
With James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, June Travis.
US, 1936, 35mm, black & white, 95 min.
Print source: HFA

Ceiling Zero offers a standout early example of Hawks’ penchant for mixing seemingly incompatible tonal registers. Pointing ahead to Only Angels Have Wings, the film’s first half is dedicated to the screwball banter of Dizzy (James Cagney), Tex (Stuart Erwin) and Jake (Pat O’Brien), lifelong friends whose enduring passion for flying has led them all to careers in commercial aviation. In these early scenes, Hawks savors the easy rapport and overlapping one-liners shared among the men, and the mood becomes playfully, insinuatingly erotic when Dizzy falls for a flirtatious flight trainee (June Travis). But naivete and overconfidence quickly spell danger as the young pilots find themselves on nerve-wracking missions in the sky, where storm clouds and enveloping fog prompt emergency landings and casualties. The film’s second half pivots to tragedy, with Cagney negotiating a moving transition from boorish adolescent to sympathetic, hardened adult. Shot on a shoestring, Ceiling Zero makes stirring use of practical effects to emphasize the claustrophobia and peril associated with his characters’ vocation.

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The Complete Howard Hawks