Currently playing in a comprehensive retrospective of the director’s work at the BFI Southbank, A Girl In Every Port (1928) is Howard Hawks’ sixth feature and penultimate silent film. Mostly notable for bringing cult screen icon-to-be Louise Brooks to the attention of director G.W. Pabst for his upcoming Pandora’s Box (1929) and making a star of putty-faced, Tunbridge Wells born ex-boxer Victor McLaglen (who was to win Best Actor seven years later for his turn in John Ford’s The Informer), it’s perhaps a little too broadly drawn in its opening reels, opting for heavy-handed slapstick from the Keystone school (static camera, lots of running around and arse kicking) over the more technically nuanced farcical elements he’d later master in pictures such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940).
The love-triangle story is simple enough and can perhaps be viewed as the first of Hawks’ films to embrace the themes he’d continue to play upon throughout his career, romantic rivalry and camaraderie, sexual politics and the subversion of notions of masculinity and femininity. The men here are emotionally immature, wearing their hearts on their sleeves as they try their luck with anything in a skirt and start fights with whoever happens to be in reach. Bonding is by way of punch-ups and seduction the promise of a house, two cows and twelve chickens, their failure to grow-up denying the traditional romantic narrative denouement by way of a ‘who needs chicks?’ resolution.
The cast are pretty great, McLaglen overplaying every emotional beat simply serves to make him all the more endearing and Robert Armstrong as his love rival/new BFF has some great moments, particularly a scene in which he tries to tell his pal about his new girl’s shady Coney Island past whilst swatting her roaming hands away. Louise Brooks, introduced in the film’s one visual flourish as she dives from a circus high-dive board, soaking the infatuated McLaglen below, fares slightly less well as the gold-digging femme fatale. She looks incredible, the iconic bob and bangs already in place and dressed mostly in a sheer bathing costume, her eyes sparkle with a knowing playfulness and intelligence whenever she’s on screen, but it’s a pretty thankless role, entirely subservient to the more bumbling physical and emotional pratfalls of its male leads.
In fact, none of the women in the film are sketched as anything more than the most basic caricature. The women McLaglen meets in the first half are all variations on the same empty misogynist vessel, except that those he meets in Amsterdam wear clogs and live in windmills, only Maria Casajuana as a Latin temptress makes any impact. The film is pretty candid (this being pre-code) about quite how much sleeping around the sailors do, with a running gag about turning up at a girl’s house to find you’ve a child from the last time you were there, but the real love story here is between the two men. McLaglen and Armstrong are framed like a couple throughout, and the drama hinges on their continual falling out and making up, Armstrong needing his finger pulled by his pal to reset his hand after every punch-up representing a recurrently suggestive single entendre. Their interplay works brilliantly though, with little moments such as their sharing a laugh after climbing out of the docks and McLaglen surreptitiously dousing himself in cologne out of his friend’s eyeline working particularly well, serving already to showcase Hawks’ keenly nuanced eye for the technical business of screen comedy.
A Girl In Every Port – 1928 – USA – 72 mins – Dir : Howard Hawks