It’s a commonly held belief that A Girl In Every Port (1928) represents the pinnacle of Howard Hawks’ pre-sound career. Its box office success at the time of release and reputation as the film which brought actress Louise Brooks to the attention of director G. W. Pabst, who cast her soon after in the career-defining cult masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), meant its status as a work of cultural and historical significance was assured relatively early on. It didn’t hurt that the picture’s also a lot of fun. By no means anything approaching a masterpiece, its broad comic appeal and relative accessibility (the enduring popularity of Brooks ensures prints remain in circulation) position it as the most often seen of Hawks’ silent output, with Brooks generally cited as the original Hawksian woman, defined in later works by their no-nonsense, straight-talking predatory sexuality and post-feminist (before there was even feminism) gender subversions (could Brooks have been anything but?).
A year before the film went into production however, Hawks had embarked on a project with the then 24-year-old Fox staff writer Seton I. Miller which would become Paid To Love (1927). Hawks’ partnership with Miller would last for a further eight pictures, culminating with what would prove to be his first masterpiece, the Howard Hughes produced Scarface (1932), but it would be this first collaboration that brought to the screen elements which would later establish themselves in a more concrete form as those which defined Howard Hawks as a filmmaker. I’m speaking thematically rather than stylistically. Hawks, certainly in the early part of his career, was never a director with a strong visual identity. What we think of when we consider the particularities of his ‘style’, tend to stem from his pioneering use of at first simply sound (The Crowd Roars, Scarface), and later dialogue, its rapid delivery and tangible textures, a use of language that more often than not played to the individual strengths of those speaking it, from his earliest screwball Twentieth Century (1934) through to Bringing Up Baby four years later, these anarchic templates for modern screen comedy established an attitude it would take audiences decades to catch up with (Bringing Up Baby being a considerable flop on release).
So where does that leave his silent output? Are his silent films mere curiosities for the Hawks completist? The director himself said he spent his formative career waiting for the arrival of sound, that he felt constricted by the limits of purely visual storytelling. Listening to the rapid fire delivery of His Girl Friday (1940) or the narrative density of The Big Sleep (1946), it’s easy to think he had a point, especially given the formulaic Keystone stylings of much of A Girl In Every Port, supposedly the strongest representation from this era.
But doing so would be to ignore Paid To Love.
Stylistically unlike anything Hawks directed, there’s more visual experimentation in its 85 minute running time than in all of his pre-1932 output put together. Nowhere else does he move his camera quite like he does here, or use colour (albeit in its most primitive tinted form) with such allure (although his first feature Fig Leaves did originally have a single colour sequence). There’s an opulence of production design that belies its studio-shot origins, a rich mise-en-scene with sharp horizontals and verticals that bisect the frame with architectural precision (Hawks trained as an engineer and had a keen interest in architecture prior to his filmmaking career), and a use of light and shadow, silhouette and luminescence that are closer to the expressionistic style of F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg than his usual tendencies towards flat, static, head-on compositions. Cinematographer L. Wm. O’Connell would go on to shoot Murnau’s own Four Devils the following year, so how much of this formal experimentation we should attribute to his contribution is up for debate (though Hawks had a flirtation with camera tracking in The Cradle Snatchers earlier the same year, albeit very briefly).
There’s a stronger sense of three-dimensionality within the frame that’s absent from much of his other work, the foreground and background being separate, negotiable entities that Hawks exploits to often beautiful effect. Dolores finding her way through the woods to Prince Michael’s home, first seen in stark silhouette under a thundering sky, which as she reaches it, is shot from inside through the rain splashed windows in a single left-to-right tracking shot, her body slumped against the panes until she collapses through the door. Or the legs of one of the maids as she walks through the palace, shot from behind and from floor-level, a frame Kurosawa would use in Yojimbo 30 years later, and Tarantino in Kill Bill to introduce Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver 50 years after that. Hawks pushes his camera in on his protagonists to ratchet tension and anxiety and pulls it out to isolate them, a manipulation of the audience’s relation to the subjects absent in all but the slightest glimpses until much later. There’s a luminous close up of Virginia Valli, just kissed by George O’Brien, bathed in a light usually saved for the likes of Dietrich and Joan of Arc by very different film stylists indeed, and wide open exterior location shots, waves crashing in the background, far from the safety and control of the studio interiors Hawks would insist upon later (he would farm out second unit work throughout his career to a trusted coterie of assistant directors).
Then there’s Virginia Valli herself. The very prototype for the Hawksian woman. Sorry Louise, you were a year too late. A worker in a sleazy Parisian bar “The most dangerous Apache dive in Paris”, enacting crimes passionnelles for rich poverty-tourists, she’s a strong-willed woman-for-hire, paid to distract Prince Michael from his motor car obsession by his father, the King of San Savona, in the hope that he’ll turn his attention to taking a wife and producing an heir.
“He wouldn’t look at a woman unless she had eight cylinders and a carburettor”.
A recurring Hawksian motif, the obsession with cars and engines, when we first see Prince Michael in his home, it’s in the middle of his cavernous hallway taking one apart, and many characters throughout his works seem to prefer their inanimate company to that of women (The Crowd Roars, Red Line 7000) who usually serve to stand between the men, driving them apart. His male characters often feel more comfortable in the company of other men, and here again a pivotal plot point occurs in a bar “where by custom nice women aren’t discussed”.
The supporting characters are as wonderfully cast as the leads, the scheming King of Savona and US financier Peter Roberts offering excellent comic support and the dastardly Prince Eric essentially stealing the film in a single scene in which, having hidden himself out of sight in Valli’s bedroom, he begins to suggestively peel a banana as she undresses, unaware of his presence.
The romanticism on display isn’t nearly as cloying as in the other silents, notably Fazil (1928) and it’s often genuinely very funny, but ultimately it’s the formal experimentations that set Paid To Love apart from the rest of his 1920s output, and whilst Hawks himself may have stated “It ain’t my type of stuff”, for me anyway, it represents the pinnacle of his pre-Scarface output, a film desperately in need of re-discovery and the find of the Howard Hawks season thus far.
Paid To Love – 1927 – USA – 85 mins – Dir : Howard Hawks