Friday, August 28, 2020

The Grant Mystique: The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

In some ways, Cary Grant was a more interesting actor before he cultivated the movie star persona. There's an intensity in some of his early roles that mostly vanishes from the polished perfection of "Cary Grant." While it's true that Grant sometimes vanished behind his co-stars in his early films, struggling to find a cinematic identity, there are a handful of them where this is not the case. The Eagle and the Hawk (1933, directed by Stuart Walker and Mitchell Leisen) is one such film. The Grant one finds in this film is one that almost entirely vanishes after Grant left Paramount in 1936. Grant plays a World War I tail gunner, who is partnered with a pilot he despises. He's the film's principle antagonist, a character who is callous and unpleasant and brutal. It's one of the film's bitterest ironies that his character is the one most suited for the enterprise at hand. He doesn't buy into the romance of being a flying ace, and because of this, he's most likely to survive the war.

Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

The story follows idealistic pilot Jerry Young (Fredric March), who is naive about the nature of war. When he arrives at the front, he views his role as an elaborate game, like counting coup, rather than as the messy business of murdering one's fellow man. He learns soon enough. On his first mission--a reconnaissance flight to photograph the enemy--his observer/tail-gunner is killed. As Jerry racks up missions, more and more of his colleagues are killed in action, while Jerry is decorated in glory he finds that he can't stomach. His bete noir is Henry Crocker, a man to whom Jerry gave a poor recommendation back in England, delaying Crocker's arrival in the war. Crocker is bloodthirsty, ready for a fight, and he thinks Jerry is soft. He thinks the whole code of the pilots is soft. When Crocker shoots an enemy pilot who has bailed out of his plane, the other pilots ostracize him for not playing fair. Crocker understands that killing that man means one less enemy that might kill him in the future. He's a pragmatist. Jerry, for his part, begins to drink heavily, and when his latest observer falls out of the plane during a dogfight, he cracks. A trip to Paris to calm his nerves only aggravates his guilt when he's the toast of the town because of all the men he's killed. When he's singled out for a high honor and medal, he can no longer bear the burden of "glory"...

Fredric March and Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

The Eagle and the Hawk is surprisingly pacifist, even considering its era. The wounds of The Great War were still recent, open, and bleeding in 1933; not even a generation had passed. The idea that World War I was the war to end wars was still in currency then, and the horror of that war is reflected in films like All Quiet on the Western Front and J'Accuse. Where The Eagle and the Hawk exceeds these films is in the clear understanding of the next generation of soldiers, the ones who would eventually fight the second World War and the Cold War beyond it. It has an awareness that there will be more wars, and it has an idea of what it will take to fight them. It's not the idealists like Jerry Young. It's the brutal pragmatists like Henry Crocker. Crocker is a piece of work. He recognizes that Jerry is a romantic. The war demolishes Jerry's sense of self; his ideal of martial virtue is in direct opposition to the realities of The Great War and it breaks him. Crocker watches him break and it disgusts him. Crocker is there to do a job. He goes into the task with his eyes open and with no illusions. He's unsentimental about the men on the other side. George Patton would have loved Crocker. It's men like Crocker who Patton had in mind when he said, "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." Crocker understands this at the outset. Jerry does not. And yet, in the afterglow of the war, or in the lingering trauma (whichever you like), it's Crocker who is the villain of the piece even if the end of the movie grants him one grand romantic gesture. Jerry, on the other hand, is a familiar type of character from the literature of the Great War. Think of Jake Barnes in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises as an archetype of a man broken by his experiences. Barnes is impotent from his war wounds. Jerry Young is similarly conceived. He's a man so broken that he doesn't need the enemy to kill him and who can't even find solace in women. His other option is the bottle. He ultimately kills himself. The film's epitaph is bitterly ironic.

Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

The contrast between Fredric March and Cary Grant is a study in the differences between an actor and a movie star. March was an actor's actor. He was among the first generation of Oscar winners and his reputation carried him into prestige productions throughout his career. He could play statesmen and everymen, though he tended to bluster when he played statesmen. His Jerry Young is an unglamourous part, one that required an actor who wasn't afraid to be perceived as weak, because Jerry Young is nobody's idea of a strong hero type. March was just such an actor, which ultimately lengthened his career as he aged into character parts. The 1933 version of March was a star, sure, but the camera didn't love him the way it loved Cary Grant. There's no shame in that. Most other actors pale in comparison. Even hiding behind a brusque Cockney accent and a rough malevolence, you can see that light just bounced off him differently. As an aside, Carole Lombard has a minor role as the woman who Jerry meets in Paris, and she had a similar effect, one exaggerated by sharing the screen with March (she never shares the screen with Grant). She practically glows in the dark. I like to think that this is an effect, too, of having a director with the gaze of a gay man. Mitchell Leisen doesn't look at Fredric March in the same way as he looks at Grant. Neither did audiences.

Carole Lombard and Fredric March in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
Kenneth Howell in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

This was Mitchell Leisen's first film in the director's chair, and while he's not credited as a director due to the contract between Paramount and Stuart Walker, Leisen claimed to have shot most of the movie with Walker as his assistant. I believe him, too, because you can see his gaze in the androgyny of the beautiful young man who falls out of Jerry's plane. No straight director would film that actor in that way. Leisen, himself a pilot, was originally credited with directing the aerial photography, although much of it was pieced together from footage shot for other World War I films like Wings and The Dawn Patrol. When the film was re-released in 1939, a new credit card promoted Leisen to share director's credit with Walker. Whatever Leisen's role was with the film, it started his career with a bang, because The Eagle and the Hawk is excellent and might stand as one of the best films in the careers of both of its lead actors were it better known. The Paramount/Universal deal in 1950 did this film no favors because it became an asset that Universal didn't care about. The 1939 re-release had an effect, too, having been re-cut to conform to the Production Code. At least it had a re-release. It could have gone into a vault like many another pre-Code film.

Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)

The film must have done Grant some good, though. The films that follow it at Paramount show Grant slowly but surely ascending the cast list. By the time he left Paramount to strike out on his own, the fireworks show of his supernova stardom had been primed. It was just waiting for a match to set it off.

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