Men in Love (with) A Girl In Every Port
As has been academically discussed ad infinitum, Howard Hawks’ had a very specific, personal, seemingly simple opinion of life and the pragmatic rules of male conduct. He told the same stories repeatedly, and there was no place in his world for men and women who didn’t adhere to this code. It’s also been discussed that the sexual life of his men and women is arguably no-nonsense, self-assured and healthy. From his last film Rio Lobo, through Red River, Only Angels Have Wings and the one that set the rules, A Girl in Every Port, his men not only established committed relationships more important than those beyond their gender, but lived lives of unrequited physical love.
It only took Hawks 5 films to find his voice with 1928’s A Girl in Every Port. Establishing his languid storytelling style and carefree characters, the film follows towering, eager to fight sailor Spike Madden (Victor McLaglen) as he visits different ports around the world, looking up old girlfriends in his blackbook or seeking out new ones. He discovers the pickings lean as some mysterious sailor has constantly stayed one port ahead of him, “stamping” women with a charm or (worse) a tattoo of a heart with an anchor inside. When he finally meets up with Sailor Bill “Salami” (Robert Armstrong) an epic barroom brawl commences that makes its way throughout the city and lands them both in jail. But, thick as thieves, the two band together to take out a swarm of local policemen. An uneasy alliance transitions to a deep and abiding love between the two, until Spike believes he’s met the girl of his dreams, Carnival High Diver Mlle. Godiva (an amazing as always Louise Brooks). A vamp of the first order, she makes short use of Spike. He sees a farm and white picket fence, she sees a meal ticket. When Salami finally meets her, we see they have a history, and she sports the now iconic heart with anchor tattoo which she’s kept hidden from Spike under a bracelet. Salami can’t bring himself to dash Spike’s dreams, which of course, plays out in predictable fashion – but the question of who will win Spike’s heart, the vixen or the buddy, delivers an emotional and surprising punch – at least for 1928.
While most Hawks’ films open with a sub-culture (newspaper men, cowboys, pilots) firmly established and a “buddy system” already in place, A Girl In Every Port takes a good 40 minutes to journey through the “meet-cute” and burgeoning romance of the two sailors. Once they are a couple, we know the “why” and “how” which is generally a “given” in Hawks’ later efforts. Not only does no woman come between them, but their main focus becomes provoking other men to fight them. It’s almost an obsession with Salami, who seeks other guys out to tussle with, calling in Spike, his wingman, when things “heat up.” If ever there was a more sexually charged motivation for some rugged ass-grabbery, I’d love to see how well it holds up to this one.
It’s almost too bad (“almost”) that Brooks is somewhat wasted here, before she departed to Germany to make her seminal Pandora’s Box. (“Almost” because the romance between the two men is so three-dimensional and fleshed out, that all the other women are nothing more than window dressing). Hawks’ supposedly wanted to remake A Girl in Every Port (as previously discussed, he remade his films more than any other director) mostly because he felt he had given Brooks’ character such undeservedly short shrift. Hawks generally made his female protagonists equal (if not sometimes superior) to their male counterparts, from Hepburn and Bacall, to Rosalind Russell and Marilyn Monroe. He figured that by making Brooks’ character more three-dimensional and mentally superior to the two men, she would be worthy of their rivalry.
While Victor McLaglen mugs and hams his way through the story, he’s still an enjoyable dope, and it’s easy to see why he was such a beloved character actor in Hollywood. The revelation, however, is Robert Armstrong. Best known as the P.T Barnum-esque Carl Denham who captures King Kong only 5 years later, here he’s a lithely, lovable rascal and surprisingly attractive. As the sailor whose “lady killer” reputation precedes him, he definitely delivers after all the build up.
I posit that remaking A Girl In Every Port today, still set in the late twenties, but with a decidedly more modern and sexualized relationship between the two sailors could bring about some fascinating gender role play and commentary on what was previously thought of as just, what “guys do.” From Spike and Salami, to Butch and Sundance, the buddy film has offered us some of the most believable and dimensional love stories in film. And we can thank Howard Hawks for starting it all.