“Man’s favorite sport?” The answer, presumably, in the world of Howard Hawks, is “woman”. At least, that’s what’s on the surface in Hawks’ work. One doesn’t have to look much further for evidence of that than the gunplay in Red River (1948) – which finds Montgomery Clift’s character sizing up another male gunfighter – or the physical playfulness of the male protagonists in The Big Sky (1952). In a way, A Girl in Every Port (1928) isn’t too dissimilar from those films, in that it values men competitively being men, no matter how much of a caricature of masculinity the specimens at the film’s centre are. That’s what they ultimately are though, caricatures: they serve a dramatic function limited to their sex. Biology in action!
For evidence of this, one needn’t look further than A Girl in Every Port’s opening intertitle, which reads: “Pounding up and down the seas – dodging into ports – a tramp schooner.” This intertitle is obviously doing more than merely describing the motion of the ship that’s visible in the first shot of the film; it’s establishing the intimate nature of the work as it begins. This ship, “divided by water from land”, is a symbol of libidinous potential directed at fairer destinations. Each destination, as the title suggests, features another chance at a nameless conquest.
Wielding a black book, the phallically named Spike (Victor McLaglen) makes his way from port city to port city hunting down his old flames. His work as a shipmate is ultimately superfluous to the film’s action, beyond the fact that his work is his excuse to be in a variety of exotic locales in a fairly brief time span. A Girl in Every Port isn’t concerned with a working man, but is, uniquely, rather fully invested in his leisure: instead of showing Spike cast nets and tie sailor’s knots on the deck of a ship, it’s the pursuit of women on land that Hawks hones in on. Yes, Spike has money coming in from his work on the ship, but A Girl in Every Port isn’t like Hawks’ later look at troubled romance at sea, Tiger Shark (1932), which relishes in its protagonist’s inability to properly live outside of the confines of his career. Here, the money is an extension of Spike, and we understand as the locations change that they do so because of unseen labour.
Hawks’ economic approach to storytelling cuts to the chase, bringing us to shore, and to the doorstep of the first name in Spike’s black book, in the bat of an eye. Alas, since the last time he visited this particular Dutch dame (Phalba Morgan), biology has taken its course and provided her with offspring – which, to Spike’s relief, are revealed by the presence of an unknowing husband (Felix Valle) at the woman’s side to not be his own. Turning away from this woman, he immediately eyes his next target: a young woman (Eileen Sedgwick) riding away, alone, on a tandem bicycle. All seems well when he catches up to her, until he finds a charm bracelet on her wrist that could have only been given to her by another seaman: a heart with an anchor etched upon it. From this moment on, Spike’s romantic efforts in other port cities continually come to a halt as he finds this charm on all the women he tries to seduce. Who could this amorous devil – whom Spike dubs his “nemesis” – be?
The answer to that question is revealed upon arrival in Central America, when Spike and another sailor, Bill (Robert Armstrong), pursue the same woman in a bar. This meeting quickly devolves into a physical confrontation, which leaves the indentation of Bill’s heart-shaped ring in Spike’s jaw. These two men share not only the same taste in women, but also the same thirst for violence, and they team up when the police try to break up their mano a mano bar brawl.
Spike and Bill leave jail together the next day, hand in hand, but their friendly demeanour is, at first, a façade – one enacted only so that they can attempt to duke it out without being arrested again. Eventually, however, they forge a truce, giving in to their masculine bond as fellow conquerors of the sea and connoisseurs of women, and, like a philistine Jules and Jim, the two men soon become inseparable. The arrival of a woman, Madamoiselle Godiva (Louise Brooks), in Spike’s life, however, threatens to come between them.
While Spike and Bill are caricatures of masculinity, Madamoiselle Godiva is not a caricature of femininity but, rather, a reciprocation of the protagonists’ basest desires. She’s alluring and daring, and her introduction on screen touts both of those qualities. Hawks’ camera – commandeered by both L. William O’Connell and Rudolph J. Bergquist – revels in her slender form and the thin fabric of her wardrobe, drawing out her leap from a diving board in stammered, dreamlike slow motion. Still, she is not beholden to the imaginations of either Spike or Bill, nor those of any other man: she has her own plans and desires (and were she the protagonist of this film rather than the men, perhaps she’d be a more sympathetic presence).
Amidst all of this, an inevitable existential crisis looms on the horizon, and its eventual landfall brings about one of the finest performative moments of the silent era courtesy of McLaglen – who proves himself in A Girl in Every Port to be far more than just the drunken Irish calvary officer he would play in John Ford films in the decades to come, as endearing as he is in those roles.
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A Girl in Every Port (1928 USA 78 mins)
Prod Co.: Fox Film Corporation Prod: Howard Hawks Dir: Howard Hawks Scr: Howard Hawks, James K. McGuinness, Seton I. Miller Phot: Rudolph J. Bergquist, L. William O’Connell Ed: Ralph Dixon
Cast: Victor McLaglen, Louise Brooks, Robert Armstrong, Maria Alba, Francis McDonald, Leila Hyams