When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

[Posted as part of the EARLY HAWKS BLOG-A-THON.]

It says it right up there at the beginning: A Howard Hawks Production. So, not only did Hawks direct TODAY WE LIVE (1933), but he ‘produced’ it also.

But I put the word produced in quotes because the film is a 1933 product of M-G-M, so above all else this was a work with the signature of the studio (and its Executive in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg) overpowering all other creative input.

The idea of Hawks working at M-G-M during its Top Dawg days takes a little getting used to:  this was the studio most modeled after Henry Ford’s assembly line, where creatives were assigned, re-assigned, and rotated among various productions.  All Metro products were scaled and sculpted to perpetuate the mystification of its on-screen talent.  A director working at M-G-M (as TODAY WE LIVE‘s star Joan Crawford said in an interview with Roy Newquist) was more responsible for keeping the budget down and making sure the movie was finished on time.  After principal photography wrapped, M-G-M’s habitual process included extensive retakes by various crews until the star-gloss was cemented in the dramaturgy.

So here you have a situation of a strong-willed, individualist director creating work at a studio known for its conformist end-product.  Therefore, if you go into this movie with your typical expectancy towards a Hawks film, you’ll start going “HUH??” before twenty minutes have lapsed.  But hang in there:  despite the production’s totally-twonked backstory, it’s still definitely a work of Howard Hawks.

First of all, this is the ballsiest I’ve ever seen Robert Young or Franchot Tone.  Robert (Father Knows Best) Young usually comes across [to me] as something akin to a pussywhipped insurance salesman, but he gets drunk and hangs with the dudes in this opus.  And Franchot Tone gives the most direct, cut-the-crap performance of the entire troupe of performers in this film, and has fortunately erased my image of him as a Barvarian, lederhosen-wearing postman in 1937’s THE BRIDE WORE RED (d: Dorothy Arzner).

Secondly, this is a movie of dogfights (with footage lifted from Howard Hughes’ HELL’S ANGELS) and torpedo boats, and of the intuitive bond that develops between guys who have to work together in dangerous circumstances.  With all the revisionism going on now, screening old films to look for sexual subtext, Hawks’ buddy-buddy films are never read that way, because no one can present platonic physical contact developing from organic friendships between men like Hawks.  (I mean, remember John Wayne kissing Walter Brennan in RIO BRAVO???)

Thirdly, gratefully this was made before the Production Code, so these glamorous high-paid movie stars get to deliver dialog on topics such as fucking and upchucking (unrelated topics of course).  The characters of Robert Young and Joan Crawford had been childhood sweethearts in this World War I drama.  So, since the two characters are seeing wartime action every day, they decide to start screwing like there’s no tomorrow [hence the title??].  Their sex life isn’t just implied — the couple walks up to Franchot Tone (who plays Crawford’s brother and Young’s best buddy) and tell him they’re doin’ it.  Crawford asks Tone if he’s angry at her for “not waiting” and he leans over and kisses her on the cheek as if to say, “Thanks for giving my best bud some jellyroll before he puts his life on the line…”

Alexander Walker’s book on Crawford states the movie was originally conceived as a male-only war drama and the Crawford character was added as an afterthought (by Thalberg?).  In Crawford’s first scene, where she stoically serves tea to Gary Cooper even though just moments before she had learned of her father’s death, Hawks uses her rigid disciplinarian aspect to good effect.  Quickly, however, she devolves into a riff of the Rita Hayworth character in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS:  on the horns of a dilemma and unable to think and decide for herself.  No self-possessed and verbally smartassed heroine in this Hawks film.  The only gal-pal aspect she displays is totally bizarre-a-rama:  she and Robert Young chase and capture a cockroach (there’s even an insert shot of a cockroach climbing over a lovely feminine hand) which Young uses for staging cockroach fights back at the military base.  (When a stray bullet kills the roach, there’s a Hawksian wake for the critter at the pub on base.)

TODAY WE LIVE‘s screenplay was by Hawks’ hunting buddy and future Nobel laureate William Faulkner (with M-G-M’s usual “additional dialog” credits of two writers brought in for all the reasons I stated above).  The dialog tries for a clipped British upperclass patter, but somehow the beats and intentions of dialog delivery aren’t there (especially surprising since Hawks made TODAY WE LIVE only months before TWENTIETH CENTURY).  The original cut of the film was over two hours, and about 25 minutes were excised from the final release print.  This hopefully explains why Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper confess that they’re madly in love with each other in their second scene.  It’s uneven qualities such as these that makes TODAY WE LIVE a Hawks/not-Hawks experience.

Is Irving Thalberg responsible for the suppression of what could have been a better Hawks effort?  Hard to say — Thalberg had a heart attack on the day after Christmas, 1932, and recuperated in Europe until August, 1933.  (TODAY WE LIVE was released in April, 1933.)  So, he probably had a heavy hand in the pre-production phase but wasn’t there to follow through.  For example, he may have suggested that Crawford, Tone and Young deliver their lines in uppercrust British tones, but if he had been there to view the dailies and see the results (which were so-o-o-o suburban drama league), he probably would have scrapped the idea and ordered retakes.

The viewing experience is a bumpy ride, and begs the question:  with Thalberg’s absence, does the unevenness come from not enough executive guidance or too much?  Andrew Sarris wrote that “interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension betweeen a director’s personality and his material.” However in watching TODAY WE LIVE, I could say that the exterior meaning [the challenges and disagreements and compromises in all feature filmaking…or all Work Cultures for that matter] can be extrapolated from the tension between the director’s vision and the front office’s commercial concerns.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “VHS only: TODAY WE LIVE”

  1. Ed Howard says:

    You make this sound oddly appealing. It wasn’t one that I was particularly looking forward to, but it sounds like it actually has a lot of great Hawksian moments — like a roach funeral!! Thanks for the post!

  2. […] at Boiling Sand, Doug Bonner comes at the film from a Hawksian perspective, talking about what part of his works […]

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