#30 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Howard Hawks’ first film, The Road to Glory, is lost to time, so I start here with his first comedy and second film, Fig Leaves. A comedy about the unchanging nature of the relationships between men and women over time, it is surprisingly funny 95 years after its production, but it also bears some of the more problematic conventions of silent films that end up making this 70-minute movie drag a fair bit.
The movie begins with an extended sequence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it’s a proto-Flinstones. Adam wakes up to an alarm that drops a coconut on his head by the weight of sand on a scale. There’s a dinosaur that drags a bus. The newspaper is a rock chiseled with the news that Adam breaks over his knee so that Eve can read what she wants on the other side. This is all absolutely delightful stuff.
Then the movie moves into the modern day, well, 1920s New York, and it loses something. There’s a dual story going on where the relationships between men and women have never really changed over thousands of years. Instead of new fig leaves that Eve wants to spend Adam’s hard-earned currency on, it’s dresses. He’s a plumber, and she’s a stay at home wife who wants to get out of the house. Adam’s partner in the plumbing trade convinces him that he needs to be less of a pushover, getting Adam to playact cartoonish dominance over his wife that ends with Eve sneaking in and getting choked by Adam. This is extremely broad humor, and it’s amusing.
Their neighbor across the hall, a young woman, has designs on Adam and convinces Eve to follow up with a fashion designer that she ran into on the street. Actually, she got hit by his car in a very weird (and quick) bit of early special effects that looks like they took an image of Eve, manipulated her image to scrunch her up in the grill of the car, and then she and the car pass out of frame to the right. This all happens in less than a second, but it was so jarring visually that I actually rewound the movie to see what was going on. It’s not really a criticism on my part (for the comedic effect of a girl being hit by a car I think it works quite well). It’s just a very early effort at creating a special effect that I find interesting.
Anyway, Eve decides to go work for the fashion designer (Andre), and we get some extended sequences that should be in color. They were filmed with Technicolor’s early (and expensive and unrepresentative of real color) 2-strip color process, but those are apparently lost to time. All that’s left is the black and white version which undermines a lot of what these sequences are supposed to be. These are supposed to be moments of spectacle, but the black and white presentation turns them into a bit of a muddle. There really is something missing from the sequence without the color.
The rest of the movie is Adam finding out about Eve’s new job, and the neighbor trying to pull the two apart by pushing Eve away from Adam and pulling Adam towards her with a night of drinking. It’s here, I think, where the movie is least successful, and it has to do with the lack of specificity in character in silent movies. There’s a severe limitation in silent movies when it comes to character because we hear so little of what they say. This can be overcome, and was often overcome with great success by many other silent films, but here it is not overcome. Adam feels rather generic along with the neighbor, so it ends up feeling rather shallow. This is also where the movie is the least amusing from a purely comedic point of view, trying its hand at drama that suffers from the lack of character specificity.
When Adam regains his sense of self and retains his wife by having her quit her job so that he can provide for her on his own, the movie returns to the Ancient world of Flinstones like dinosaurs to show the original Adam and Eve resolving in much the same way.
This is broad silent comedy undercut by its inability to draw characters specific enough to carry the dramatic moments. It’s a decent way to spend 70 minutes, but I have a feeling that Howard Hawks is going to be reaching far greater heights in his future.