#20 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is quite the bromance from Howard Hawks. The tale of two men who connect through friendship more completely than they can with any romantic relationship with a woman. This is Hawks’ first real movie that feels like a Hawks movie. This is his The Lodger, a solidly good silent film that presages what his future career would become.
Spike is a sailor going from port to port, packing up a ship at one and unloading it at the next. At every stop, he gets off to look for a woman in his little black book. The first stop is in Amsterdam, where he finds that the girl he had known now has several children and a husband, so he waves goodbye and crosses her name out of the book forever. The girl he looks for in Rio, he discovers has not been faithful to him either, and she carries a charm with her of a heart containing an anchor, the mark of another sailor. He grows livid, and when he gets to Panama, he runs into another sailor in a bar. Before they can get into a fight between themselves in the seedy bar, the guards show up and they decide to get into a fight with them instead. In prison the next day, Spike discovers that this other sailor, Bill, is the man who had given the charm away when he sees that the same symbol is in Bill’s ring. With every intention of knocking out this man interfering with his lovemaking, Spike pays Bill’s bail to get him out, wanders the streets of Panama City away from the police to try and start a fight without getting arrested again. In their search for a place to fight, the two end up bonding by throwing a guard into the water.
Spike and Bill are suddenly friends, and the path the two made to friendship is what really helps sell the film overall. I wrote in my review of Fig Leaves that one of the problems with silent films is the challenge of building specificity in characters. None of that issue is present in A Girl in Every Port. Spike and Bill are wonderfully drawn, complimenting each other as two manly men working the seven seas and backing each other and blocking each other in equal measure when it comes to women at port. They are a wonderful pair, and the movie’s decision to spend the time actually building their relationship over the film’s initial thirty minutes really helps sell the rest of the film.
After an amusing bit of Bill getting drunk and into fights that Spike must continually save him from while also trying to pick up a lady, Spike meets an exotic young circus performer while Bill remains on the ship with a toothache. Spike instantly falls in love with the beauty, even going so far as to offer her all of his saved money he wants to use to establish himself with a small house, for safe keeping only, of course, but when Bill finally meets the girl, Marie, he knows that she’s nothing but trouble. They knew each other years back at Coney Island when she was his girl, and she even has his symbol tattooed on her arm (hidden by a band that Spike never sees). He knows she’s going to take Spike for all he’s worth, but how does Bill let Spike know? It would be one challenge if the girl was just some girl, but it’s something else completely since Bill’s mark is on her. How can Bill convince Spike of Marie’s underhanded nature without turning Spike against himself?
That conflict, told lightly, balancing on a tone between drama and comedy rather deftly, is more than just a sitcom level issue with the ability to clear everything up with a single sentence. Bill can’t just clear it up because to do so would possibly hurt his friend even more. This is where the actual character work and effort made to establish the two men’s friendship pays off. It’s easy to believe Bill’s struggles, Spike’s potential (and eventual) reaction to the reality around Marie. That it’s done silently is actually fairly impressive as well.
The resolution involves two men finding their friendship to be more important than the affection of a dishonest woman. Two men who grew to love each other through their love of fighting and their job on board a sailing ship find that they can always count on each other. It’s quite well done, perhaps leaning a bit more dramatically than it should at times but never far from an easy effort at a smile from the audience. A Girl in Every Port is an entertaining little gem of a find from early in Hawks’ career.