Ceiling Zero (1936) Poster


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The Flawed Aviator
zolaaar24 April 2006
Mail pilot Dizzy Davis (James Cagney) is a daredevil and a womanizer like a textbook example. After he dropped a scheduled flight because of a rendezvous, his friend and colleague Texas Clarke (Stuart Erwin) stands in for him. Due to bad sight, the plane meets with an accident while landing, and Texas dies. Dizzy puts the blame on himself. To fix up that fatal error, he starts a bad weather kamikaze flight.

Hawks' preliminary study to "Only Angels Have Wings" is an absorbing aviator film which does not surprise very much though. A troup of airmen, intrepidly looking in death's eye, between the flight sequences, it's a drama of interiors. Duty and honor, lust and loyalty of professionals, a question of fast-paced flow of words and swifter movements. Hawks' (typical) flawed hero, played by the master of nimble gestures, James Cagney, is small and every handling an expression of his being. Although he flirts with June Travis and tries to impose his room keys on her, his love applies to his understanding chief and friend, the plagued Pat O'Brien.

Unfortunately, all this comes along as pretty conventional (particularly for a Hawks film), but is entertaining nonetheless with a great James Cagney in the lead.
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Not vintage, but still Hawks!
Balthazar-517 November 2005
'Ceiling Zero' fits quite neatly into the central part of his 'oeuvre'. The classical Hawks' hero is honourable and heroic, but flawed. 'Dizzy' Davis fits firmly and squarely into this archetype. His womanising and recklessness precedes him, and is the cause on one of the film's twin tragedies. But this is offset by daring and bravery that is 'de rigeur' for mail pilots of the era. It is very rarely in films of this era that the 'hero' could still be the villain with just a few minutes to go, but that is effectively the case here. As in many of Hawks' finest films, the opening sequence serves as a contrasting miniature morality play that sets the ensuing drama into focus. Here it is a cowardly pilot who, lost in poor visibility, bails out of his plane without thought for the financial consequences for his employers. It is no accident that the company at the heart of the film is 'Federal Airlines'. Many of Hawks' films make exquisite political allegories, and this is no exception. Read the 'fog' as the Great Depression, Dizzy as the reckless aspect of the American entrepreneurial spirit and Jake as The President…

But there is more… psychologically it works a treat too. Jake and Dizzy share the same heroic wartime background. It emerges that they share the same taste in women too. To some extent, they represent two aspects of the same character – it is significant that during the climactic moments of Texas' final approach to the airfield, they keep switching roles, with first one then the other taking charge of the situation. Both of them also show the same moral flexibility – Dizzy by exchanging places with Tommy's boyfriend, Jake by being willing to distort his professional judgement to save Dizzy's flying career.

In spite of all of this, 'Ceiling Zero' cannot really be placed at the same level as the truly great Hawks masterpieces – El Dorado, To Have & Have Not, Bringing Up Baby and, significantly, Only Angels Have Wings. At the end of the film, one doesn't feel that one has really known the characters. But, considering its vintage, it is an entirely worthy work that gives us clear indications of the wonders to come.

It should be absolutely essential viewing for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the an important work of one of America's greatest artists, in any discipline, of the twentieth century. Another interesting parallel is Ford's 'Air Mail'which has a similar story also originating in Frank Wead.
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For a screenwriter, too stagey
bkoganbing2 February 2006
Ceiling Zero is a story about airmail pilots back when flying was itself an occupational hazard. It was written by Frank W. Wead, better known as Spig Wead whose life was later brought to the screen by John Ford in Wings of Eagles.

For those who've seen Wings of Eagles, they know that Spig Wead was a navy pilot who set all kinds of aviation records before becoming paralyzed with a broken neck due to a fall down some stairs in his home. After that Wead turned to writing and published all kinds of articles, stories, and screenplays mostly relating to aviation.

Ceiling Zero was Wead's one attempt at a Broadway play. It ran for three months on Broadway in 1935 with John Litel and Osgood Perkins in the roles played by James Cagney and Pat O'Brien respectively. It got good critical acclaim, but a short Broadway run as did a lot of plays during the Depression.

O'Brien is the operations manager of an airline and Cagney is an old friend who is an irresponsible but talented flyer. Superficially those seem like parts tailor made for Cagney and O'Brien, but this is in fact a serious drama so their usual hijinks are not present in this film as well they shouldn't have been.

Cagney and O'Brien had done another film about aviation, Devil Dogs of the Air which is far more lighthearted, but which Warner Brothers invested far more production values. For the most part, Ceiling Zero is a photographed stage play with some scenes that are clearly done on the backlot.

I'm surprised that Wead who did in fact write more for the screen didn't push for a bigger budget and some location shooting for his play. On the plus side Director Howard Hawks handles his cast real well and you can see some influences for the later and better Only Angels Have Wings.
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Tension level high, altitude zero through most of this film
AlsExGal5 July 2013
This film stays mainly on the ground rather than in the air, probably because it was originally a stage play. The action focuses on the Newark, New Jersey branch of fictitious Federal Airlines and its employees, who are exclusively involved in delivering the mail.

Pat O'Brien plays Jake Lee, the fast talking hard-nosed operations manager of the Newark branch. The industry is one in transition as the WWI flying aces and barnstormers that once dominated as air mail pilots are being slowly replaced with "college men" - engineers. Enter James Cagney as Dizzy Davis who is one of those old aces - if you can possibly imagine the energetic James Cagney as somebody who's on the verge of being all washed up at anything in 1935. Jake, Dizzy's old WWI flying buddy, has gotten him a job at the Newark office as Dizzy is on the verge of losing his pilot's license as he has a bad ticker and a bad attitude when it comes to following all of the new rules that did not exist when he first started out in the business.

There are romantic complications too. Touchiest of these is the fact that Jake's wife of two years, Mary, was serious about Dizzy right before she met Jake. This is information Dizzy and Mary desperately want to keep from Jake in order to spare his feelings. There's also a new female pilot at the Newark branch, Tommy, all of 19, who catches Dizzy's eye. Tommy has a steady boyfriend, but she's fascinated by this older experienced WWI ace and his exciting stories and lifestyle.

Dizzy is a fellow on the move with him chasing Tommy and age and the odds chasing him, and then there's Mike, an old ace Dizzy's age who cracked up in a wreck. His bones healed but his mind didn't, and Dizzy is horrified to see his old mirror image turned simpleton and janitor. It's unspoken, but you just know that Dizzy sees his own possible future when he looks at the guy.

The film is a real edge-of-your-seat experience, even though almost all of the action is on the ground as pilots fly in "ceiling zero" weather, and some make it back alive and some don't. It's an exciting little movie with a look at the state of flight technology in 1935. Highly recommended.
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Cardboard Hawks.
Sorsimus22 October 2000
Howard Hawks is undoubtedly one of the great Hollywood directors, but unfortunately not even his track record is 100%. Ceiling Zero is not a bad film, it just isn't a good one either. Apart from a brilliant performance from Jimmy Cagney there is nothing much to remember: the script is a cliche, supporting cast are "hammy" and worst of all the set decoration is awful. The airport control room looks like something out of an Ed Wood movie. Watch this if you do not have anything better to do but do not invest any money!
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