Premiered: July 10, 1930 (New York City), Running time 108 minutes General Release: August 20, 1930 (U.S.)
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Robert North
Screenplay: Dan Totheroh, Seton I. Miller, Howard Hawks and John Monk Saunders (story)
Music: Rex Dunn
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editor: Edward Curtiss
Art Director: Jack Okey
First National Pictures (subsidiary of Warner Bros.)
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
"People liked the scenes that were underdone. Nobody emoted in the films I made."- Howard Hawks on The Dawn Patrol
Thomas Edison unveiled recorded sound in 1877. In 1896, he introduced the first movie projector to be commercially successful in the United
States. Despite many tries, the prolific inventor was unable to successfully merge these two technologies.
By the mid-1920’s, though, several other people had begun to demonstrate systems that married the magic of sound to the wonder of motion pictures.
Many believed it was only a matter of time before talking pictures would become commercially viable.
Surprisingly, a number of important Hollywood insiders were not excited about the future of pictures with sound. In 1926, Jack Warner of Warner
Brothers answered those who thought that “talkies” were the wave of the future.
“They fail to take into account,” he said, “the international language of the silent pictures, and unconscious share of each onlooker in creating the play,
the action, the plot and the imagined dialogue for himself.”
In one of those curious twists in history, Jack Warner’s studio released “The Jazz Singer” the following year and demonstrated without a doubt that audiences were ready to hear the dialogue they had previously only imagined. The advent of sound was a new challenge for Howard Hawks. Although he had been a successful silent film director, his future was now uncertain.
Studio executives and producers had convinced themselves that this new technology would be better served by directors with experience in working with dialogue. Many thought that silent film directors were now obsolete and began to turn to legitimate theater directors to craft their new films.
Hawks knew that he would need an ace up his sleeve to compete in this rapidly changing game. The ace he chose was John Monk Saunders, one of the most respected writers in the business.
Saunders had been responsible for the story that had become “Wings,” Hollywood’s first big World War I aviation picture and the first film to receive an Academy Award for best picture. Like Howard Hawks, John Monk Saunders had been a flying instructor during the war. They both knew the pilots who had risked and often lost their lives in the flimsy aircrafts of the era.
Married to actress Fay Wray, the hard drinking, hard living writer was a prime example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Lost Generation.”
As they worked together to develop the story that would become “The Dawn Patrol,” it became increasingly difficult to tell where Saunder’s contributions ended and where those of Hawks began.
They eventually boiled their tale down to a gripping story of British pilots who struggle to deal with the daily stress of frontline combat by bouts of heavy drinking and griping about the callousness of the commanding officer who sends them up to fight Germany’s elite flight squadrons with inadequate equipment and a doomed parade of inexperienced pilots.
Anchored by solid performances by Richard Barthelmess and the young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, “The Dawn Patrol” was a resounding success and helped establish Howard Hawks as a promising director for the new era of sound.
Hawks had originally hired Saunders because he thought no studio would invest in a talking picture helmed by a director who lacked experience in theatrical dialogue. At this point in his career, few appreciated the writing skills of Howard Hawks and he even went so far as to make sure he received no writing credit for this picture. John Monk Saunders and his wife, however, knew the true story.
When Saunders received the Best Original Story Academy Award for “The Dawn Patrol,” he mentioned the difficulty in determining “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” Fay Wray later went one step further when she remarked; “He might have said the chicken hawk or the chicken hawk’s egg. Howard Hawks had been involved with the story, as well as the direction of that film.”
As an early example of Hawks’ ongoing themes of male camaraderie, performance under pressure and the price of doing your duty, “The Dawn Patrol” defines the young director as a major voice in film history.
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.