“As far is speed is concerned, I was trained in the old two-reel comedy school where all we were after was speed.” - Howard Hawks on the pace of his dialogue
Frank “Spig” Wead developed his interest in naval aviation while working with a kite-balloon unit in 1918. Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1916, Wead had served aboard a minesweeper during World War I. His new assignment involved long range spotting practice and convinced the 23-year old lieutenant that aviation had a vital role to play in the future of naval warfare and that, despite the risk, he wanted to be a part of that future.
After obtaining the support of several senior officers, he began flight training in Pensacola, Florida and earned his Naval Aviator golden wings on April 17, 1920. During the next six years, he became recognized as one of the most accomplished flyers in the Navy. He was a fearless test pilot and an astute planner of various exercises. He helped set several seaplane records for speed, distance, and duration. This was a man who fit the mold of the heroic aviator that director Howard Hawks was to use in films ranging from “Dawn Patrol” to “Only Angels Have Wings.”
Ceiling Zero (1936) Lux Radio Theater
Director: Howard Hawks Producer: Jack Warner and Hal Wallis
Screenplay and Play: Frank Wead and (uncredited screenplay by Morrie Ryskind) Music: M.K. Jerome and Bernhard Kaun
Film Editor:William Holmes
Art Director: John Hughes
Ceiling Zero - 1936 (Original Poster)
Released: January 16, 1936 Running time 95 minutes
Wead’s brilliant flying career came to a crashing halt in 1926. It wasn’t his aviation skills or his equipment that failed him; it was his feet. Resting upstairs in his home one day, he heard one of his daughters scream. Rushing downstairs, he tripped and fell. The fall broke his neck and left him paralyzed.
With the encouragement of his wife and various friends, he took up writing.
After achieving some success with short stories and books, he wrote a play called “Ceiling Zero” which opened on Broadway on April 10, 1935. Although it only ran for 104 performances, it caught the eyes of Warner Brothers executive Hal Wallis. Although Howard Hawks is said to have attended a performance of the play, he had no plans to direct a film based on the story.
When Warner Brothers bought the rights, Wallis originally had no plans to have Hawks direct the film. By this time, the two strong-willed men had clashed too many times. Wallis tried to get Tay Garnett to direct but he was tied up on another project. He contacted William Wellman and heard the same news. Hawks’ good friend Victor Fleming was next on Hal Wallis’s wish list but he was also unavailable on short notice. Finally, after weeks of frustration, Wallis very reluctantly agreed to studio head Jack Warner’s suggestion that he hire Hawks. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Wallis was sure that Hawks would bloat the limited budget and take twice as long to make the picture as any of his choices.
Hawks signed on to direct “Ceiling Zero” in September of 1936 and began shooting in October. To Wallis’s great surprise, he found himself attending a sneak preview of the film on December 19 of the same year.
Starring James Cagney as a daredevil pilot and notorious womanizer named Dizzy Davis who is reunited with his old friends Jake Lee (played by Pat O’Brien) and Tex Clarke (played by Stuart Erwin) at the Newark branch of Federal Airlines, the film toys with many of the concepts that Hawks would use in his later, greater works. The tightly knit crew of veteran World War I flyers gives the director ample room to explore his favorite themes of male bonding and the code of honor these professionals try to live up to.
The addition of Tommy Thomas, a young female flight trainee who can verbally stand toe to toe with any of the guys, is an early precursor of the quick-witted Hawksian women later portrayed by Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and others. June Travis gives this role so much energy and charm that it is sad to learn that Warner Brothers primarily used her in B-movies for the bulk of her career.
While “Ceiling Zero” fails to live up to the high standards Howard Hawks set in his later films, it is an entertaining experience. The fast-paced verbal jousting of the first half of the movie demonstrates how the future master is crafting a style that would become his trademark.
As for “Spig” Wead, he would go on to write a number of successful screenplays, receiving an Best Story Oscar nomination for “Test Pilot” and a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for “The Citadel.”
In 1957, one of Howard Hawks’ favorite directors, John Ford, teamed with one of Hawks’ favorite actors, John Wayne, to tell the story of Frank “Spig” Wead in “The Wings of Eagles.” It was a moving tribute to the remarkable man who gave Hawks the ingredients he needed to create “Ceiling Zero” and expand his horizons as a teller of entertaining stories.
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.