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One very rarely encounters a bad Howard Hawks movie. Even an atypically lumpy Hawks show like Today We Live has plenty of interesting aspects. 1932's Tiger Shark begins as a standard-issue "two guys fall for the same girl" yarn, but Hawks and his writers imbue the bare text with magic qualities. It's one of the director's best tales of professional he-men juggling friendship and romance between dangerous missions.
The setting is the Tuna fishing industry in San Diego. In 1932 the Pacific is teeming with inexhaustible numbers of the large fish, and the seamen that go after them in private boats are undoubtedly of a tough breed. A prologue shows Mike Mascarenhas (Edward G. Robinson), a "Por-too-gee" boat captain, adrift in a small launch after an accident at sea. A murderous crewman attacks Mike's best friend "Pipes" Boley (Richard Arlen of Island of Lost Souls), so Mike knocks the guy into the water, where he's immediately torn to shreds by the sharks. Mike collapses in exhaustion, and before the boat is picked up, a shark chews off his left hand.
A year later, Mike is back in form as a hearty, enthusiastic boat owner who likes to boast about his record catches (true) and his female conquests (false). When an old fisherman is killed in an accident, Mike aids his beautiful but sickly daughter, Quita Silva (Zita Johann of the same year's The Mummy). Quita perks up, and the awkward and (frankly) dense Mike proposes marriage: she says yes, only because she's grateful and life doesn't seem to have too many options. But Quita's misgivings begin right on her wedding night, when she meets the more traditionally handsome Pipes. As the months go by, Quita's distress becomes more apparent, until it's obvious that the truth will come out. Being the simple sort he is, Mike isn't the kind of guy who will forgive and forget easily.
Tiger Shark shows Hawks butting up against some of the limitations of early sound pictures. Most of the exteriors are shot on location, and the audio is all recorded live. This accounts for a weak passage or two (what did they say?) but the tradeoff results in much more realism. Hawks' waterfront shacks and watering holes aren't as exotic as Von Sternberg's for The Docks of New York, but Hawks isn't aiming for such an extreme poetic target.
Just the same, there's powerful dramatic stuff happening here. Once Mike Mascarenhas' character is established, we know he's going to get hurt in a love triangle. Hawks makes the last-minute meeting of Quita and Pipes just before the wedding painfully acute. Their eyes immediately lock on one another, and the wedding sequence that follows takes on a feeling of hopelessness. It only remains for the couple to avoid the inevitable until they can no longer ignore their feelings. Sure, it's the oldest story in the book, but Hawks makes it work through the subtle expressions of the actors. Pipes and Quita meet just as she has outfitted herself for a traditional Portuguese wedding -- instead of depressed or tired, she looks radiant.
Hawks' part in all this becomes clear when we compare Tiger Shark to his later films, many of which involve 'experienced' girls that become involved with men's men on their own turf. In The Mummy Zita Johann only has to play a one-note tune of "lost soul" to get our sympathy. Here Hawks seems to have coached her the same way he'd later coach Frances Farmer in Come and Get It and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. The three actresses move slowly, light cigarettes with the same lazy gestures and even walk the same way -- Hawks must have based them all on some ideal stored away in his head. Richard Arlen can be depended on to be a consistent senseless lump, but in this picture he comes off as sensitive and responsive. It's an early example of the Hawks buddy ethic. Mike has saved Pipes' life and even rubs his back with his steel hand-hook -- and now Pipes feels like a lowly betrayer. It's like the wonderful line (para.) in The Big Sky: "Jim and Boone wuz the best of friends. Then a woman came along, and they wuzn't friends no more."
Tiger Shark is yet another Hawks film based firmly on male activity. His heroes are variously flyers, loggers, trappers, scientists, pyramid builders and big game hunters, and in each case a big chunk of the movie is dedicated to showing the men going about their business. Tiger Shark has impressive sequences of tuna fishermen bringing in the catch, both with nets and with casting poles. The tuna are huge, probably weighing over a hundred pounds each, and the better fishermen can yank them into the boat at a rate of one every ten seconds or so. The waters during the take are alive with thrashing fish that fly through the air into a receiving bin on board. This is dangerous work, as the fish are covered with sharp fins. Although the fishermen try to spill as little blood as possible, sharks quickly catch the scent. Men are cut by lines and other objects and impaled on fishhooks. And if a man should fall in, it's difficult to get him out before a shark gets to him. After being told that a fisherman can't go to heaven without a whole body, one of Mike's men is killed, his legs torn off by a shark. Mike stops fishing to snag that particular shark and recover the leg, so he can at least bury most of his loyal employee in one bag.
These fishing sequences are superbly filmed and obviously not faked; Tiger Shark would be an excellent co-feature with The Perfect Storm. Although this is a Pre-Code production Howard Hawks manages a mood of sexuality without cheap tricks -- Miss Johann is exciting enough just trembling in a plain old dress.
Hawks presents a number of dockside types without turning them into stereotypes. The exception is Vince Barnett, who Hawks used as the silly hood who didn't know how to use a telephone in Scarface. Here he plays the dim-bulb fisherman Fishbone, who pins up pictures of his girlfriend and barely has brains enough to avoid getting brained by the fish-processing apparatus on board the boat. Leila Bennett (very good in The Purchase Price) is a likeable assistant to a lady barber played by Toshia Mori. In for a brief bit is Warners' all-purpose slimeball villain of the time, J.Carrol Naish. He's a sleazy pimp who tries to put his hooks into Quita when she's down and out.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tiger Shark looks very good, with a clean picture and audio that makes all but a few dialogue lines completely audible. We can tell that the fishing material matches the dramatic scenes very well. Assistant director Richard Rosson handled special montages in several later Hawks films, and may have been responsible for the "documentary" footage here as well.
The disc comes with no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tiger Shark rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.