Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Howard Hawks' Silent Proto-Screwball Comedy Fig Leaves and How It Was Way Ahead of It's Time

Made in 1926, and just the great auteur's second film (his first, Road to Glory is thought lost, though he did remake it a decade later), Fig Leaves is the story of Adam and Eve - or at least an Adam and Eve prototype couple - and already shows both the comic timing Hawks had as a director, and one of the defining forces of the Screwball Comedy, and the twisted chauvinism that would show both the male bonding of his characters and the against-the-grain feminism of the "weaker sex" trying to one-up their male counterparts, all of which would one day become synonymous with Hawks' directorial style.

The film opens in the supposed Garden of Eden ("the only fashionable part of town" a title card reads) where we meet the first happy couple, on the throes of the proverbial fall, played with quite a bit of cheeky charm and winking aplomb by muscle-rippled George O'Brien and cute flapper-esque Olive Borden, nicknamed The Joy Girl.  But these aren't your grandparent's Adam and Eve.  A sort of meta-Adam and Eve, this couple live in what appears to be the artistic guiding force behind the creation of the Flintstones some thirty-three or so years later.

Not exactly sticklers for either historical or biblical accuracy, Hawks has his Adam and Eve living alongside pet dinosaurs who nibble at the Tree of Knowledge, stone-carved newspapers with ads for the forbidden fruit and stories on the feud between Cain and Abel, and a series of modern machines made to act as prehistoric comedy relief, including a laughingly ingenious alarm clock, with an even more ingenious snooze alarm (Howard Hawks invented the snooze alarm!?) and a smoke-billowing triceratops-pulled mass transit system.  We are even given a snake who acts as the busybody neighbor across the street, all the while, Eve nibbles on her trouble-making apples.

At this point, we jump ahead "896 or 97 million years" (another title card reads ever so accurately) and find Adam and Eve Smith living in the modern world (well, modern for the Jazz Age), but still not much has changed.  Men are brutes (though O'Brien's Adam is a surprisingly sensitive brute) and women are second class citizens, looked upon as either maids for their husbands or sex objects for everyone else.  Of course, as the times dictate, Eve's main problem, in the Garden of Eden or in the roaring twenties, is that she has nothing to wear.  Hence her dalliance with the fashion industry via a lecherous clothing designer who hits the young bride with his car only to make her one of his models - and wouldbe trophies - and therefore allowing the story to become something more than the typical comedy of the day.  There is even a Technicolor scene that was filmed, though supposedly that is lost as well.

The whole story is quite funny in a screwball kinda way (even without the usually prerequisite dialogue that comes with the genre) and Hawks shows the abilities that will eventually turn him into the greatest and most versatile studio director Hollywood has ever seen.  I could add a rather bold statement and claim that Fig Leaves is the best silent comedy not made by either Chaplin or Keaton.  Perhaps that is quite the bold, perhaps even too bold (one cannot leave out Lubitsch) statement, but, going too far or not, Hawks' Fig Leaves is a solid work of comedic timing and both visual and storytelling prowess - the earliest extant example of Hawksian filmmaking.


Clara Fercovic said...

I have to check this one, sounds great. Nice review!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx for the compliment.

Yes, this is a surprisingly enjoyable little film. You can see everything Hawks would later make famous in his popular cinema. It just adds to my love of Howard Hawks.

Anonymous said...

Awesome review! Quick question though, what were some of those classic Hawksian elements that kept reoccurring in all of his movies later on?