Thirty-one years before Rio Bravo, 20 before Red River, 12 before His Girl Friday, and 10 before Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks was just another director trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood. His earlier films had been mostly either artistic misfires or commercial failures. His latest film, Fazil (1928), had gone over-budget and over-schedule and had been shelved by Fox. But while many may have thrown in the towel, Hawks threw in his lot one more time with a queer (pun maybe intended) picture about two globe-trotting sailors named Spike and Bill.
It was a love story, of a kind. Not between a man and a woman, mind you. A Girl in Every Port was a love story between two men. And the best part of it is that neither of the sailors know it.
Spike Madden (Victor McLaglen) meets Bill (Robert Armstrong) in Amsterdam, although not in person. While on furlough, he woos a lovely local only to discover her wearing a heart-shaped bracelet bearing an anchor insignia.
“Where’d you get that bracelet?”
She fumbles for a noncommittal answer.
Frowning, he begins to leave. “That swab has been beating my time in the last five ports.”
She protests in vain. “I’m tired of finding his heart and anchor mark on my women,” he growls.
Onward to Rio de Janeiro where Spike finds the damnable mark on another of his belles. Further still to “Central America” where he gets into a fight over an unclaimed woman with a rowdy, good-for-nothing runt of a sailor. Inevitably they end up in jail where Spike makes a stunning discovery: the mystery man’s mark is embedded in his jaw. Looking across to the other cell, he spies a familiar looking design on a ring worn by the runty scrapper. Impressed with Bill’s pluck, Spike befriends him instead of giving him a piece of his mind. He pays Bill’s bail, Bill saves Spike from drowning when they leave the jail. They consummate their relationship with a cigarette. It’s love at first fist-fight.
A Girl in Every Port has been re-evaluated in the last few decades as the first of Hawks’ films to be a proper “Hawks Film.” First, it focuses on characters who exist in their own cloistered universe defined by their profession. Like the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the cowboys in Red River, and the wildlife catchers in Hatari! (1962), Spike and Bill are confined to a world of open seas and the few ports where they dock; a world of sailors and not-sailors.
The importance of masculine identity, machismo, and male bonding is paramount, much like in Hawks’ later films. Notice how the only thing more desirable to Spike at the beginning of the film than a woman is his need to revenge himself on the unknown man who has “bested” him and “claimed” all of his sweethearts. It is through a mutual love of bar-fights, rowdy violence, and assaulting police officers that Spike and Bill’s “courtship” begins. Later, when Spike tries to court a woman in a different port, Bill jealously starts several fights with locals in order to steal his attention back.
The importance of male-male relationships comes to a head in the last act where Spike falls in love with a carnival performer named Mademoiselle Godiva (Louise Brooks). Having previously “marked” her, Bill knows that she is actually a crook from the States who only wants to squeeze Spike for every dollar he’s worth. Equilibrium is only restored once Spike abandons her and tearfully reunites with Bill in a bar.
The narrative is additionally underscored with a Freudian nightmare’s worth of homoerotic subtext: the smoking of phallic cigarettes during scenes of reconciliation; Bill literally penetrating Spike in the chin with his heart and anchor mark; a curious running gag where Spike has to pull Bill’s finger back into joint whenever he punches somebody (which is almost always depicted in an extreme close-up that makes it seem like Spike is lovingly petting or stroking Bill’s fingers).
But beyond demonstrating many of the themes that would come to define his oeuvre, A Girl in Every Port demonstrates Hawks’ ability as a visual storyteller. His sound films would be in large part characterized by their fast, snappy dialogue and his characters’ witty repartee. But without the option of sound, Hawks had to develop his own form of visual shorthand. This is best represented via two different visual cues: Bill’s heart and anchor mark and the “pulling finger” ritual. They both come to fulfill different functions as the narrative progresses: Bill’s mark begins as a taunt against Spike’s masculinity and ends as a tragic indicator of his past with Mademoiselle Godiva; the “pulling finger” ritual begins as a gesture that is merely reciprocal in nature but ends as an overt display of affection.
As mentioned at the outset, when Hawks released A Girl in Every Port, he was just around the corner from becoming one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. (24 years before The Big Sky, 18 before The Big Sleep, 13 before Sergeant York, 4 before Scarface.) And although the film hasn’t aged as well as many others of its era, it remains a fascinating glimpse into the nascence of a true American original.