Sunday, 23 March 2014

Louise Brooks: a storm in any port… A Girl in Every Port (1928)

An oddly intense buddy movie that famously revealed his Lulu to GW Pabst, Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port is amongst Louise Brooks’ better American film roles and was made just before the superb hobo symphony of Beggars of Life.

The film was intended as a vehicle for the rough-hewn Victor McLaglen who plays Spike Madden, a sailor with female friends seemingly everywhere he goes. This seems unlikely but that’s probably the idea and, even if all the nice girls love a sailor, not all of the girls in this film are nice as it turns out...

Robert Armstrong and Louise Brooks
Spike’s impressive run of conquests is under threat when he realises that he has competition on the seven seas: a man called Bill – Salami in some versions - (Robert Armstrong) who leaves his trademark calling card of an anchor in a heart either in the form of a bracelet or a tattoo. Too many times Spike meets an old girl-friend only to find that she’s already being ticked off by his fellow collector. He sets out to find this interloper and to protect his reputation as a grand master of lovin’ ‘em and, very much, leaving ‘em…

On goes the competition as Spike trails in his rival’s wake from Amsterdam where his friendly girl is now married with children, to Rio where he finds his trophy already branded and then again further south.

Victor McLaglan
It’s interesting that his passion is so competitively driven and, indeed, when Spike finally confronts his competitor, the two quickly start getting physical as Bill decks Spike only for them to join forces in fighting off the local police: it seems that there’s honour amongst thieves of the female heart. Yet, it’s an odd movie in which women are the game that the men are playing amongst themselves… you hope they get taught a lesson by someone!

Amsterdam: Phalba Morgan and Eileen Sedgwick
The version I’ve seen is some 80 minutes long and from the list of cast members, it would appear that we no longer have sight of every girl in every port. There’s Phalba Morgan and Eileen Sedgwick in Amsterdam then Elena Jurado, Dorothy Mathews and Natalie Joyce (no relation) in Panama.

Panama: Dorothy Mathews and Natalie Joyce
But, there’s sadly no sight of Natalie Kingston in the South Sea islands, Sally Rand in Bombay  and, intriguingly, Caryl Lincoln as the Girl from Liverpool – bet she was no push-over! Somewhere there was also a young Myrna Loy…

Maria Alba
There's an energetic contribution from Maria Alba as Maria Casajuana - the girl in Rio - who gets Spike into trouble with her over-possessive boyfriend and his gang. She's just about the only detailed female character in the first half of the film: the girls really are mostly just part of the scenery.

There’s also a cameo from Leila Hyams (later to star in Tod Browning’s Freaks in her short but memorable career) as a sailor’s wife who the boys find struggling to support her son after his sailor father has been lost at sea. They play with the boy and leave money to help is mother… their hearts are in the right place and there is a cost to be paid for so much fooling around.

Armstrong and McLaglan
We have to wait for the film’s second half to find the girl who will bring the boys finally together…  Louise Brooks plays a circus performer in Marseilles called Marie aka “Mam’selle Godiva! Neptune’s bride and sweetheart of the sea!”  She makes a stunning entrance in a one-piece leotard and climbs up a vertiginous ladder before diving into a small pool, soaking Spike who proceeds to falls hook, line and sinker for the acrobatic beauty: he has finally met his match.

Marie takes steps...
Spike has enough money to settle down and tells his new sweetheart of his savings and his plan… Brooks’ acting gives little away and there’s just the smallest glimmer in Marie’s eyes that might suggest unwelcome pragmatism. But we’re not sure until pal Bill recognises her as an old flame from Coney Island (not that that necessarily makes you a bad person...) who has his mark tattooed on her arm and still holds a candle. She’s keen to pick up where they left off and her callous wink whilst held in the arms of Spike is pure Lulu!

Bill doesn’t want to break Spike’s heart and won’t tell Marie’s truth but she pushes him pretty hard, sending Spike off on an errand so she can turn up in his mate’s room and tempt him… Jim almost gives in but it turns out that the “big Ox is worth more… than any woman…” Well… OK then.

Louise Brooks and Robert Armstrong
Brooks played down her role and the film, disparaging it’s homo-social subtext (she may have used other words…) but the film is more narrow-minded than that and all about lauding enduring male friendships. How this pure, brotherly love can be balanced with heterosexual promiscuity is beyond me. Honestly… they come up against a woman who behaves just like them and they’re driven into the chaste comforts of the masculine bond.

I can only conclude that, being unable to understand this, they should just try harder to secure deeper relationships not just with women but with all those around them: traveling the world in their ships they appear to have left their social responsibility at home. Maybe that’s too modern a view but I wonder what contemporary audience thought of the film’s message?
The boys and the "sexy skirt"
All this aside… there are splendid performances from McLaglan and Armstrong, especially the former who’s boyish charm shines through his care-worn, ex-pro boxer’s face: he really was as good with his fists as the film suggests.

Hawks directs with pacey-authenticity and there are some great touches – showing the lads drunken state by focusing on their legs staggering from bar to bar or Spike discovering Jim’s identity by the mark left by his ring on his chin. It’s witty and entertaining even despite misgivings about what it actually means (and Hawks also wrote the outline).

Would I watch it without LB? Maybe... but she improves the end product by providing a striking counterpoint to the over-compensating maleness. Her Marie is intelligent and in control – no doubt she has a boy in every pitch? She breaks Spike’s heart with the aloof, refined sexuality that was soon to play so very well in Berlin.

A Girl in Every Port is fairly hard to track down. It’s available on a 16mm DVD transfer from Grapevine in reasonable condition but really warrants a fully-restored release. Until then, you’ll have to aim to catch one of the occasional screenings in London and other “silent” cities…


  1. Excellent post. Great to get the lovely Lulu in to context. Thanks for your hard work ithankyou!

    1. You're very welcome Mrs Joyce! Thanks to you too for putting up with my tapping away when I could be doing the garden! Px