A Girl in Every Port commands attention as the first Hawks film in which the filmmaker asserts the personality that we know from his later work. It’s not Hawks first completely successful film: Paid to Love, one year earlier, offered Hawks a Lubitsch-like story and genre that he was able to use as a springboard for continuous invention. But A Girl in Every Port feels to the modern audience less like a genre film than like a fantasia sprung from Hawks’ unconscious.
The film probably seems more weirdly personal today than it did to audiences of the time. Contemporary viewers would have noted the film's considerable debt to the success of the 1926 What Price Glory? (also starring Victor McLaglen), another story of two tough guys whose friendship takes precedence over the women for which they compete. Certainly Hawks dials up the “love story between two men” angle (Hawks’ phrase) by having his male protagonists enact a number of the dramatic conventions of love stories. (Robin Wood long ago noted Hawks’ willingness to give the same dialogue or situations to both men and women in different movies.) Yet, without being able to provide citations, I have the impression that cinema culture was, more then than in recent decades, permeated with a sense that the heterosexual love story was a concession to the commercial, and that reducing or eliminating the feminine aspect was a mark of integrity. Perhaps Hawks was able to hide his polymorphous perversity in plain sight. In any case, no contemporary review that I’ve read is fazed by the fervor of the protagonists’ friendship. (Here’s a review from Screenland that’s of particular sociological interest.)
For the modern viewer, the Hawksian tropes pile up quickly. McLaglen pulls on Robert Armstrong’s finger after fistfights to put it back in joint, as Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin would do in The Big Sky; McLaglen lights cigarettes for Armstrong, as, to pick one celebrated instance, Bacall would for Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Like Hardy Kruger and Gerard Blain in Hatari!, McLaglen is “broke out all over in monkey bites” – Hawks’ strange slang for being in love. Louise Brooks takes Armstrong’s pants so he can’t dress, as Monroe and Russell do to Tommy Noonan in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Intriguingly, Hawks wrote a script a little before his death for a loose remake of A Girl in Every Port called When It’s Hot, Play It Cool, a comedy about world-traveling oil-riggers with protagonists named Spike and Bill, after the heroes of the original. Hard to imagine the material playing as smoothly for audiences in 1977 as in 1928.
One of the pleasures of A Girl in Every Port is seeing Hawks successfully take on the silent tradition of physical comedy. The first half of the film is essentially one bar fight or drinking scene after another, and where a Walsh or a Wellman would let show some of their identification with the emotional intensity of the physical life, Hawks gravitates naturally to a Keaton-like comic distance. His typical reliance on long shots with a margin of space around the human figure lends itself well to physical comedy, and the roughneck subject matter encourages in him a comic cruelty that is perhaps closer to Arbuckle than Keaton. One funny bit of business has Spike (McLaglen) slamming into a cop as he flees a jealous husband: he picks the cop up off the ground, but impatiently lets him drop to the pavement when he sees that the man has been knocked out by the impact. A more elaborate comedy routine, based upon the use of extreme long shots, has Spike and Bill (Armstrong), who are looking for a place to fight, accidentally and unexpectedly walk off a pier and into the ocean. It turns out that Spike can’t swim, and Bill expends considerable effort to save him, after which the two bond over cigarettes. When a cop wanders by, the new friends’ only thought is to contrive a ruse to push the cop into the water, after which they walk away happily in long shot, the possibility of the man drowning not on their minds or on Hawks’s.
Despite the number of Hawksian signifiers in A Girl in Every Port, it still belongs to the period of Hawks’ career in which he made use of preexisting character structures instead of creating films around the kind of character relationships that he favored. Sometimes this relative lack of control over the story leads Hawks into barren terrain, most notably at the climax, where Spike’s pop-eyed, expressionist anguish as he learns the truth about his love affair with the circus performer Mam’selle Godiva (Brooks) is far away from any aspect of people with which Hawks can engage. (A sentimental scene in which Spike and Bill are deflected from an erotic mission by the pathetic story of the woman’s young, orphaned son is equally uncongenial material for Hawks, but in this case he acquits himself as well as can be hoped for.) But often enough the slight mismatch between Hawks’ usual interests and the story archetypes demonstrates pleasantly that Hawks’ imaginative approach to characterization is not restricted to the pet configurations that he would repeat throughout his career. Brooks’ character, functioning in the scenario purely as a gold-digger, is reimagined as a self-possessed and self-aware presence, communicating with small and decidedly unvillainous glances and knowing smiles. Her relationship with Bill, her former lover, is pitched somewhere between story-based antagonism and behavioral collusion, as if Hawks preferred to bring her over to our side by letting her in on the joke of pretending she’s a bad guy. A more unusual (for Hawks) but quite affecting idea is the depiction of Bill as an overgrown, amoral child vying for Spike’s somewhat more diversified attention. Armstrong, considerably smaller than the massive McLaglen, has a rather inexpressive face that is turned to the film’s advantage, as he often resembles an adolescent hoping for affection or punishment from an idolized older boy. At the film’s emotional climax, Bill lies unconscious on a barroom floor, his arms splayed and twisted like a rag doll, reproaching the vengeful Spike with the childlike innocence of his martyrdom.