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Sacrificed to the censor's scissors so SCARFACE could survive.
COCK OF THE AIR is a bright, intelligent, sensual romp. It is candy for the eyes and ears, a picture so competent that it transcends its 1931 origins by decades.
We have the ever-sturdy Chester Morris as the womanizing Lt. Roger Craig escaping the gunfire of jealous lovers. This gains his notice with Lilli de Rousseau, a recently deported Paris opera diva now living (under guard) in Italy. Miss de Rousseau is forced from Paris in the opening reel (what's left of it) because her irresistible magnetism imperils the war effort. This is not difficult to believe, as Billie Dove is totally ravishing as Lilli. She epitomizes desire, and the necklines of her gowns look as though the dressmaker ran out of fabric! Lilli sets out to ensnare and deny Lt. Craig, and his mounting frustration sets up increasing hilarity. The dialogue during one of these put-offs is an exchange of current events while Craig wrestles Lilli for a kiss. It's all done with light sophistication and great wit, not a hint of threat. The mood is kept light throughout the picture.
The scenes are underscored by specific musical cues that contribute to each step of the proceedings. A carnival is in progress for backgrounds and the festive atmosphere permeates Lilli and Roger's banter. The onscreen joy extends into the camerawork, as the visuals track, dip and zoom as though the DP had an Arriflex camera.
Alas, one of the put-offs Lilli devises was the first to hit the cutting room floor. In this scene, Lilli puts on an entire suit of armor (medieval style) and is reclined on a bed when Roger enters to pursue with a can opener!
Many other cuts leave scenes incomprehensible. It is difficult to assess whether these were done by Lewis Milestone to get the film released or whether the film base surrendered to the unmerciful sprocket claw at some point in time. What IS clear, by the evidence in surviving documents of the Hays Office, is that Colonel Jason S. Joy [what a surname for a prurient sort] had an axe to grind with Howard Hughes (this film's producer). It seems that a list of suggestions was compiled by "Joy" to bring the picture into conformity with the code. The original list resulted from the nominal submission of a shooting script to the Hays Office. When Joy discovered Hughes had shipped a positive print to every state before securing the Hays' MPPDA approval he became indignant. When a preview revealed his suggestions had been ignored, he set about sending a flurry of communications to the head office to make trouble, accusing the film to be in violation in title, content and portrayal.
This film was one of several Hughes launched simultaneously after HELL'S ANGELS. On the east coast, a film in production two months longer was wrapping at the same time. Its name is SCARFACE, and it, too was causing the Hays Office inordinate dismay. According to a quote from Hughes in defense of SCARFACE, "I gave up 'Queer People' [not filmed] to cooperate, and I cut up 'Cock Of The Air' until it wasn't any good, to cooperate." 1,800 feet hit the floor to satisfy Colonel Joy. As some of the cuts occur in sequences he suggested, I should note the print looks like solvent weld cement was abandoned for masking tape.
Code enforcement was inconsistent. I looked into Joy's treatment of 'A Farewell To Arms' for perspective. Same year, suggestions ignored, Joy's protestations relented due to the Hemmingway pedigree on the source material. Censorship is in inherently slippery slope. Celebrate what remains as a testament to vitality of Tom Buckingham's direction. This film gave its essence so that another may live.
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