Ceiling Zero (1936)

Ceiling Zero (1936)

“The fog’s so thick you can cut it in chunks.”

When the manager (Pat O’Brien) of a flight-based mail carrier business hires his old war buddy (James Cagney) as a pilot, the pair reminisce along with another veteran pal (Stuart Erwin) who also works for O’Brien. However, as womanizing Cagney begins flirting with a 19 year old novice pilot (June Travis), O’Brien worries he may be unreliable — and an upcoming storm soon puts this to the test.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • Jimmy Cagney Films
  • Pat O’Brien Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Veterans
  • Womanizers

Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of Frank “Spig” Wead’s Broadway play, named for a term used when the air is too dense to fly safely without outside assistance. The storyline centers on old friends whose loyalty is tested over women, but the central point of narrative interest is the unique setting, depicting the early (and highly dangerous) years of commercial aviation. Like riders on the Pony Express, these daring pilots risked their lives to ensure letters and packages made their way across the country, in rain or shine. According to an article by Atlas Obscura, the airmail business began just after the end of WWI, with pilots conscripted to help build a new industry which would put planes to use for something other than warfare. This one is worth a look simply for its historical relevance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An exciting portrayal of a freakishly dangerous profession
  • Fine cinematography
  • Pat O’Brien as Jake

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant


One thought on “Ceiling Zero (1936)

  1. Agreed; a once-must, for its historical relevance… and also for Hawks’ direction, which makes the film’s dialogue and action crackle (a similar result for other Hawks films such as ‘Twentieth Century’, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘His Girl Friday’).

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