Monday, 28 January 2019

Howard Hawks - the brilliant Golden Age Hollywood director who deserves to be a household name

Before I started my vintage-filmathon about 18  months ago, I barely had a clue who Howard Hawks was. I knew he was a well-known Hollywood film director, but (as with William Wyler and George Cukor) I didn't know exactly which films he'd directed. In fact, I'd already seen - and mostly enjoyed - nine of his pictures: the terrific early gangster movie Scarface (1932), in which Paul Muni delivered a thinly-veiled portrait of Al Capone; the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938); the great Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940); the patriotic Gary Cooper box office hit Sergeant York (1941); the charming Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck comedy Ball of Fire (1941); the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall... 1944's To Have and Have Not, loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name (Hawks had made a bet with his pal Hemingway that he could make a hit film out of "the worst piece of shit you ever wrote"); a version of the Raymond Chandler novel The Big Sleep (1946), again starring Bogart and Bacall; one of my two favourite 1950s sci-fi/horror movies, The Thing from Another World (1951) - Christian Nyby is credited as director, but it's generally accepted that Hawks actually helmed it; the Ancient Egypt-set epic, Land of the Pharaohs (1955), starring Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins - a critical and commercial failure which has always been one of my guilty pleasures; and the shaggy, baggy, amiable John Wayne African safari adventure Hatari! (1962).

With the exception of the final two films on that list, that's one hell of a body of classics, across wildly disparate genres.

During my filmathon, I've added (without particularly meaning to) another ten Hawks pictures: the John Barrymore/Carole Lombard screwball comedy 20th Century (1934) - one of the funniest films I've ever seen; the enjoyable Edward G. Robinson action adventure film Barbary Coast (1935), set in rambunctious, mid-19th Century San Francisco; Come and Get It (1936), the entertaining tale of the inexorable rise of a ruthless lumber baron, sunk by the disastrous casting of the tubby "heavy" Edward Arnold in the lead role (although Walter Brennan picked up the first-ever Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the part of Arnold's best friend); the Cary Grant/Jean Arthur South America-set aviation action-adventure-romance film Only Angels Have Wings (1939) - a true Hollywood entertainment miracle released in the greatest ever year for great movies; the John Wayne/Montgomery Clift epic western, Red River (1948) - one of the best westerns of all time (after seeing it, John Ford told Hawks - referring to John Wayne's towering performance - "I never knew the sonafabitch could act!"); the genuinely funny Cary Grant/Ann Sheridan comedy I Was a Male War Bride (1949); the Cary Grant/Ginger Rogers/Marilyn Monroe screwball comedy Monkey Business (1952); the splendid early western adventure film, the visually stunning  The Big Sky (1952), in which Kirk Douglas and an assorted band of rough and ready adventurers set off into the wilderness to return a kidnapped Indian princess to her tribe with a view to setting up a fur-trading business; the Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953); and another classic John Wayne western, Rio Bravo (1959).

With that sensational track record, why isn't Hawks up there with John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, who could all outgun him in their particular genres, but wouldn't have had a hope of matching his sheer range? After all - at least until his inevitable decline - very few Hawks films lost money. He had an enviable record of "discovering" stars, or giving them the necessary leg-up to the next level - including Lauren Bacall (whose photo Hawks's wife had seen in a fashion magazine), Walter Brennan, George Raft, Frances Farmer and Montgomery Clift - or of showing established actors what they were truly capable of: would John Wayne have been capable of turning in his performance as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers unless Hawks had persuaded him to play the driven, psychologically complex Tom Dunson in Red River?; Hawks brought out the perennially fascinating ambivalence in Cary Grant's character - an infinitely charming man with more than a hint of danger to him - in Only Angels Have Wings (which would later serve Grant well in films such as Hitchcock's Suspicion and Notorious): it was Hawks who unleashed Carole Lombard's previously unsuspected gift for comedy in 20th Century; he handed the demon-driven Frances Farmer a great double role in Come and Get It - she's the best thing in it; and he elevated minor-league character actor Walter Brennan into a double Oscar winner (and, of course, gave him the immortal line: "You ever been bit by a dead bee?").

Hawks's modus operandi was unique. He never raised his voice on the set: a visitor to the shoot might have been hard-pressed to figure out who the director was - but everyone on the film knew. He barely directed the actors at all, and he refused to discuss such things as "motivation" with them. (His main advice to young actresses was to go out into the desert and scream their lungs out in order to lower their voices.) He had a small coterie of favourite scriptwriters (including Ben Hecht and Leigh Brackett, and he and William Faulkner were chums) - but he was always open to actors' dialogue suggestions, and preferred making stuff up during the shoot in order to capture whatever magic was in the air (this seems to tie in with his lifelong addiction to high-stakes gambling): he particularly enjoyed working with Cary Grant because of the star's unmatched ability to adlib - there's a surprising amount of adlibbing in Hawks pictures (To Have and Have Not is a perfect example). His shoots always started in a relaxed fashion in order to let his actors establish a rapport and to allow them - and him - to "feel" their way into the story. He reshot scenes until he got what he wanted - as a result of which, his films were invariably over schedule and over budget. He rarely got on with studio executives (Darryl Zanuck was an exception) and rarely made two pictures in a row for any studio. Strangely, he lost interest in his films as soon as the shooting was over, usually leaving the editing process to someone else while he went off to indulge his love of manly, outdoor pursuits.

Neither was Hawks much interested in the "look"of his films - he had no identifiable visual style. What his movies tend to have in common is the subject matter, the setting and the main characters: a group of tight-knit professionals in an enclosed setting - or one cut off from the civilised world - trying to accomplish difficult tasks while danger constantly threatens. The men's respect for each other is based on their ability to do their job properly. He loved assertive female characters - there is usually a tough woman in the mix who gives as good as she gets, and is often smarter and sassier than the men. He had no interest in portraying families or family life. His characters talk fast - Hawks mastered the art of over-lapping dialogue, starting sentences with discardable phrases that could be talked over without the audience missing anything. There is a marked and decidedly refreshing lack of sentimentality (astonishing for Hollywood films of that era, but, then, Hawks was by all accounts a "cold fish") - for instance, the death of a friend or colleague is something to be forgotten as quickly as possible, and gals getting all mushy just isn't acceptable: emotional toughness is as admirable as the physical variety (Hawks, born into a wealthy paper-manufacturing family in Indiana, saw himself as a man of action rather than an intellectual).

Unsurprisingly, Hawks was a conservative - but he was also a lifelong non-joiner (like his sometime friend, fellow aviation-nut Howard Hughes) and didn't get involved in the fight against Hollywood communists in the late '40s and '50s. There are certainly attitudes to life and how it should be lived in his pictures - but no social or political "messages", overt or covert. Hawks's watchword - the very point of his films - was entertainment. For instance, no matter how tense his pictures were, he looked for ways to squeeze comedy out of them: I suspect that's why he was able to pioneer a new, almost undefinable film category - the action-adventure-comedy-romance-drama movie. In his hands, what sounds like an unholy mess tends to work like clockwork, which is no doubt why, despite his habitual slowness and penchant for busting the budget, so few of his films lost money: audiences left the cinema feeling a damn sight better than when they went in. And if that isn't a definition of Golden Age Hollywood at it's best, I don't know what would be.

I love Hawks's work, and he's now firmly ensconced in both my list of top ten favourite directors and my list of the top ten greatest directors. He was also a tremendous bullshitter, which must have made the job of biographer Todd McCarthys' a bit of a nightmare when it came to producing his masterful, definitive Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood in 1997, which I read recently, and which was almost as enjoyable as a Howard Hawks movie.


  1. Love Howard Hawks and have commented on here about his movies before. Another great post Scott and I think I will get that bio and read it. Having studied his films back in the old days and often sitting through relentless repeats ( I just have to) of Rio Bravo your post ring absolutely true. Keep it up!