Saturday, October 15, 2011

Howard Hawks

IMDB Entry

Howard HawksIt's odd how critical opinion waxes and wanes.  And no one shows this as much as Howard Hawks.  He directed as many classics as any filmmaker you can name, and Andrew Sarris named him as one of his pantheon directors in The American Cinema in 1968.  Yet during most of his career, he was ignored.  He only got one Oscar nomination, and his name was overlooked by most American and UK  critical film studies before Sarris.  But Sarris started a boom in his reputation, which put him among the front line of directors.
Now, not so much.  When people think of directors of his era, they think of Hitchcock, or John Ford, or maybe Orson Welles, of William Wyler or John Huston.  Hawks being overlooked.
Why?  Most likely because he switched genres and studios so often that it's hard to keep track of him.  A Hitchcock film is nearly always a thriller, but a Hawks film could be a comedy, or a western, or a drama, a gangster film, and action-adventure film, or even science fiction.  But he's managed to direct so many films that make list of tops in their genre, that he rates plenty of attention.
Hawks entered the movie industry in 1924, and started directing films the next year.  He went on to direct 47 films, many of which are classics.  Some of the better-known ones include: 
  • Twentieth Century (1935). One of the earliest screwball comedies, this stars John Barrymore as the vain theater director Oscar Jaffe and Carole Lombarde as his star Lily Garland (born Mildred Plotka). 
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938).  The greatest of screwball comedies, with Cary Grant* and Katherine Hepburn as two people whose paths cross while searching for dinosaur bones and a pet leopard.
  • His Girl Friday (1939).  A reworking of The Front Page with Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson.  Hawks got the idea of making Hildy a woman when he noticed his secretary running lines for the movie.
  • Ball of Fire (1941).  Gary Cooper as the head of a group of seven professors compiling a dictionary of slang and Barbara Stanwyck as a chorus girl who shows that the need to widen their search.
  • I Was a Male War Bride (1949).  Cary Grant again, as a French officer who marries Ann Sheriden, an American officer, and has to come to the US under the war brides act -- which is not used to dealing with the reversal of roles.
  • Monkey Business (1951).  Cary Grant as a professor who develops a "fountain of youth" serum, which turns his behavior  into that of a wild teenager.
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).  Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as two women out to find a rich husband.  One of Marilyn's best roles.
  • Scarface (1932).  Not to be confused with the later semi-remake, this is one of the best of the 30s gangster films, with Paul Muni as the gangster, and where George Raft got his image.  More information here.
  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  Cary Grant starring as the head of a South American air service.**
  • Sergeant York (1941).  His only Oscar nomination, in this biopic of the World War I hero.
  • To Have and Have Not (1944). A vehicle of Lauren Bacall, who Hawks discovered.  It's probably the only film of a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Ernest Hemingway***) with a screenplay by another Pulitzer Prize winning author (William Faulkner). The team of Bogart and Bacall became a screen legend.
  • The Big Sleep (1946). Next to Casablanca, Bogart's best film, and his work with Bacall was terrific.
  • The Outlaw (1943).  Not really a good film, but infamous for turning Jane Russell into a star, thought that had little to do with Hawks.
  • Red River (1948).  One of the top ten westerns of all time, with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.
  • Rio Bravo (1959).  John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • El Dorado (1966). John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • Rio Lobo (1970). John Wayne again as a marshal fighting against lawlessness.
  • The Thing from Another World (1951). The classic sf horror film, and one that's to be praised for the intelligence of its conception.****
So why was Hawks ignored for so long?  I think his versatility counted against him.  He also wasn't a particularly "stylish" director.  I don't mean to say he didn't have a style all his own:  he was the master of overlapping dialog***** and he tended to focus on smart and competent men and women doing difficult tasks.  But his style didn't call attention to itself and was so simple and direct that it looked easy.
In his career, Hawks helmed 48 films, with a track record that put him among the greats.  I plan to highlight a few of these films in the future.
*Grant appeared in may of Hawks comedies, happy to play something that subverted his usual screen image of debonair charm.
**There is a character named "Judy" and Grant say her name a lot, though not three times in a row.  Probably at least part of the origin of "Judy, Judy, Judy" as the Grant imitators catchphrase.
***Hawks claimed he was fishing with Hemingway and tried to persuade him to write for the movies.  Hemingway wasn't interested, but Hawks claimed he could take Hemingway's worst book and turn it into a film.  Hemingway asked him what his worst book was, and Hawks told him, "To Have and Have Not." Luckily for Hawks, Hemingway agreed.
****The film is credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks's long-term film editor.  But Hawks produced and everyone agrees that he had a strong hand in the production. Hawks said he let Nyby get the credit as a favor so he could join the screen directors guild. 
*****Where characters don't wait for others to stop talking before they speak.


TedV said...

Just stumbled across your blog while "blog walking". I'm a movie buff and a big John Wayne fan so naturally a fan also of Howard Hawks. Nice post.

Antoinette said...

Howard Hawks is forgotten? By whom? I own about 8 of his movies on DVD. And he is mentioned a lot on TCM. Oh and John Wayne was a gunfighter in El Dorado. Robert Mitchum was the Marshall.

Strelnikov said...

Interesting note re "To Have and Have Not". Although the title is taken from the Hemingway novel of the same name, the story itself was adapted by Faulkner from a short story entitled "A Day's Crossing". The story line in the movie resembles the novel not at all.