The Diversified, Decades-Long Hollywood Flight of Howard Hawks
There are no shortages of great Hollywood directors, but Howard Hawks stands above them. No other director, living or dead, has demonstrated the sheer range in material that Hawks has. Spielberg and Hitchcock are both masters of the language of cinema, but their attempts at comedy have been their weakest work. Scorsese, while being best known for his crime movies, has done costume dramas, biopics and even a musical – but has yet to helm a western or science fiction movie. Wilder loved his sex comedies- and he was undeniably great at them- but he rarely ventured farther afield than that (he never did a western because he allegedly hated horses). But Howard Hawks, his filmography is astounding in its breadth as much as for its length. Crime, War, Western, Musical, Science Fiction, Swords and Sandals, and more are all there in a body of work that spanned 45 years as a director and nearly fifty films.
No other director, living or dead, has demonstrated the sheer range in material that Hawks has.
For all of the diversity of genres Hawks worked in, there are still commonalities of themes that link his movies. Male friendship, tough women and group cohesion and conflict are all elements that continually reappear in Hawks’s movies.
The tough-talking woman, who gives every bit as well as she gets, is the best known staple in Hawks’s movies. Embodied most memorably by Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Hawks’s portrayal of this archetype is so iconic it’s been given its own name: The Hawksian Woman. First identified by critic Naomi Wise in 1971 (in an essay published in Take One magazine, and reprinted in the book Howard Hawks, American Artist in 1996), the Hawksian Women is a woman who speaks her mind, goes after what she wants with gusto, and is upfront about her sexuality. These aren’t qualities normally associated with the mid-century American ideals of femininity.
The films selected by ZekeFilm’s contributors for this month’s “Film Admissions” represent a fairly good range across Hawks’s career. I admit that I had plenty of options myself for choosing an important Hawks movie that I hadn’t yet seen. Reading over the list of his filmography, it reminded me of just how little I’ve scratched the surface of one of the best and most prolific directors in Hollywood. This month’s topic has certainly added plenty of movies to my ‘must finally get around to watching’ list (doesn’t everyone have one of those?). Hopefully, it’ll inspire plenty of others to do the same.
– Jeff Knight
His Girl Friday
1940, Columbia, dir. Howard Hawks
by Krystal Lyon
Praise the Lord for Film Admissions! With every participation I view a gem, an artistic treasure and a learning tool. My eyes are all the more wide with wonder and I’m convinced I’ve watched the wrong films my entire life! This month I had the opportunity to watch His Girl Friday for the first time, and I can’t wait to watch it again and again, mainly because I’m sure I missed some hilarious zingers from babe-o-licious Cary Grant and spicy Rosalind Russell. How to begin? How do you approach a film so relevant to today with gender roles and capital punishment questioned, but it’s also filled with dickering dialogue that’s laugh out loud funny and it’s so quotable that you want lines like “She’s no albino, she was born right here in this country.” to infiltrate your daily conversations? I guess you start with the dynamic director, Howard Hawks and how he tweaked the original to make a comedy masterpiece.
Hawks took the Broadway comedy The Front Page and switched one of the main male characters for one smart dame, Hildy Johnson. (Russell) Hildy is a woman inhabiting a male role in more ways than one. The title of the film comes from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe where Friday is Crusoe’s servant but also his loyal and trusted companion. So Hildy is Walter Burns’ (Grant) jack-of-all-trades, his go-to girl, and his reliable ace reporter for the newspaper, His Girl Friday! This small shift from Hawks adds a lot of fun and drama to the story and gives it momentum. The romance between Burns and Johnson pushes the story forward but it’s not a steamy romance. The two are drawn to each other because of their shared passion for journalism and getting the scoop before the other guys. It’s also striking to watch Hildy carry herself in an almost all male world. Men surround her but she stands out not because of beauty but for the way she interviews, writes and runs down the story better than the rest! And because of her confidence! Here is a woman who has a gift, knows its worth, and she moves about her world one step ahead of everyone else. Hawks vision, casting and direction for Hildy alone makes His Girl Friday a film every human should watch these days!
But that’s not the main reason you should check out His Girl Friday. Its power is in its hilarious dialogue and organic humor. Fans of Arrested Development, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock and the like should view His Girl Friday as a forefather to the fast paced back and forth scripts that they love and adore. A favorite line is when Burns says of Hildy’s fiancé, “He looks like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy!” The very handsome Ralph Bellamy plays Hildy’s Fiancé, Bruce Baldwin! This is where meta comedy started. Hawks worked his magic and created a screwball comedy that’s just as funny the second and third time round because each time you discover another layer of hilarity at work! The only downside: Hawks only made a handful of comedies and after watching His Girl Friday; you are left itching for more from this genius! His Girl Friday is currently streaming on Amazon Prime; it’s a fantastic funny valentine for the month of February.
1959, Warner Brothers, dir. Howard Hawks
by Sharon Autenrieth
Rio Bravo is both a tribute to classic westerns and a subversion of the genre. John Wayne, as the sheriff of a busy, corrupt little town, is at his John-Wayniest. His western garb and battered hat, folded up in front, is the outfit he wears in thousands of kitschy John Wayne paintings. The plot is one that seems vaguely familiar from countless other westerns. Sheriff John T. Chance arrests a murderer and tries to hold him for the several days it will take for a federal marshall to arrive. Meanwhile, the murderers brother and scores of hired guns circle the jail like jackals, looking for the opportunity to strike.
But Howard Hawks takes this standoff movie in far different directions that John Ford might have, or that Fred Zinnemann did in High Noon, the most obvious influence on Rio Bravo. There’s no deep political or social subtext to Rio Bravo, and no larger than life hero. Instead, this is a film about a little cast of characters, tending to each other and yes, acting heroically, but in ways that seem both commonplace and common sense. Chance has three deputies: a recovering alcoholic (Dean Martin), an aging cripple (Walter Brennan), and a supremely confident teenager (Ricky Nelson). There’s also a love interest – a beautiful young card sharp played by Angie Dickinson. At one point in Rio Bravo, Dude (Martin) jokingly calls Sheriff Chance Papa, but it’s telling. These figures form a family with Chance as the quiet, warm, authority figure and protector.
John Wayne starred in an earlier Hawks western, Red River, in 1948. As in Rio Bravo, he starred alongside a young, handsome up and comer. In Rio Bravo, it’s baby faced Ricky Nelson. In Red River, it was Montgomery Clift. Walter Brennan also appeared in both films, but the similarities don’t go much farther. In Red River, Wayne played a hard, cruel man. Here, in Rio Bravo, Wayne is as kindly and tender as he ever appeared onscreen. It’s a standout performance, with the most effective acting communicated not through words but through Wayne’s reactions to those around him. He enjoys and admirest the brashness of young Colorado (Nelson); affectionately teases Stumpy (Brennan); and carefully aids Dude in his quest for sobriety. As for the romance with Feathers (Dickinson), Chance is knocked a bit sideways by her wit and worldliness, but it’s clear that he respects her. Their eye to eye relationship reflects earlier Hawks films such as His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not. Hawks knew how to portray smart, strong, sexy women.
Chance may be the leading man in Rio Bravo, but Dean Martin nearly steals the film as Dude. Dean had already had a long career on film, often as a charming but vapid straight man to Jerry Lewis. Here he gives a fully realized and very sympathetic performance as a wreck of a man clawing his way to a second chance.
Ball of Fire
1941, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, d. Howard Hawks
by Jim Tudor
One of the very few higher profile Howard Hawks films I’d yet to see, 1941’s Ball of Fire is a movie that has a lot going for it. One of those things, however, is not “screwball comedy”. Expectations can be a harsh mistress, particularly when one believes one is settling in for a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, a form he dominated through quality rather than quantity. Not sure how exactly I was misinformed about such a thing, but there it is. What it does have going for it more than makes up for the fact that the film is a mere standard issue comedy, a 33 1/3 RPM spinner as opposed to, say, Bringing Up Baby’s 45 RPMs, or His Girl Friday’s 78 RPMs. Ball of Fire has Barbara Stanwyck. It has Gary Cooper. It has Dan Dureya and Dana Andrews in early roles (as mob baddies). Gregg Toland cinematography, Edith Head wardrobe, Alfred Newman, score.
And, in a bit of synchronous continuity with last month’s Film Admissions subject, a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. And a veritable who’s who gallery of oh-so-familiar “that guy”s: there’s Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, Henry Travers… and there’s Carl from Casablanca, S.Z. Sakall… And, on the drums (in the movie), that legendary animal the the sticks, Gene Krupa! All directed by Howard Hawks, a man who had to go far out of his way to make a lousy movie. (It’s true that all he needs are three good scenes and no bad ones, but that list of assets sure helps).
In the true Hawks-ian model of the virtue of men whose sacred duty it is to do their jobs, Ball of Fire falls in lightly next to the more thematically seminal Only Angels Have Wings or Rio Bravo. What the men in question may lack in raw masculinity they more than make up for in terms of sheer devotion to their work, not to mention numbers. There are seven jolly old aging professors and Gary Cooper, the eighth and by-far youngest and tallest professor. A bunch of blissfully detached-from-society intellectuals, they live together in a luxury condominium spending their days creating a new encyclopedia. The professors stroll along in a Seven Dwarves-like formation, with Cooper’s Bertram Potts a sort of Hawks-ian Snow White, meaning, he’s there to keep them on task.
Enter Sugarpuss O’Shea, a feisty and glamorous entertainer and gangster’s moll, not to mention the title character. Sugarpuss is the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck in one of her all-time standout roles. Hawks, as great as he was with spunky female characters, tended to primarily throw them in the paths of his male protagonists. Like any good Hawks film, then, Ball of Fire becomes about how stodgy academic Bertram Potts can balance falling in love with the irresistible Sugarpuss. Can he marry her and keep the encyclopedia project on track? Not without a few curvy bumps in the road! Even though Ball of Fire is not a comedy of the screwball variety, there is much reward to be had. Of course, with the encyclopedia of old Hollywood major talent involved, I should’ve expected no less.
Bringing Up Baby
1938, RKO Radio Pictures, dir. Howard Hawks
by Taylor Blake
I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard in a movie as I did in Bringing Up Baby. Maybe it was because I knew little about the movie before watching it. Case in point: I expected the titular Baby to be a human baby. (Spoiler alert: She’s not.) Maybe it was because my only experience with Howard Hawks before was a His Girl Friday half-watch. Or maybe it’s because Bringing Up Baby is just a very funny movie.
At the very least, it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, up there with the my laugh riots during my first viewings of Groundhog Day, Airplane!, and The Princess Bride. And while I can’t vouch from personal experience, I expect it’s just as funny in 2018 as it was 80 (!) years ago upon its release.
Cary Grant isn’t the cool, calm, and collected suave you know from Charade, To Catch a Thief, or even His Girl Friday. Here, he’s scattered, frustrated, but still as charming as ever playing the straight man David to Katherine Hepburn’s scattered, melodramatic, and still as charming as ever as funny-woman, Susan. When happenstance (or her-opportune-stance) brings them together again and again in his pursuit of a financial grant for his museum and her pursuit of his unwavering attention, their personalities exaggerate along with the plot. Just when you think it can’t get more ridiculous, Hawks and Co. find another way to escalate the situation.
1962, Paramount Pictures, dir. Howard Hawks
by Oscar Jackson III
You hear, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” a lot about films. Nostalgia makes us look back at the past, compare it to the present slate of films, and find any number of reasons today’s offerings are lacking. Oftentimes, that has more to do with us than the films (granting, of course, changes in our culture in regards to race, acceptable male/female relationships, and other things that are reflected in modern films). Hatari! is a monumental exception. Not only do they not make movies like this (for all kinds of contractual and legal reasons), but when Hawks brought Hatari! to life, it represented a step in film technique that would have been impossible a few years prior.
Hatari!, which we are told means “danger,” is the story of John Wayne’s Sean Mercer and his crew, who are in charge of stocking zoos with exotic animals the likes of jaguars, water buffalo, giraffes, and rhinos. When I say it is a story, that may be a stretch. Hawks famously took the crew to Tanzania without a finished script and what is cobbled together has a discernible arc but its more an afterthought. What matters is the vignettes of catching the animals. Standing in the back of trucks and jeeps, Mercer and his gang race alongside herds of animals, sit in catcher seats attached to the front of trucks and chase down racing beasts all over the plain. The scenes are nothing short of incredible. Adding to it is that all most all (I think it is every stunt, but I can’t confirm it) was done by the actual actors and actresses. That is John Wayne being bounced and jostled as he ropes a zebra from the front of a movie truck. That is Red Buttons sitting in a truck being rammed by an angry water buffalo. Hawks employs an over the shoulder shot to help convey the action, and knowing that it is real heightens the excitement to levels that are impossible when watching a “movie” version of the shots. Spielberg is said to have modeled the capture scenes in Lost World after Hatari!, and while there, it is the difference between a picture of the Grand Canyon and actually being there.
John Ford, another director that Wayne worked with frequently, was adept at making the land and scenery a substantial character in the films, like in The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, and The Searchers. Hawks isn’t in love with scenery as much as Ford, but he does a good job of making it and its inhabitants feature prominently. The Hawksian female is also very much on display. While possessing a staunch view of right and wrong, Hawks also frequently bucked the view of the demure woman, instead making his female characters as strong, capable of giving as good as they get, and essential members of whatever the experience may be, whether its war, the wild west, or the plains of Tanzania.
Hatari! is a spectacle through and through. Modern audiences may object to the treatment of some of the animals, but the film makes sure to show that these are not blood-thirsty men and women. They love these animals and the land, even if they show it in ways today’s audience don’t understand. I was reminded of my grandad, a big reason why I’m such a fan of the Duke, who would name his cows and even reminds us that the burger we were eating was thanks to “Bopeep,” but who also loved nothing more than sitting for an hour, leaned against a fence, and watch the cattle graze.
In many ways, Hatari! is a relic of yesterday. Its form would be impossible in today’s film world, and rules and regulation would prevent many of the practice Hawks employed, but if it is a relic, it a Holy Grail of cinema. A vanity project, indulgent to the point of bloat at points, but unsurpassed in its authenticity and visual art.
1952, Twentieth Century Fox, d. Howard Hawks
by Erik Yates
Monkey Business is the kind of screwball comedy top-tier talent would probably avoid these days if such a script was offered to them, but it is exactly the fact that such top-tiered talent is in the finished product that makes it worth watching, and why in the end it truly works to be an entertaining film. Cary Grant plays serious, and absent-minded professor Dr. Barnaby Fulton who is working on a formula to reverse the aging process. His hopes are to solve his own forgetfulness and bursitis. His corporate benefactor Mr. Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn) is hoping for the formula to be the elusive fountain of youth. Dr. Fulton’s mind is always on this project to the point that his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) is often forced to cancel social outings, so that when he is inspired, he can focus on that – just in case he has discovered the elusive key to why they haven’t developed a formula that works. What everyone doesn’t know, is that one of the test monkeys, Esther, has escaped her cage and concocted a formula that actually works. She has also put it in the water cooler.
Dr. Fulton eventually decides to take matters into his own hands and tries his latest batch of formula himself. He unknowingly drinks the tainted water containing the true working formula, and then as a result, he eventually begins to act like a teenager. This includes impulsively buying a new sports car, and taking Mr. Oxley’s young secretary, Miss Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe), out roller skating. Eventually the effects wear off, but now Dr. Fulton must explain to his wife the lipstick Miss Laurel put on his cheek, as well as why they now own a new sports car. Edwina eventually decides that she must try some of the formula so that her husband, the serious scientist, can objectively document the side effects, rather than relate them after the fact. This results in more out-of-character childlike behavior from her, including admitting a long-time crush over her friend and lawyer, Hank Entwhistle (Hugh Marlow).
Nothing that would threaten her marriage is beneath this admission, but the script uses it to hilarious effect, doubling down on it all when both Edwina and Dr. Fulton show up to the company’s board meeting unknowingly under the effects of the formula when they thought they had merely consumed some of the water in the lab. It will all be sorted out by the time the credits roll, of course, but it is endearing to see some of Hollywood’s most elite members acting and carrying on like complete fools for our entertainment, in a way that demonstrates that they didn’t have to take themselves so seriously. Sometimes audiences want to laugh, and they brought us that. They were also able to do so without playing over-the-top caricatures, but grounding the silliness in characters that felt like real, living people. Howard Hawks’ direction keeps things from going too far out of bounds for those that despise the idea of slapstick humor, without overcorrecting the other way. In the end, Monkey Business is a fine film that entertains without having to really “monkey-around”.
The Thing From Another World
1951, RKO Radio Pictures, d. Christian Nyby
by Jeffrey Knight
Wait, so what’s The Thing From Another World doing here? The movie credits clearly state that Howard Hawks merely produced the movie and it was directed by Christian Nyby. Nyby was a film editor who had worked with Hawks previously on many film projects. When Thing was being developed by Hawks’s new production company, Winchester Pictures for RKO, Nyby was given his shot at the big time. Kinda, sorta.
Although Hawks was never going to officially direct the movie, it was his project was pretty much from start to finish. Hawks selected the property, a novella called Who Goes There by John W. Campbell, Jr, and Hawks developed the first treatments for it. He was there daily with the screenwriters, Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht for the six weeks it took to write. Hawks hired many of his longtime collaborators to fill key roles, such as cinematographer Russell Harlan and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Hawks cast all of the film’s key roles (with the exception of James Arness as the Thing itself- Nyby found him). Hawks was on set all throughout filming, and many of the film’s key sequences came solely from him.
Hawks, himself, never took any credit for directing it (although he did take, according to Todd McCarthy’s lengthy 1997 biography of the director, a sizable chunk of the movie’s directing fees). Producer Ed Lasker and lead actor Ken Tobey both backed up the assertion that Hawks directed Thing. Tobey claimed that, apart from some second-unit stuff, Nyby was only ever really allowed to direct one scene. Otherwise, the whole film was Hawks’s, and it was apparent from the start to everyone who watched it.
For being what RKO feared was a ‘silly monster movie,’ The Thing From Another World is an incredibly taut and effective thriller. The plot follows a group of air force pilots and civilian scientists at an arctic research station that discover what appears to be a flying saucer trapped under the ice. They dig out the ice-encrusted pilot of the vessel and bring it back to their station to await further instructions from the US Air Force (a situation that does not at all sit well with the scientists, who see the military bureaucracy as impeding them from studying the greatest discovery of the age). The alien pilot, however, is accidentally thawed and begins killing the group, needing their human blood for its reproduction. If the Thing escapes, it can seed the planet with its offspring dooming the whole planet (literally seed; the Thing turns out to be a sentient mobile plant, in spite of its humanoid appearance).
If the film as any one weakness, it’s the appearance of the Thing itself. James Arness (best known for TV’s Gunsmoke) is a physically imposing actor, but the makeup and costume design for the monster resemble little more than a lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster in a space-age jumpsuit. FX and budgetary limitations of the time prevented the film from using the story’s notion of a shapeshifting alien (a device John Carpenter’s 1982 remake would lean into very effectively). But the final design the filmmakers settled for is uninspired. Hawks seems to have caught that, and the Thing is onscreen rarely, and even then seen only in quick glances or shrouded in shadow.
As much as any one of his ‘official’ films, The Thing From Another World embodies many of Hawks’s themes and stylistic choices. It has rapid, overlapping dialogue; groups of men bonding together to overcome an external threat; and tough-talking, hard-drinking women who are the equal of any other man present. The movie is fast-paced. The scenes where the scientists discuss the true nature of the alien and the threat it poses- scenes that kill the momentum of countless other sci-fi films from the 50’s- keep the movie barreling forward and the viewer on the edge of their seat. It’s a masterclass in how even ‘silly’ genre movies can benefit from having a true master craftsmen with their hands firmly on the wheel.