Fall 2015

The World According to Howard Hawks

Richard Schickel has been a critic, writer, and director for over 50 years. In an excerpt from his latest book, Keepers: The Greatest Films—and Personal Favorites—of a Moviegoing Lifetime, he takes an intimate look at Howard Hawks—and what may be "the best filmography in the history of American cinema."


Red River (1948), (Photo: AMPAS)

It is not too much to say that by the mid-1930s Warner Bros. was, of all things, an auteurist studio. William Wellman was in and out of the place, of course, and Raoul Walsh had come over from 20th Century Fox in the late ’30s, and Howard Hawks was more there than anywhere else during this period. Hawks was a dry, rather affectless man, who spoke in a monotone, placed his cameras in spots that seemed in retrospect inevitable, and, above all, dreaded "fuss." He was also a congenital liar, a dandy, and a powerfully secretive man. I came to know him rather well in his late years and came to like him a lot, though I knew I was never going to solve the mystery of the man.

Of the directors who shuttled on and off the Warner lot in the ’30s and ’40s, Hawks had by far the greatest range. Comedies, melodramas, Westerns, even musicals—everything seemed to be his dish of tea. He had spectacular relationships with Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and, of course, John Wayne—among the many actors and actresses he worked with so effortlessly. He claimed he found his style in 1932 with Scarface. It was, he liked to say, everything but the kitchen sink, up angles and down angles until it reeled the mind. From then on his camera would be eye level, his cutting severe, his emotions understated. Above all, his manner worked for virtually every topic. We can name a few, together with their genres: Twentieth Century (romantic farce), Bringing Up Baby (ditto), Only Angels Have Wings (comedy-adventure), To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep (romantic mysteries), and a slew of Westerns starting with Red River and proceeding from there.

The sublime Twentieth Century (1934) was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play. It has Hawks directing John Barrymore and Carole Lombard on a train—very confined but not giving a damn about that. He’s a producer, she’s a star (and ex-wife). He needs her for what sounds like a truly terrible show he’s trying to produce. She’s probably still in love with him but doesn’t want to admit it. In the course of their antics, he is called upon to recite the story of his play, which includes, among other things, a solemn imitation of a camel. This is one of the great comic monologues in the history of the movies.

Hawks claimed he had to settle Lombard down. After shooting for a day or so, he took her out for a walk and told her she had already done enough acting for the entire movie. She was perhaps overawed by Barrymore, who actually was always an amiable and unpretentious presence on his sets. It seems to me that screwball comedy, in its full glory, begins here, in 1934. Twentieth Century has it all—attractive people, smart dialogue, and, as film critic Andrew Sarris acutely noted, leading players who did not offload their wisecracks onto the supporting players. They damn well did it all themselves.

His Girl Friday (1940), (Photo: AMPAS)

Hawks directed at least one other certifiably great screwball comedy: His Girl Friday (1940), with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a remake of The Front Page, with a matchlessly befuddled Ralph Bellamy as the hopelessly square guy she somehow thinks she loves in preference to Grant. At times—dare I say it?—I think it is my favorite comedy. It’s so mean-spirited, so breathlessly paced, so brilliantly written (by Charles Lederer, working off the Hecht-MacArthur play). I’ve seen it a bunch of times, and still it remains full of surprises for me. It is a masterpiece, but because it’s a comedy, it is mostly dismissed as "a nice little picture," as if comedy were easy to do. Do not be deceived.

And we are far from done, regretting the absence from our list of such Hawks films as Ball of Fire (1941) and a slew of other entertainments. I might as well say it—with a gulp—that Hawks has probably the best filmography in the history of American cinema. Even the semi-duds—Hatari! (1962) among them—have more spunk than a lot of directors’ presumed masterpieces. Or to put it another way, there is scarcely a Hawks film that I would not happily pop into the DVD player tonight and watch. Indeed, there is this interesting thing about most of his work: It doesn’t date. The dialogue in some cases may be 75 or more years old, but it remains crisp and funny, and the situations that occasion it are plausibly farcical. You don’t have to make many allowances for it.

Unlike his competitors, Hawks was famous for two themes that he worked endlessly. One was the functioning male group bickering as they bonded in pursuit of whatever adventurous goal they were jointly pursuing. They were funny guys most of the time, but they were also haunted by death, which was unusually greeted if not with a laugh, then with a shrug. The temptation toward the lugubrious was sternly resisted. (See the passing of Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings [1939] for the perfect example of gallantry under the ultimate pressure.) And then, perhaps more famously, there was the Hawksian woman. Putting it very simply, she was always one of the guys, bantering on an equal footing with men. She always had wise-guy lines that matched in their insouciance what the boys were saying. Hawks used to say that they were the kind of women he found most attractive, and we have no reason to doubt that.

One of those women was Hawks’ discovery Lauren Bacall. In To Have and Have Not (1944), Bogart finds real-life true love with her. The key to the success of To Have and Have Not lies in its insolence, especially Bacall’s, and in Bogart’s willingness to cede the screen to her, so smitten was he when she was purring her invitations to him. Two years later, in the Hawks noir The Big Sleep (1946), Bogart finds a cheekiness that rounded out his screen character to perfection. A perfect example: a little throwaway scene where he has to enter Geiger’s Rare Books to pursue a lead. He did the scene, and Hawks pronounced it kind of dull. Bogart asked for a retake. He turned the brim of his hat up nerdishly and adopted a prissy lisp as he peevishly asked the salesgirl for an obscure edition of a particular volume.

To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep are not, perhaps, great movies; there came a time in The Big Sleep when it was not just improbable but impossible for the characters to be where the script wanted them to be. But then everyone realized that was not the energy the picture was running on. It was the casual, careless-seeming badinage that gave the film its appeal. So everyone relaxed and had a good time exchanging zingers. If you’ve been away from it for a while, these seem to be as fresh as the day they were coined.

Only Angeles Have Wings (1939), (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Photofest)

Of course, when Bogart and Bacall were first exchanging looks, there was something bigger than both of them going on—the war. Oddly, almost all of the best movies of the World War II period were only inferentially about the war. I think the exceptions would include John Ford’s They Were Expendable, that somber, excellent hymn to dutifulness, though it was not released until hostilities ended. And Air Force (1943), Hawks’ drama about a Flying Fortress bomber that takes off in peacetime and flies smack-dab into World War II. The script was by Dudley Nichols, and it has the distinction of being perhaps the most civilized war film ever made.

It was apparently made at the behest of Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, a famous flier and commanding officer of the Air Corps, who wanted a celebration of, well, yes, the Air Force. The Hawks-Nichols notion was simply to have a Hawksian group go airborne. The biggest name among the actors was John Garfield, playing a malcontent who can’t wait to muster out, which is due to happen within days or weeks. Before the picture is over, he naturally becomes a full-hearted, not to say gung-ho, member of the team. The rest of the cast is composed of good character players (Harry Carey prominently among them), and their dialogue is crisp and brisk in the Hawksian manner.

The airplane keeps being waved on across the Pacific, finally seeing action in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in May 1942. Two scenes stand out (in my memory at least). In one of them, two American aviators are shot out of the sky as they dangle helplessly from their parachutes. The other, longer sequence is the death of John Ridgely, pilot of the plane, and a sort of near-miss star. He is laid out in a hospital bed, and his dying is couched in terms of takeoff procedures ("wheels up," "into the sun"—that sort of thing). It’s a weirdly effective scene—tight-lipped dialogue in the manner Hawks preferred, and there was more to it than we knew.

For the scene was written by William Faulkner. All but one of his films were Hawks pictures—they shared a love of hunting and other manly pastimes—and the director conceived the idea that Faulkner was just the man to capture the restrained emotion of the scene, despite the fact that he had returned home to Mississippi. Faulkner agreed and knocked the thing out quickly enough. A little later, Faulkner and Hawks were on the phone, and Faulkner flushed the toilet for his friend—it was to show the good use to which he had put Hawks’ movie money. Up to then Faulkner’s plumbing had been strictly of the outdoor variety. The Nobel Prize for Literature was only seven years in his future.

My peculiar chronology now happily brings me to Red River (1948), which is, in my estimation, the best cattle-drive Western of them all. John Wayne was initially a little dubious about young Montgomery Clift playing opposite him. He seemed awfully willowy to Duke—and he was fairly young at the time. But Hawks persisted. He thought that if, eventually, Clift took a poke at Wayne, the sheer surprise of the act would startle the older actor, leading to a fight that would demonstrate their love for one another—which Joanne Dru helpfully points out to them, even though at the moment she has an Indian arrow planted painfully in her shoulder. Walter Brennan is crankily along for the ride as cook and conscience to the venture, his main question to Hawks being whether to wear his teeth in or out. The latter, of course. Much funnier.

It’s a joyous, quite linear movie, unfussy, the way Hawks liked them to be. And more than Stagecoach, it established Wayne not just as a star but as an institution, a force of nature. He is just such a powerful presence in the picture—humorous, difficult, and forced by Clift to work hard to keep up his canny, counterpunching portrayal. His surprise when Clift abandons his passivity and strikes back at him is a great movie moment. One of many in Hawks’ superb body of work.

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