Since the 1960s, Howard Hawks has been recognized as a great artist, a true auteur of international cinema. By his own admission, however, he was a diverse and unabashedly commercial director, with a gift for discerning what film audiences liked. He worked in all major American film genres, most notably gangster, screwball comedy, film noir, and westerns. Of the 47 films he is officially credited with having directed, his reputation rests on 10, a number that could readily be expanded by scholars and critics who continue to reevaluate his work, believing that additional films deserve further scrutiny. The films for which he is best known and which continue to garner critical attention are Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Sergeant York (1941), To Have And Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Rio Bravo (1959).
A distinctive characteristic of a Howard Hawks film is overlapping dialogue, in which one or more persons speak before another has completely finished. It was a device that became a sort of trademark, giving pace, energy, and forward movement to dialogue sequences. It often enhanced comedy, as in the three person “trialogue” in His Girl Friday, in which Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy conduct a decidedly hectic but completely comprehensible conversation. The overlapping dialogue could also further the sense of tension in an action film, evident in the conversations that take place among scientists and military men in The Thing from Another World (1951). (It should be noted that the credited director of this science-fiction thriller is Christian Nyby, but Nyby had never directed before, and the directorial hand of the producer, Hawks, is readily apparent throughout.) Another characteristic was his avoidance of complex camera work, such as sweeping panoramas, dolly or crane shots, and other forms of cinematography that he felt distracted from or at least did not add to his story. He favored eye-level camera placement, and his films, more often than not, took place indoors.
Born in Goshen, Indiana, on May 30, 1896, Hawks was a child of wealth and privilege who readily availed himself of all the advantages of such good fortune. He was schooled at exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and later at Cornell, where he studied engineering. In the early 1920s, he became intrigued with Hollywood. Following the whim of the dilettante rather than any calculated career plan, he worked college summers at Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Studios), starting out as an assistant prop man, and quickly rising to associate producer and writer, turning out silent screen scenarios, and editing those of others.
The story of his rise in the industry, particularly the early part of his career, is open to interpretation. Hawks was known as an unremitting teller of tall tales, and seemed to take a certain perverse delight in “rewriting” his life story. His version of his experiences over the years, related in numerous interviews, often varies in detail. His account of his life and his film industry successes is consistent, however, in that it presents Hawks as a man who won all the arguments with studio executives and triumphed in all significant conflicts. Undoubtedly there is some exaggeration, but to his credit, little contradictory evidence to the facts as he presented them. He was admired by those who worked with him, and his many talents were recognized and appreciated from the beginning. He was a true independent, a director who early in his career served as his own producer, and never hesitated to rewrite a script or change a set if he deemed it necessary. Allowing directors such latitude was highly unusual in the days of the studio system; Hawks, though, resisted attempts by producers to control the filmmaking process. Indeed, he usually signed contracts to direct only one or two pictures for any single studio at a time.
Hawks was particularly adept at recognizing and seizing opportunities. When an art director at Famous Players was unavailable to create a modern set requested by Douglas Fairbanks, the studio's biggest star of the silent era, Hawks volunteered to design and build it. He had had some training in architecture at Cornell, and his success with this venture led to the development of a strong friendship with Fairbanks. By his own account, Hawks was an excellent golfer and a skilled tennis player, attributes that impressed Fairbanks, Hollywood's reigning hero of swashbuckling adventure films and a man who took great pride in doing his own film stunts. The friendship with Fairbanks led the latter to recommend Hawks to Mary Pickford, one of the most prominent stars of the silent screen, and, at the time, Fairbanks's fiancée. Hawks seized another opportunity when one day the director of one of Pickford's films did not appear on the set as scheduled. The supremely confident Hawks volunteered to step in and direct the scenes scheduled to be shot that day, allowing the studio to avoid costly delays. Building on this first foray into directing, he moved into producing and writing stories and scenarios for films that he would go on to direct.
During World War I, Hawks served in the Signal Corps, gaining extensive experience with airplanes. He developed a lifelong interest in aviation, an enthusiasm that informed his direction of action-adventure films with aviation themes, including The Air Circus (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Air Force (1943). Inherently fond of risk, he had a similar passion for auto racing; in fact, for a time he designed racing cars and drove professionally. These experiences found their way into films such as The Crowd Roars (1932) and Red Line 7000 (1965). In the years between 1926 and 1929, Hawks directed eight full-length motion pictures: The Road to Glory (1926), Fig Leaves (1926), The Cradle Snatcher (1927), Paid to Love (1927), A Girl in Every Port (1928), Fazil (1928) The Air Circus (1928), and Trent's Last Case (1929). Of these eight films directed prior to the advent of sound, only A Girl in Every Port has merited any critical attention, largely because of the engaging performances by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong, who played career sailors living in a Hawksian man's world, unencumbered by domesticity and doing what a man's got to do—in this case, getting drunk and pursuing women.
In A Girl in Every Port, McLaglen's character, Spike, momentarily succumbs to the allure of domesticity but quickly recovers his senses, forsaking an impending marriage with Marie (Louise Brooks). Interestingly, in His Girl Friday, the formidable Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) sidesteps her impending marriage so that she might continue unfettered in her career in journalism as the ace reporter working for her less-than-scrupulous editor, former husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant). In the original play, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Hildy (“Hildebrand”) Johnson was a male role, which was also the case in the 1931 film version of the play directed by Lewis Milestone. In his remake, however, Hawks changed the title, and, in an inspired moment, changed the role of Hildy to a woman. In the end, she becomes a Hawksian woman, talented, strong-willed, but one who discovers that what she really wants in life is to follow her man—the right man—please him, and ask few, if any questions.
Hawks had a very distinct idea of how he wanted to portray women in his films. The female protagonists in Hawks's action films were largely devoid of the attributes of conventional femininity—they were also completely comfortable in a man's world. Sophisticated, confident, and self-possessed, they were complementary figures able to engage and hold their own in exchanges with their male counterparts. Once they recognized that certain men were worthy of them, however, they quietly and unconditionally surrendered themselves to these men. Hawks, it seems, began to develop this idea of the strong/compliant filmic woman during the 1930s, giving inchoate expression to it in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), where Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) discovers, after tears, confusion, and a great deal of frustration, precisely what she has to do to snare Geoff Carter (Cary Grant): “I'm hard to get, Geoff,” she says, “all you have to do is ask me.” Seemingly quite pleased with this terse expression of surrender, Hawks has Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) utter the same words to Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in The Big Sleep, and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) speaks a variant of the declaration to Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) in Rio Bravo. It may be argued, though, that the Hawksian woman achieves her fullest expression in Hawks's adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Casting 19-year-old model Lauren Bacall in her first screen role as Marie Browning, Hawks fashioned her character after his current wife, socialite Nancy Gross, whom the tall, slightly gaunt, beautiful, and seductively clever Bacall resembled somewhat. Hawks even gave the Bacall character the nickname “Slim,” his term of endearment for his wife. Playing opposite her future husband Humphrey Bogart—the pair absolutely sizzled on the screen—Bacall embodied the Hawks woman: dangerously attractive, mouthy, and, in the end, totally devoted to her man.
Not surprisingly, the men in Hawks's action films are bulwarks of conventional masculinity, idealized and mythic. Hawks stressed the theme of “professionalism” in these action pictures: men—real men—recognized that they had jobs to do, and they set out in single-minded fashion to do them. Fear, doubt, or any other emotion that might undermine a man's confidence and determination had no place in the makeup of the Hawksian hero. If you were a professional, if you were good enough, you did the job or died honorably in the attempt. Nowhere is this ideal more powerfully expressed than in Rio Bravo, a picture that Hawks admitted was a response to Fred Zinnemann's 1952 film High Noon. Hawks—and star John Wayne—could not abide the Zinnemann characterization of Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) as a figure who is not good enough to deal with crazed killers by himself or wise enough to hire professionals to help him with the job. When Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance is asked if wants to deputize some ranch hands, he brusquely rejects the idea: “Well-meaning amateurs,” he says, “most of them worried about their wives and kids.”
Significantly, Hawks is the only notable director in American cinema to have given audiences an acknowledged classic motion picture in four of the primary film genres that define American cinema. Scarface would certainly be in the top five of any film scholar's list of significant American films in the gangster genre. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are Hawks's definitive contributions to screwball comedy, pairing Katharine Hepburn in the first and Rosalind Russell in the second with the redoubtable Cary Grant. The Big Sleep is quintessential noir, while Red River rivals the films of the man many consider to be the undisputed master of the American western, John Ford.
In his last two films, El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970), Hawks once again gave expression to his ideas concerning heroic men, “professionals” acting out their predestined roles as communal saviors. These pictures, though, proved to be little more than thinly veiled remakes of Rio Bravo, none of which, most would agree, compared to Red River, perhaps his best film in the western genre and one of his best films generally. An iconic figure in the cinematic world, Howard Hawks died on December 26, 1977, at the age of 81 in Palm Springs, California.
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1896-1977 US film director Born in Goshen, Indiana, he graduated in mechanical engineering, then worked as a prop man, served in the US army air corp
He started as a writer but from 1938 produced and directed numerous comedies and fast-paced action dramas such as Scarface ...