Film Review: “The Complete Howard Hawks” — Making American Mythology

By Betsy Sherman

Director Howard Hawks’ signature statement was the depiction of the American (or mostly American) male group with a task to accomplish.

The Complete Howard Hawks at Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA, from June 14 through Aug. 30.

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings.”

Staple fare for programmers of Boston’s thriving repertory cinemas are films directed by Hollywood great Howard Hawks (1896-1977). He supplies the meat & potatoes and the dessert. The most frequently screened are Hawks’ teaming-in-heaven of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep; the screwball comedies Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, His Girl Friday, and Twentieth Century; the Marilyn Monroe standout, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; and, in genre festivals, The Thing from Another World (horror/science fiction), Scarface (gangster), and Red River and Rio Bravo (Western).

But it’s been decades since these titles, and dozens of lesser known ones, have been united in a Hawks festival, a serious look at a body of work that wasn’t taken seriously (in the U.S.) for most of the man’s life. Yes, we can all fashion our own small-scale film festivals now, but a true hommage is to experience his stories on the big screen, with an audience. The long wait is over as Harvard Film Archive devotes its 2019 summer retrospective slot to The Complete Howard Hawks, June 14-August 30. That’s 38 features and a (hilarious) section of an anthology film (The Ransom of Red Chief in O. Henry’s Full House), from Fig Leaves (1926) to Rio Lobo (1970), most presented on 35mm film prints.

Opening weekend (June 14-16) starts with the quintessential Hawks adventure drama, Only Angels Have Wings; a real obscure one, the seafarer Tiger Shark, with a dynamo performance by Edward G. Robinson as captain of a fishing crew; the giddy comedy Bringing Up Baby, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn; and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with Monroe and Jane Russell as forces of nature trolling men on a luxury cruise.

Of special note are a roster of Hawks silent movies on Monday nights in July, with live piano accompaniment by local treasure Robert Humphreville. It’s a glimpse of Hawks feeling his way to a style, while making his mark in the business. He hits on a winning template in the entertaining 1928 A Girl in Every Port, featuring the refreshing presence of Louise Brooks as the acrobat over whose attention two sailor pals (Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong) compete.

A scene from “Ball of Fire” featuring Gary Cooper and Barbra Stanwyck./

Hawks was born in 1896 in Goshen, Indiana. Each of his parents came from well-to-do families; they owned paper mills. The brood moved to Wisconsin, then to Pasadena, California, when Howard was 10. After starting high school there, he was sent east to become an Ivy Leaguer, prepping at Phillips Exeter and majoring in mechanical engineering at Cornell. An engineer’s approach must have come in handy when, say, imagining the logistics of a cattle drive for Red River, building the pyramids in Land of the Pharoahs or offering up Ball of Fire to cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep focus technique.

Hawks became a flier in the military during World War I, but was never sent overseas. It was during his teen years that he had worked his way into the film business, and he headed back after the war. He was a crew member who, when the director didn’t show up one day, stepped up to direct a scene. The star, Mary Pickford, was impressed. Hawks worked as a writer and producer before achieving his goal of directing features.

To read or watch interviews with Hawks is to savor an abundance of great anecdotes, as well as aphorisms delivered poker-faced (not to suggest any effort at intellectualizing), such as “You’ll find that I like actors less than I do personalities” or “I never made a picture to be [politically] anti anything or pro anything.” One of the most useful, when assessing his films, is “I think motion is more interesting than just talking.” The Hawks look is clean, straightforward, not many high or low camera angles or close-ups, and there’s an evenness to the lighting. But there is movement, in the visuals, on the soundtrack, and notably (in his movies where there is a bunch of talking) in the speedy, overlapping dialogue.

In the heyday of the studio system, Hawks managed (like his Ball of Fire star Barbara Stanwyck) not to be tied down to any one studio. He was a strong-willed man, but invited collaboration from his cast and crew. He truly valued screenwriters, forging relationships with some of the greats: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Jules Furthman, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Charles Lederer, Leigh Brackett, and William Faulkner, during the novelist’s Hollywood sojourns. Hawks always participated in the writing, but never took a credit.

A career breakthrough came by teaming with another maverick, producer Howard Hughes. The masterful Scarface was shot in 1930 but not released until 1932, because censor boards (active even in pre-Code days) thought it glorified violence. Hawks and Hecht’s vision was to bring the Borgias to Prohibition-era Chicago. Loosely based on Al Capone, the Italian immigrant gangster played by new-to-the-screen Paul Muni is at times clownish, and often terrifying. Karen Morley plays his dry-humored girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak the sister with whom the mobster is very—very—close. Scarface’s dark power wouldn’t be matched until the sagas of the Corleones and Sopranos (the cartoonish De Palma remake doesn’t come close).

John Wayne and Walter Brennan in “Rio Bravo.”

Hawks’ pictures had sharp performances from the top to the bottom of the cast list. Yet few of his players got Oscar nominations, and only one, Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, the true story of a pacifist who became a hero of World War I, got the award (Hawks as director, and the movie, lost to John Ford and his How Green Was My Valley). John Wayne presented Hawks with an honorary Oscar at the 1975 ceremony.

As has often happened, it was the French who found nourishment, and inspiration, in Hawks’ storytelling. His approach  inspired François Truffaut to depict the working life of his characters with a Hawksian respect for professionalism. Jacques Rivette, when he was still a critic in the 1950s, wrote that Hawks’ cinema “demonstrates existence by breathing and movement by walking.”

Americans began to catch on in the 1970s. Among the most demonstrative was John Carpenter, who remade the standoff-in-a-jailhouse Rio Bravo as the updated, urban Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, remade in 2005). Then he reimagined The Thing (1982) (the original gives director credit to Christian Nyby, but producer Hawks left a strong imprint).

Hawks’ signature statement was the depiction of the American (or mostly American) male group with a task to accomplish. Over the course of the HFA series, we’ll become familiar with the similarities between squadrons in war (The Dawn Patrol, Air Force, The Road to Glory) and those engaged in work or competitive sports (mail pilots in Only Angels Have Wings and Ceiling Zero, scientists in The Thing, race car drivers in The Crowd Roars and Red Line 7000, lawmen in Rio Bravo and its variations). We’ll witness self-sacrifice, and guilt when comrades die because of one’s own shortcomings. The machines on which the men depend play a big part, as does alcohol (it can be a comfort, but a drunk is a detriment to functioning of the group).

Especially in the stories of flying and race-car driving, Hawks folded into his pictures events he had lived, witnessed or heard about. The 1939 Only Angels Have Wings is the purest of these male-friendship centered workplace films, with Cary Grant showing strength, and a touch of vulnerability, as the boss of a crew who fly rickety mail planes over the Andes. A pariah in the form of disgraced flier Richard Barthelmess must prove his courage before he can be reabsorbed into the brotherhood. With death a constant presence, the men have their own private codes and rituals. It’s through outsider Jean Arthur that the audience penetrates these codes to discern feelings (the lighting, sharing, and exchange of cigarettes alone is probably the subject of an academic paper somewhere).

The Hawksian group isn’t always doom-laden, even where there’s palpable danger. The 1962 Hatari! is loads of fun. Shot on location in Africa, it follows a group who capture big game on behalf of zoos. John Wayne oversees these thrill-seekers, there’s a typical Hawks competition-over-a-woman between boyish hunters Hardy Kruger and Gérard Blain, and there’s even Catskills comic Red Buttons.

A scene from “Hatari!,”featuring John Wayne and crew.

Outnumbered, but not necessarily outmatched, by these Hawksian men is the fabled Hawksian woman. Much has been written about these strong, no-nonsense, witty and forthright females who trouble the complacency of the hero but stake a claim to his heart, often first by proving her trustworthiness to his friends. These heroines are tremendously appealing, until you think about the many shades of the female experience that never enter the picture in the Hawks universe.

But who can resist the pinnacle of this bunch, the Hawks-crafted persona of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not? As Slim, she bowls over Bogart on screen and off with her playful insouciance and unapologetic sexual desire (“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” etc.). Hawks’ women generate sparks alright, but there’s little branching out into, say, motherhood. Unless it’s the amusingly symbolic nurturing of wild animals: Hepburn’s tending to Bringing Up Baby’s title character, a leopard, and, in Hatari!, the photographer played by Elsa Martinelli being adopted by some baby elephants as their “Mama Tembo” (to Henry Mancini’s tune “Baby Elephant Walk”).

It’s in the fast-paced comedies that women have the advantage. In some of these titles, women are catalysts in yanking men out of their blinkered work lives into the sensual world (academia is a big casualty here). Fussy paleontologist Grant, fixated on dead things of the past, is introduced to the present, and the possibility of a joyful life, via Hepburn’s brisk physicality and pretzel logic in Bringing Up Baby. The 1941 Ball of Fire is by no means a retread, but it too allows scholar Cooper, studying slang as part of a team writing an encyclopedia, to be rescued by burlesque dancer Stanwyck, so that he can live in, not just study, the moment. Hawks was convinced to remake Fire as the musical A Song Is Born. Even with its much more cinematic switch from vocabulary to musicology, it’s just awful. Danny Kaye’s not at his best, and Virginia Mayo isn’t equal to the task. Its high point by far is its dream team of musical talent—multi-racial, which was a big deal in 1948—including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.

A scene featuring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss in “Man’s Favorite Sport?”

Another comedy pattern is the battle between exes, with the man trying to coax the woman back into their shared professional sphere (as well as his love life). Broadway director John Barrymore maniacally lures his gone-off-the-leash actress muse Carole Lombard back to the stage on the Twentieth Century, the train on which she’s heading back east after having become a Hollywood star. The whirlwind that is His Girl Friday recasts Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page with Rosalind Russell in the reporter role previously played by men, Grant as the semi-sadistic editor trying to derail her impending marriage and get her back on the masthead (in more ways than one).

With a dearth of Hawks movies that focus on already-married couples (there’s Grant and Ginger Rogers in Monkey Business), the candidate for a spousal figure may be Hawks’ MVP among his legion of character actors: Lynn, Massachusetts, native Walter Brennan. Hired for what was supposed to be a three-day stint on the 1935 Barbary Coast, Brennan made his characterization of conman-with-a-heart Old Atrocity so colorful that Hawks beefed up his part. Hawks gave him a bigger role in Come and Get It, and went on to pair Brennan with leading men to whom he was a defender, gadfly and conscience. In Sergeant York, he was Pastor Pile, guiding Cooper’s rambunctious country boy. Bogart’s aloof character in To Have and Have Not is humanized by his loyalty to Brennan’s “rummy” Eddie. In Red River, Brennan’s sidekick character Groot (yes, Guardians of the Galaxy fans) dares to speak the truth when the rancher played by Wayne moves into dark emotional territory. And Brennan’s Stumpy is a truly irritating, but also resourceful, ally to Wayne et al in Rio Bravo.

Brennan biographer Carl Rollyson points out that the actor serves an overarching purpose in these Hawks films, as a “witness to history.” The Complete Howard Hawks shows Hawks as not only a witness to American history, but also a key contributor to the American mythology of the 20th century.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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