Howard Hawks

1896-1977

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Howard Hawks Rediscovered

Hawks was a much neglected director until the French critics of the Fifties saluted his personal style of filmmaking and established him as one oh Hollywood's great individual talents.

Howard Hawks has created some of the most memorable moments in the history of American cinema. The problem, however, is how do these moments hang together? Is there a shaping intelligence behind them, or are they merely the accidental benefits of Hollywood moviemaking? Until recently the concensus of opinion favoured the latter view. Richard Griffin's remark in 1948, in The Film Till Now, that 'Hawks is a very good all rounder', is representative of the attention paid to Hawks before the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema championed him as the American auteur. And even after the first rumblings of the politique des auteurs (the theory of authorship, by which the creative and artistic credit for the film is attributed to its director) in the mid-Fifties, in 1959 Sight and Sound, the leading organ of British film culture had no qualms about not reviewing Rio Bravo, a film now acknowledged as one of the great westerns.

Prior to the auteur theory, the mark of a film artist in the American cinema could be found in his choice of subject matter, in his obvious artistic aspirations, or in his personal visual style. Clearly, by these criteria, Hawks was an unambitious director. In 53 years as a film director he was responsible for no major film innovations and was happy to produce films that in their sober adherence to the conventions of Hollywood movie-making lack the personal touch of a Hitchcock or the artistry of a Chaplin. Certainly Hawks was a prolific genre director: Scarface (1931) is a gangster movie; Gentlemen prefer Blondes (1953), a musical; Land of the Pharoahs (1955) a biblical epic; The Dawn Patrol (1930), Air Force (1943) are war films; To Have and To Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), thrillers; Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) Westerns; Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Monkey Business (1952), comedies; and Only Angels Have Wings(1939) and Hatari! (1962) are just two of his many adventure films.

The breadth of Hawks' films and their consistent commitment to action rather than reflection blinded early critics to the clear pattern of repetition and variation that binds the films together. It was precisely the attempt to trace such a pattern in such a diversity of films directed (and, in most cases, produced) by one man that led 'auterist' critics to propose Hawks' work as the test case of their theories and revealed that behind the mask of Hollywood there lurked artists.

Turning from the ostensible subject-matter of Hawks' films then, it is possible to discern a clear pattern of themes running through them: the group, male friendships, the nature of professionalism, the threats women pose to men, recurring motifs including the passing and lighting of cigarettes for friends, communal sing-songs and bizarre sexual role-reversals.

Accordingly, rather than relating Only Angels Have Wings to the spate of aviator movies that appeared in the Thirties, To Have and Have Not to Curtiz's Casablanca (1942) and Rio Grande to the development of the Western, it is more useful to relate these Hawks films to each other, or even, as Robin Wood has suggested in his book Howard Hawks, to regard them as a loose trilogy in which notions of heroism and self respect are interrogated.

Band of Angels

Only Angels Have Wings is concerned with the problems of a group of mail plane flyers. From the start the group is hermetically sealed off from the outside world by storms, giant condors, mountains and highly dangerous landing-strips - and the action takes place almost entirely in the saloon-cum-office run by Dutchie (Sig Ruman). Here the group is self-sufficient with its members demanding and acknowledging support for each other's actions, as instanced in the talking down of pilots in bad weather, and details like Kid (Thomas Mitchell) passing Geoff (Cary Grant) a cigarette even before Geoff searches for one. Geoff is the leader of the group, who flies when the weather is too bad to send up his comrades.

Into the group comes Bonnie (Jean Arthur), down on her luck but asking for help from no-one. When one of the flyers, Joe (Noah Beery Jr), attempts a landing in bad weather - against Geoff's advice - to keep a dinner date with her, he crashes and is killed. His feelings for a woman have affected his judgement, caused him to behave irresponsibly and let his comrades down by breaching the professional code that binds the flyers together and makes it possible to keep the mail-run going in the face of overwhelmng odds. 'Who's Joe?' says Geoff when Bonnie berates him for his callousness in eating the steak that was prepared for the man who has just died, and goes on to sum up Joe with the words 'he just wasn't good enough'. The sequence finally ends with the celebratory and defiant singing by Geoff and Bonnie of The Peanut Vendor, a communal act which has the double function of initiating her into the group as a professional in her own right (she is a singer) and confirming her acceptance of the rules of the game of Hawks' group of flyers.

As the story develops and Bonnie's love for Geoff deepens, it becomes evident that although suspicious of emotional entanglements - he has been fooled once before - he is in fact 'in love' with Kid, his assistant, as his breakdown after Kid's death testifies. At this point in time the interlocking web of relationships becomes even more complex. Kid's death is on one hand self-inflicted: his eyesight is failing and he flies against Geoff's instructions; but as a grounded flyer he has only a living death to look forward to. At the same time his death is caused by the taking of an important job meant for a flyer whose abilities he distrusts. The flyer Bat Mcpherson (Richard Barthelmess), once baled out of a plane leaving a friend of Kid's to die, and has since determined to win back his self-respect by taking in the most hazardous flights possible. This wash of conflicting loyalties and emotions that Hawks see as life is only held in by check by the sense of what Robin Wood calls 'the constant shadow of death', which in turn demands responsible behaviour and self respect if the group, or an individual, is to survive.

Loners Together

The pattern of relationships in To Have and To Have Not is similar - but with significant differences. In Only Angels Have Wings the group comprises a leader, his friend, the failed professional who is seeking redemption, and an intruder; in To Have and To Have Not there is the loner Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), Eddie (Walter Brennan) - 'who used to be good ' as a drunken version of Kid, and Slim (Lauren Bacall) as a far more assertive and aggressive Bonnie figure. The equivalent of the McPherson character is Paul De Bursac (Walter Molnar), a man who needs physical assistance from Morgan rather than moral support. And in contrast to Geoff in Only Angels Have Wings, who is desperately trying to secure a mail-run contract for Dutchie, Morgan in To Have and To Have Not is working only for himself. Despite the existence of a group, the characters in To Have and To Have Not are much more independent and self motivated than the earlier film.

Although the bar run by Crickett (Hoagy Carmichael) In To Have and To Have Not has a communal function in a similar function to Dutchie's, the dramatic thrust of the film is provided by the Morgan-Slim relationship. Bogart and Bacall fell in love while filming To Have and To Have Not and their scenes reflect it - especially the one where Slim instructs Morgan to whistle when he wants her ('You just put your lips together and blow') and then exits to the sound of his whistle of surprise. They give the movie a depth of emotion that is missing from the bite-on-the-bullet stoicism of Only Angels Have Wings.

In Rio Bravo Hawks heightened emotions by having a hero who is completely sexually embarrassed. Previously Hawks had restricted the sexual humiliation to the string of crazy comedies he made alongside his adventure films. Rio Bravo, though, is a bringing together of comedy and adventure in Hawks' work, a summation of two traditions his films had established .

In his adventure films the hero is the master of all he surveys; in the comedies he is the victim both of society and women - who only have marginal roles in the adventures. The adventure films occupy a world, far from society's grasp, of hunters, fisherman, aviators and so on, who lead their lives struggling against natural hazards; survival depends on every member of the group being 'good enough' and they celebrate that survival through the ritual of sing-songs. Their reaction to death is to pass over the event as quickly as possible. 'We brought nothing to the world and it's certain we'll take nothing out', recites Tom Dunson (John Wayne) dryly over a grave in Red River. The emotional, romantic moments of the characters in the adventure films are similarly muted; the women go through elaborate rituals of courtship (usually confiding their love not to the loved one but to his friend) in the course of which they prove themselves as tough as men .

The heroes of the adventure films are emotionally repressed and a current of homosexuality runs beneath the male friendships - in A Girl In Every Port (1928) which Hawks himself has described as 'a love story between two men' and erupting closest to the surface in The Big Sky (1952).

In the comedies the hero is perpetually humiliated, as often as not by a domineering woman. This humiliation takes two forms, in the regression to childhood - in Monkey Business where Barnaby (Cary Grant) and Edwina Fulton (Ginger Rogers) take a potion that turns them - emotionally - back into children, and in the reversal of normal sexual roles, the extreme case being I Was A Male War Bride (1949) in which Grant is, for most of the picture, dressed as a woman.

Hunt the man down

In the classic Hawks comedy Bringing Up Baby, the woman is the hunter. Susan (Katherine Hepburn) sees David Huxley (Cary Grant), falls in love with him, and against all odds - he is engaged to be married - catches him. Bringing Up Baby draws a parallel with Hawks' adventure films, extended by the big-game-hunting metaphor that runs through it: Baby (Sue's pet leopard) and a wild leopard are both let loose and are hunted during the course of the film. The timid David is constantly humiliated by Susan; at one point has to dress in a monstrously feminine negligee in order to escape - and is then confronted by a decidedly masculine aunt. But forced to keep company with Susan, he is liberated from the stultifying world of zoological research. Fittingly, the film ends with Susan climbing up the the huge scaffolding surrounding the dinosaur skeleton he is completing (in another comic inversion of the big-game-hunting adventure film David 'hunts' dead animals) and bringing down the whole edifice crashing to the floor - and with it David's past dull life.

Rio Bravo, which on the surface is a Western adventure movie, has been described by Hawks himself as a comedy, but it is by no means a high farce in the Bringing Up Baby tradition. Nevertheless, it is inflected at every stage by the tone of the comedies. For example, there is a strong element of parody, most explicit in Feathers' (Angie Dickinson) sophisticated education of Chance (John Wayne) through a process of sexual humiliation and taunting: thus the scene when she sees a pair of scarlet bloomers being held against him and declaims, 'Those things have great possibilities Sheriff, but not on you'.

Chance Meeting

Though the characters of Rio Bravo can be traced back to the seminal roles of Only Angels Have Wings - Chance to Geoff, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) to Kid, Dude to McPherson and Feathers to Bonnie - the group is no longer a natural formation. It gathers around Chance but for reasons of loyalty rather than professionalism, and at one point, during the communal sing-song that takes place, Chance is even excluded, becoming merely an observer. More significantly the fear of old-age and failing powers, introduced with Kid in Only Angels Have Wings, is placed much closer to the centre of Rio Bravo in the form of Stumpy, Chance's anarchic, nagging deputy sheriff who performs the tasks of a wife, cleaning and feeding the inhabitants of the jail as they wait for attack from outside. Colorado (Rick Nelson) the young gunman, introduces a theme of youth-versus-age that dominates later Hawks films, notably El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), which with Rio Bravo form another trilogy.

In Rio Bravo the squabbling group eventually forms into a family in which the stoical rules of conduct common to previous Hawksian groups are replaced by something closer to family ties. The final shootout - photographed like a firework display - becomes a celebration of newfound unity .

In El Dorado Hawks goes further, emphasising the superiority of filial and family loyalties to any professional ethic. But if in Rio Bravo Chance is 'not good enough' to overcome his enemies on his own, in El Dorado Cole Thornton (Wayne again) isn't 'good enough' even with help. He only kills the professional gunman who opposes him (and who had ironically acknowledged him with the courtesy that one professional pays another) by trickery. Thornton is even denied the moral authority that Chance possesses in Rio Bravo. When he brings the dead body of their son to the MacDonalds - the boy commited suicide after failing to kill Thornton - there is no shot of Thornton speaking. We simply hear him accepting responsibility for the child's death. Returning home he is ambushed and wounded by Maudie (Charlene Holt), the dead boy's sister; her bullet represents the pangs of conscience Thornton has already given voice to, and the paralysis it causes him is an indication of the age. In contrast to Maudie and Mississippi (James Caan) who both exact personal revenge on their enemies, Thornton and the drunken sheriff, J.P Harrah (Robert Mitchum), have their roots in Kid in Only Angels Have Wings. Logically, like Kid, they should have grounded themselves; instead they wearily and farcically - as in the intensely physical (and comic) curing of Harrah's drunkeness with a stomach-turning antidote, compared with the spiritual curling of Dude's in Rio Bravo - wend their way through the action.

In Rio Lobo, the age of the Wayne character, Colonel McNally, is once again central to the film, though not in the exploitive fashion of Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969). Hawks gives his 'baby whale' (the fat aged army officer played by Wayne) the dignity of a revenge quest, as McNally finally capitulates to filial feelings for the son he never had. But,b> hawks also undercuts this dignity with broad farce in the activities of the group, a group held together purely by the desire for several private revenges and divided equally carefully into young and old characters. The final break from the world of Only Angels Have Wings, however, is signalled by the surprisingly elegant, occasionally almost abstract, photography.

Hawks' world is a limited one, lacking, say, the richness and complexity of John Ford's. But his straightforward stories about the stresses and joys of men and women working together in groups, about the nature of friendship, love and professionalism, are stamped with the consistency and highly individual authorship of a great film artist. Howard Hawks has created a body of work that in its laconic optimism is as majestic as the towering mountains Geoff Carter and his foolhardy band of pilots must fly over in the deliciously titled Only Angels Have Wings.





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howard hawks dvds




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howard hawks

biography | videos

humphrey bogart | john ford | alfred hitchcock | laurence olivier | lee marvin | conrad veidt
humphrey bogart | howard hawks | frank capra | charlie chaplin | lauren bacall | fritz lang | greta garbo
f.w. murnau | george raft | claude rains | edward g. robinson | john garfield | erich von stroheim | wim wenders | robert wiene


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