Genius Uncovered: The Film Legacy of Howard Hawks

One of the more fascinating aspects of cinema history lies in identifying those films (and filmmakers) whose true quality and contribution only get recognized well after the fact.

This is a somewhat rarer phenomenon than releases which are wildly popular in their time, but like a product cheaply made, corrode quickly as the years pass.

Falling decidedly into the former camp is the work of director Howard Hawks. Over a forty-plus year career, it's astonishing that this brilliant director was Oscar-nominated only once.

As I've often said, sometimes the Academy gets it wrong. This was one of those times.

In his day, it was widely felt that Hawks was a solid craftsman and technician who know how to churn out entertaining, commercial pictures. He did not strive for the cinematic poetry the way his friend and colleague John Ford did.

(As some very wise man once noted, it is every bit as difficult to make an outstanding commercial movie as it is to make a great art film.)

Probably Hawks' own down-to-earth perspective on movies only reinforced this perception: he once said that good movies are made up of "... at least three good scenes and no bad ones." He also defined a good director as "someone who doesn't annoy you." At first, these observations may sound flip and simplistic, until you begin to discern the wisdom behind them.

Hawks' reticence was in keeping with his own view of himself as a man's man -- a man of action. In 1896, he was the first son born into an extremely wealthy family in the Midwest; his maternal grandfather, C.K. Howard, had founded the incredibly prosperous Goshen Milling Company in Wisconsin.

Grandpa Howard doted on his eldest grandson, forgave his indifferent grades in school, and bought him a racing car and flying lessons to indulge Howard's early (and lifelong) love for daredevil pursuits.

Howard's family re-located to Southern California in 1910, and several years later, Howard was off to Cornell, where he'd end up graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering. On summer breaks from college, he was back with the family on the West Coast, and it was at this point that the much ballyhooed movie business beckoned.

It was 1916. One day Hawks found himself racing his car against a young man named Victor Fleming. Fleming, seven years Howard's senior, already had a job in pictures as a cinematographer. Starting as a prop boy, Hawks managed to impress no less a personage than Douglas Fairbanks on his handy set work, and Howard sensed he was on his way.

After serving stateside in the First World War, Hawks could not wait to get back to Hollywood. Over the next few years, the young man learned his craft, alternately writing, editing, and producing. He also initiated a wealth of contacts in the industry. (His family money came in handy when he floated a loan to Jack Warner!)

Howard wanted to direct, and his friend Irving Thalberg hired him as a story editor at MGM in 1924 with the promise that he'd let him helm a picture in a year's time. When Thalberg eventually balked, Hawks went to Fox.

At Fox, he'd direct eight pictures over the next three years: six silents, and two "talkies." It proved an excellent training ground, but by the end of this period, Hawks's relations with the studio had soured. He quit, determined to make a bigger name for himself in the still new phenomenon of talking pictures.

His opportunity came quickly. In 1930, another rich, prominent friend (and fellow aviator) named Howard Hughes asked him to direct a movie based on real-life gangster Al Capone. When finally released in 1932 after protracted wrangling with the censors, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was a monster hit.

From that point on, Howard Hawks could sit securely in that director's chair.

Looking at his best films, you can isolate two basic categories: his comedies and his action/adventure pictures.

In his best comedies, the female characters are usually front and center. In a pre-feminist age, these "Hawksian women" are every bit the match of their male counterparts, either dominating their men or foiling their attempts to finagle them into something.

Conversely, his more serious films often concerned male characters and camaraderie: men following a professional code of conduct for some greater good.

Though often secondary, the female characters in these movies are usually able to keep up and play in a man's world.

Beyond Hawks' own magic touch, what all these outings share is a good script. Hawks once said revealingly: "I'm such a coward that unless I get a good writer, I don't want to make a picture."

Of course, that's not cowardice: it's brains.

Also to his credit (and to the benefit of his films) was that in an age of studio control, Hawks stayed a free agent for most of his career.

Still -- this director was undervalued in the industry all those years he was doing his best work. Finally, in Paris during the fifties, it was the critics at "Cahiers Du Cinema" who made the world wake up to the enduring significance of the Hawks legacy. These writers, many of whom became directors in their own right, saw the man's genius, and proclaimed it.

Then, in 1975, just two years before his death, Howard Hawks received an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Though it's gratifying the Academy finally snapped to attention, the acknowledgement was way overdue.

Hawks' work would go on to influence future generations of directors, including Robert Altman (who adopted Hawks' technique of fast, overlapping dialogue) and Brian de Palma (who remade Scarface and dedicated it to Hawks and original screenwriter Ben Hecht).

The list that follows contains (in our view) Howard Hawks' ten best pictures. Even a cursory glance at these titles should reinforce the enormity of this man's contribution to that glorious undertaking we call "the movies."

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932) -- In Prohibition-era Chicago, a power struggle is underway: mobster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is charged with killing the reigning mob boss, but manages to beat the rap. Tony is nothing if not ambitious: soon enough he's seized control of the whole bootlegging racket, through sheer cunning and good ol' fashioned homicide. Though his rise is meteoric, we sense Tony's fall may be just as dramatic. Hawks' film was the most violent America had ever seen (with 30+ on-screen deaths), but the visual energy he brought to the production proved intoxicating, making a big star of Muni, one of the meanest criminal maniacs in screen history. Hawks upped the ante in other ways, too, like giving Ann Dvorak a central role as the slinky sis Camonte is perversely jealous of, despite having the sexy Karen Morley on his arm. And George Raft earned himself a studio contract playing Muni's loyal, kill-happy sidekick, Guino. Brian De Palma's tongue-in-cheek remake has its own dirty charms, but Hawks' vicious gangland biopic will never be topped for sheer bravado. Bonus: Boris Karloff as a North Side boss. Don't miss this one!

Twentieth Century (1934) -- Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), then alienates her, causing a decline in his own fortunes. Some time later, he happens upon Lily, now embarked on a glamorous Hollywood career, on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train. Taking full advantage of her on-board captivity, Oscar launches a no-holds-barred campaign to woo her back into the Jaffe fold. Hawks' Twentieth Century stands as one of the great early screwball comedies, with an over-the-top Barrymore delivering perhaps his funniest screen performance as the desperate, histrionic Jaffe. As Lily, Lombard manages at once to be leading lady gorgeous and more than slightly nutty herself. The inspired script, which Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht adapted from their own play, moves just as fast as that train. All aboard, comedy fans! (Trivia note: Lombard was actually distantly related to director Hawks!)

Bringing Up Baby (1938) --Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) leads a quiet, studious life, and is engaged to a proper, like-minded young woman. Then, quite by accident he runs into daffy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who immediately takes a shine to the handsome, bespectacled scientist. Used to getting just what she wants, Susan simply won't let David go. Before long, Huxley's life gets turned upside down, as Susan kidnaps him to her starchy aunt's Connecticut estate, along with her explorer brother's recently arrived present, a tame leopard called "Baby." The comic mayhem escalates from there. Hawks' quintessential screwball outing remains one of our most riotous and inspired screen comedies. Grant and Hepburn (who'd do Holiday later the same year and The Philadelphia Story two years later) are in fabulous form, with Grant wholly convincing as the nerdy, befuddled victim, and Kate on fire as a flaky but determined lass who's finally found true love, and intends to hold on, come what may. This sublime, classic film is fun, fast and oh-so-funny.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) -- This classic Howard Hawks picture concerns Geoff Carter (Grant), operator of an airfreight service in South America's fog-enshrouded Andes Mountains. Confronting treacherous flying conditions with regularity, Geoff must make life-or-death decisions about when his men can fly. Further complicating life on the ground is the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a showgirl in transit who's socked in by weather, and Macpherson (silent star Richard Barthelmess), a pilot harboring a dark secret. Macpherson is also joined by young wife Judy (Rita Hayworth), who'd once been involved with Geoff. The plot thickens along with the fog. Elements of drama and romance co-mingle with the serious business of men being men in this involving, exciting adventure story. Grant stretches his screen persona effortlessly as a tough guy with little humor and no polish, and Arthur makes a spunky love interest. Hayworth looks particularly stunning in a pivotal early role, and Thomas Mitchell also shines as Kid Dabb, a loyal older pilot who's losing his bearings. This heroic outing soars.

His Girl Friday (1940) -- Sneaky, slimy editor Walter Burns (Grant) will stop at nothing to prevent his best reporter (and former wife) Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from leaving the exciting newspaper business for a dull marriage to the chronically normal Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As fate would have it, the year's biggest story is breaking, as condemned killer Earl Williams (John Qualen) breaks out of jail, and even Hildy can't resist the lure of the scoop. Will Walter's nefarious scheming prevent Hildy from reaching the altar? The legendary Howard Hawks directs what may be the fastest film comedy ever. A remake of The Front Page, this version's inspired plot twist is that Hildy is a female reporter, formerly wed to loveable scoundrel Burns. The conceit works, as underneath Walter and Hildy's scathing, rapid-fire repartee we sense a strong (though somewhat twisted) attraction. Both Grant and Russell are in top form, and all we have to do is keep up with them. A rip-roaring good time, start to finish.

Sergeant York (1941) -- This incredible but true story concerns wild, hard-drinking Tennessee country farmer and crack shot Alvin York (Gary Cooper), who finally gets religion through a freak accident. When called to serve in the First War, his faith tells him to become a conscientious objector, but ultimately Alvin is forced to go overseas to fight. There, his marksmanship and gallantry help him kill, wound or capture over 100 German soldiers virtually single-handedly, making him the most famous and decorated enlisted man in the army. Hawks' timely patriotic biopic of this virtually forgotten hero provided Cooper with another seminal role (he won the Oscar, beating out Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, among others), and helped prepare our nation for the next impending world conflict. Prolific character actor Walter Brennan (Oscar-nominated as well) excels as Alvin's plain-spoken pastor, and ingénue Joan Leslie makes an adorable love interest. A truly amazing story, unfolding on-screen with Hawks' customary subtlety and skill. Don't forget to salute this Sergeant.

To Have and Have Not (1944) -- Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), an American skipper in Martinique during World War II, seems like the self-interested type, but ultimately shows his true colors by aiding the Free French. Still, this risky bit of intrigue is mere pretext for the smoldering romance that ignites on- (and off-) camera between Morgan and alluring chanteuse Marie (Bacall, then just 19). Reportedly, it all started when Howard Hawks wagered Ernest Hemingway he could make a hit movie out of his worst novel, and the author took the bet. Once you watch To Have and Have Not (1944), you'll know Hawks won. Still, the only elements Hawks keeps from the book are the title, the hero's name and the fact that he makes his living on the sea. Never mind, the film remains a gripping adventure tale with standout performances from the stars and supporting players Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael. But above all, it's very much a romance: watch the famous "Just Whistle" scene. Bogie and Bacall fell in love on-set, and wed soon after.

The Big Sleep(1946) -- Private investigator Philip Marlowe (Bogart) gets tangled in a seedy web of murder and vice when he's hired by wealthy scion General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate a pornographer with incriminating photos of his daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe finds the man dead, but this is only the beginning, as plot twists -- and bodies -- pile up fast. At first, the detective is intrigued by the general's other daughter, the ravishing Vivian (Bacall), but keeps her at a safe distance. Events will soon conspire to bring them closer together. Scripted by William Faulkner from Raymond Chandler's complex detective novel, Hawks' The Big Sleep is a Hollywood whodunit of the highest order. Bogart famously cemented his trench-coated, tough-guy persona tackling the role of Chandler's shamus protagonist, Philip Marlowe, co-starring alongside soon-to-be wife Bacall. Sleep piles up so many dense subplots that ultimately you may lose track of who killed whom -- apparently, even Chandler lost track of one culprit. Still, that Bogart-Bacall wattage and Hawks' expert direction are such that you don't much care.

Red River (1948) -- Bitter, unyielding cattle breeder Tom Dunson (John Wayne) has been forced to take his large herd through treacherous territory to save his business. His adopted son Matthew (Montgomery Clift, in his film debut)- -- orphaned years ago in an Indian massacre -- joins him, but when the two cross swords over Dunson's obsessiveness, the older man loses his powerful temper and expels his ward, vowing to kill him if and when he next sees him. Director Howard Hawks gave western icon Wayne another indelible, ruggedly stubborn character to play in his masterful Red River, a high point of their many collaborations. Populated by colorful supporting characters, including the salty Walter Brennan as camp cook Groot Nadine, River combines psychological drama, action and suspense in a stirring, expansive western landscape. The final settling of scores between Wayne and Clift is unforgettable.

Rio Bravo (1959) -- Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne again) is in a tight spot. He's captured dangerous outlaw Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), and must hold him in jail until the territorial judge arrives. Problem is, Burdette has lots of confederates who'll clearly attempt to break him out before the judge arrives. And all Chance has in his corner is Dude, his alcoholic deputy (Martin) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a crippled old geezer. Can Chance hold out? Hawks' colorful, exciting western boasts an archetypal, larger-than-life turn from the Duke, and perhaps Martin's finest acting job ever as Dude. Film neatly blends pathos, suspense, comedy, even songs to create top-notch entertainment. Look also for Ricky Nelson as Colorado (he and Dino get to croon together), and the leggy, alluring Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a young woman with her eye on Chance. Bravo indeed.

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