Howard Hawks is THE director for portraying the delicious war between the sexes. (That’s why his films resonate so deeply, I think, for me. Yes, there is a war between the sexes, but oh, isn’t it a lovely war? And who would EVER want to stop fighting it?)
I read one analysis of the films Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn appeared in together, and the writer said, “You get the feeling that any truce between these two people is always going to be temporary.”
To me, that’s what the love and sex relationships are all about in the films of Howard Hawks: filled with temporary truces, but the fight will always go on, long after the last roll of the credits. And hopefully, the 2 characters will have a great time, fighting and making up, for all eternity.
Howard Hawks was married to a woman at one point who was known as “Slim”. Slim Hawks. (Remember that Bogart called the Bacall-character “Slim” throughout To Have and Have Not). From what I understand, Slim Hawks was an extraordinary woman. She had everything that Howard Hawks idealized and wanted in a woman – and yet everything that he DIDN’T see being portrayed in films at that time.
Slim Hawks had impeccable taste, she was a style guru, she moved through different levels of society with total ease, she was able to hang out with the big boys, she smoked, she drank, but she never lost her soft lovely femininity. She swore like a sailor, but she looked like a million bucks.
And in film after film after film, Hawks tried to get the leading ladies to embody whatever mysterious strength and sexiness it was that his own wife had.
It was finally when he put Lauren Bacall, at age 19, under his own personal contract, that he found “the one” who could bring the special qualities of his wife to the screen. He even set up a meeting with Lauren and Slim, before Lauren Bacall’s screen test for “To Have and Have Not”. Slim leant Lauren clothes. Hawks blatantly told Lauren Bacall (“Betty”) to imitate his wife.
Hawks wanted to see a woman who gave as good as she got. Not a tough woman. No, toughness and “bad girls” turned him off. His word for the quality he was looking for was “insolent”. He wanted to put an “insolent” woman on the screen for the first time, truly insolent, as free a spirit as any of the men up there. He wanted to put a woman on screen who could go head to head with Humphrey Bogart. Who wouldn’t crumple into a little girlie ball when he shot a wisecrack her way … someone who would give it right back to him – without sacrificing sexiness, womanliness.
You see this quality over and over again in his films – and I think that’s one of the reasons why the films wear so well. Why they don’t seem dated.
In his movies, men are men, and women are women … but he was also intrigued by this role reversal idea: In Bringing Up Baby: David Huxley is quite passive and the female is the aggressor. Then – finally – she pushes him too far (in the scene where he is in that ridiculous negligee) – and he bellows, “QUIET” and then stamps on her foot to shut her up. The man becomes a true man in that moment, capable of behaving freely, strongly, spontaneously. And what is Katharine Hepburn’s response? Does she burst into tears because he shouted at her, does she whimper, “Why did you stamp on my foot?” No, she most certainly does not. She crouches down in pain, holding onto her foot, and within two seconds, she starts to count out her toes: “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not …”
These two have met their match in one another.
That’s what Hawks was intrigued by. Battling sexes, nobody at a disadvantage, love between “grown-ups”.
Hawks was pretty macho. You can see it in how he directs, and in the topics he was interested in. He loved portraying male camaraderie. In his movies, in order for the romance to succeed, in order for love to blossom, the woman has to join the boy’s club. She has to earn her admittance, she has to prove herself to the boys. Now in His Girl Friday Hildy is already completely part of that club. But Bonnie, in Only Angels Have Wings has to learn the rules, and quickly. The regular girl-stuff will not fly with these guys. They’re unmoved by tears, by typical feminine displays … You gotta put a lid on all that shit if you want to get anywhere.
Howard Hawks decided to do a remake of The Front Page – but his big innovation was to change one of the main guys into a girl. Who would remember His Girl Friday today without Rosalind Russell, without the competing battle-of-the-sexes repartee between Russell and Grant? It was a brilliant gamble – nobody thought it would work – and of course it did, beautifully. Howard Hawks wanted to see what would happen if he put Grant with a woman who shouted as loud as he did or louder, talked even faster than he did, beat him to the punch with the pratfalls, competed for the attention of the crowd, who didn’t let him WIN all the time.
You can see the issues Cary Grant often had with other leading ladies. Grant was too strong, too funny, too charismatic, too fast. You only want to look at him.
The same was true with Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy.
When they were paired with the right lady it was dynamite. And since these 3 guys were so strong themselves, so dynamic, so on top of their games – and also – so MALE – putting them with a tear-soaked sentimental leading lady with a backbone made of pudding would be horrible.
So to watch Rosalind Russell, in her boxy pinstripe suit, and Cary Grant, in HIS boxy pinstripe suit, both shouting into adjacent phones at the tops of their lungs (the hours of rehearsal it must have taken to get the timing right) is sheer liquid JOY. It’s a partnership. You think: There is nobody on earth who will put up with HER like he does. There is nobody on earth who will put up with HIM like she does. They are both so obnoxious.
The other thing about the battle of the sexes in Howard Hawks films:
Very often, male actors (or male characters, however you want to put it) seem so taken up by their own concerns, their own scenes, that the woman becomes little more than an appendage. She’s there to make him seem tough, sexy. She’s not as fleshed out, as complex.
Howard Hawks wasn’t interested in that. Men deserve women who can stand up to them. A good man wants a pal as a wife. He deserves that. Life is too lonely otherwise.
Men and women TALK to each other in his movies. Granted, half the time they do not know WHAT the other person is saying, but the scenes are long, well-written, the dialogue is filled with double-entendre – and there’s this two-sided reality buzzing through all of them – a reality from which you can never escape.
I’d describe that reality (from the female side) this way: You are a man. I am a woman. Therefore, half the things you do seem completely incomprehensible to me. And yet … strangely … even though I do not know WHAT you are talking about … I want you. I want to kiss you, hold you, fuck you, make you feel safe. And yet … DAMN, you piss me off!
The same can be said for the subtext on the male side, in Hawks’ movies.
Bogart, Grant … they look at their female co-stars with the most interesting mix of desire, contempt, humor, and disinterest. They refuse, on principle, to get caught up in her emotional roller coaster. No way, sister. Not me. You got the wrong fella. I’m free, no strings on me …. And yet, and yet … I want you. I want to kiss you and fuck you and punch out any guy who comes near you.
A perfect example of this is the romance in Only Angels Have Wings. It takes place in a little airport down in South America somewhere, in the very early days of flying. Pilots convene there, and do regular mail runs over the Andes. It’s very risky work, it’s an extremely male environment … these guys risk their lives every day. Their lives are flying.
Into this macho mix comes the lovely Jean Arthur. She has a layover from a boat-trip, and somehow ends up in this outpost. Cary Grant is the boss, the head-guy at the airport – the toughest, best pilot there. It’s a great performance – I’ve never seen him so unabashedly macho. He is the also crankiest lover I have ever seen. Women make this guy CRANKY. They cramp his style, they annoy him, they befuddle him. She basically falls apart trying to guess if he cares about her, if he’s into her … and he will have NONE of her little female games. They MUST be on equal footing – or it will not WORK.
Men and women have to SPAR. Without that, romance is a big bore.
For example, he comes back into his room, after a time away, and while he was gone, she has snuck in to take a bath. Her room has no bath. He is annoyed and also shocked to find a naked woman in his tub. His response, though, is: “What are DOING here, you pest?” She’s put a pot of coffee on, and he goes into a rage at this sign of infringing domestication – as though the coffee pot is a wedding ring. “STOP TURNING MY ROOM INTO A LUNCH STAND.”
Bonnie (the Jean Arthur character) can’t help it, she falls in love almost immediately with this tough gruff Cary Grant man … even though he continuously brushes her off.
Her first night in the outpost, a plane crashes. The pilot was someone everyone knew and loved. She is horrified, upset … much more so (seemingly) than all of the men who worked with him and knew him. She walks into the bar, and everyone is whooping it up as though nothing has happened. People are drinking, laughing … She wanders through the jolly crowd, looking at everyone as though they are insane.
Cary Grant sits at an upright piano and plays. People are gathered around him, singing.
Bonnie stalks up to him, enraged at his un-feelingness, and smacks him on the arm, and then runs off, in tears. He jumps up, runs after her and shouts at her, “Go outside. Take a walk. Don’t come back until you can handle yourself.”
It’s cold, it’s independent. It’s even cruel. In Howard Hawks’ world, women and men are expected to be independent of each other. Otherwise, this whole man-woman thing will NEVER WORK.
Bonnie sits outside for a while, in tears. One of the other pilots comes out, and talks to her, in a sweet way, explaining that … people die so much down here, the job is so risky – the only way to deal with that reality is to drink away the sorrows, and not think about it too much.
She finally goes back inside, and makes her way back to the piano, where Grant is still playing (bumblingly).
He glances up at her, disinterested. Not like a lover. And his question is, “Grown up?”
Have you grown up yet?
Her emotions are not welcome in his world. Weepy displays of femininity aren’t welcome. It’s infantile (in his view) – so in order to “grow up”, you’ve got to stuff all that stuff down.
She says, “Yeah.”
He says, to test her, “What about Joe?” (the name of the dead pilot.)
She gives him a sideways grin and shoots back, “Who’s Joe?”
Grant, pleased, turns and shouts at the bartender to bring them 2 drinks. She is allowed in with him now.
And then she makes him scoot over, and she starts to play the piano – much much better than he does. She completely shows him up. And he just sits back in awe, grinning, people are dancing, hooting, hollering, she completely RULES. And this is key: He loves that she rules. He loves that she takes charge. He gets a kick out of her for the first time in that moment. He holds up a shot-glass to her mouth as she plays, she takes a sip, giving him a cocky insolent little grin, and she never stops playing. He looks at her like she’s a new breed of woman – he thinks she’s GREAT all of a sudden.
It’s in that display of – cocksure arrogance – that he suddenly realizes she’s “all right”. She can hang out with the big boys now.