In 1976, 80-year-old American director Howard Hawks was interviewed by the staff of Wide Angle I:2, including Peter Lehman, Marilyn Campbell, and Lynne Goddard. In his introduction, Peter Lehman writes:
At age eighty, Mr. Hawks is an extremely alert, lively man. He speaks eagerly, not only about the wealth of his past experiences, but about contemporary situations and his own future plans as well. Those future plans include several projects for new films.
Howard Hawks is my favorite director of all time, and I spent the weekend researching him for something I’ve been working on. In my research, I came across this interview. Now, Hawks told the same stories, in almost the same way, for about 40 years straight. He was clearly a brilliant raconteur, and if he always comes out as #1 in his stories, then that just makes him more human. Besides, he usually WAS #1 and you don’t get points for false humility in show biz. I never get tired of hearing the same stories (how he helped Wayne work against his penchant for “corniness”, how he “discovered” Lauren Bacall – or, his wife did, how he came up with the idea to turn the characters in The Front Page to a divorced man and woman, and all the rest). But here, I discovered a small anecdote which had escaped my notice up until now. Why I am interested in this should be immediately obvious.
Remember, the year is 1976.
After pages and pages of discussion of Josef von Sternberg, and Wayne and John Ford, suddenly we come to this:
PETER LEHMAN: You try many things than many directors would … all these things we’re talking about. Many directors would be afraid to think of having a cowboy recite a poem to another cowboy, but it works when you do it, like some of these comic things we’re talking about.
HOWARD HAWKS: Well, you search and search for an idea that will make a character a little different from all those others or you’ll fall into the same thing. People said, “You’re nuts for putting Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo.” He added about two million to the gross. Over in Japan they had Ricky Nelson in the middle of the posters, great big ones, over at the side were Wayne and Dean Martin.
MARILYN CAMPBELL: Were you ever asked to do a movie with Elvis Presley?
HOWARD HAWKS: The Colonel [Tom Parker, Presley's manager] asked me to, but I said, “I don’t think I’d be any good. You’d better get somebody else.”
LYNNE GODDARD: Why did you think you wouldn’t be any good? Because you didn’t relate to his kind of music at all?
HOWARD HAWKS: No, to the type of picture.
LYNNE GODDARD: They were always very zany, weren’t they?
HOWARD HAWKS: Corny.
PETER LEHMAN: They were corny, right. They were mostly very …
LYNNE GODDARD: They were very romantic and he would burst into song and then …
HOWARD HAWKS: John Ford was the only person who could do corn good.
PETER LEHMANN: Did you know the Colonel by the way?
HOWARD HAWKS: Oh, he was working at the same studio I was.
PETER LEHMANN: They worked mostly with MGM, didn’t they?
HOWARD HAWKS: No, they worked all around. This was over at Paramount. Or else he would just happen to be over there and we’d just start talking, you know. He did a fabulous job with Presley, you know. Hell, Presley is still going. He’s a little lame, he can’t do quite as many twists as he did but …
PETER LEHMANN: I saw him a couple of years ago. He sounded very good still. You probably never cared for him in the first place but he’s still going very strongly.
HOWARD HAWKS: Oh, you never know why you put something in a movie. Except I always figure if I don’t like it I can always cut it out.
Hard to picture Howard Hawks at the helm of an Elvis Presley movie, but it’s certainly something I can enjoy fantasizing about.
Go check out my conversation with Kent Adamson about the Colonel and Elvis. Our take is a bit different from the “oh, he held Elvis back” narrative. We agree with Hawks: he did a fabulous job with Presley. And Presley delivered.