The Howard Hawks Woman

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.

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23 Responses to The Howard Hawks Woman

  1. j swift says:

    You see the same man-woman relationship dynamic in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” (John Wayne and Angie Dickinson).

  2. MikeR says:

    Red, as I was reading this post, it started to dawn on me that – translated to another medium – this description of desirable female qualities is an eerily accurate explanation of why I love certain female rock & roll bands so much. Rock & roll provides a freedom for girls to be strong and assertive that doesn’t necessarily exist in the culture at large. It doesn’t work if they try to deny their female-ness and be an exact copy of the guys, but lord it can be something wonderful when they get the mixture of femininity and cocksure arrogance just right.

    I’ve never been able to fathom why so many men desire a pliant, quasi-lobotomized woman. But then I’ve also never been able to comprehend why so many women go for those guys…

  3. red says:

    Mike R:

    It’s an eternally interesting question, isn’t it?

    I think some women want security. And so they choose men who seem secure. I think some men want security. So they choose stable secure-seeming women. Nothing wrong with that – but it sure doesn’t work for everybody.

    The thing about what I see in these movies – which also reveals something to me about myself – is that while I want and need a wild man, a free and independent man – I also want a wild man I feel safe with. I can’t be deceived, and I need to feel he wants me. But I need him to be independent of me to some degree, not need me too much. These movies tells me that that delicate balance exists. Maybe just in Howard Hawks’ imagination – but oh well. A girl has to hang on to something.

    Katherine Hepburn described, during the filming of African Queen, watching Bogie and Bacall argue./ She said it reminded her of the “delicious confidence of 2 wild cats locked up in a cage.”

    That’s why these portrayed relationships touch me so much, I guess. How wonderful – to fight with someone with “delicious confidence”.

    MikeR: who are your rock and roll female idols?

    I like Joan Jett, the Go Gos, Pat Benatar (heh!!), Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge … I could go on and on.

  4. bill says:

    I think I’ve just read the definitive howard hughes post, especially regarding the ‘delicious’ war of the sexes!

    Sheila, have you seen Hawk’s comedy “Ball of Fire” with Barbara Stanwick and Gary Cooper? (co-written incidentally by our beloved Billy Wilder). It’s another great one!

  5. david says:

    “I don’t know from water buffalo!”

  6. MikeR says:

    Red – In terms of people who’ve been around quite a while, my female heroes definitely include the Go-Go’s, Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt, along with Cyndi Lauper and Holly Beth Vincent (Holly & the Italians).

    More recently, and a huge part of why I’m so excited about rock & roll these days, there are The Donnas, The Eyeliners, Kim Shattuck (The Muffs), and Manda Marble (Manda & The Marbles), along with a whole host of new bands just getting started (foremost among those is a band from Australia called The Spazzys who have absolutely stolen my heart).

    You may not have heard of The Eyeliners or Manda & the Marbles but they’ve both been around for a few years, with multiple releases on independent labels. Both are extraordinarily talented, and I believe they’ll both be reaching a much wider audience very soon. In fact, The Eyeliners recently signed with Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records and Joan will be making a cameo appearance on their new album, to be released in early 2005. They’ll be appearing with Joan at a show in Dallas on Sept. 9.

  7. DBW says:

    Sheila, this is great stuff. First off, I am an unabashed Howard Hawks fan. You didn’t mention The Big Sleep, Red River, Scarface, Rio Bravo, Sergeant York, or The Thing, just to name a few other Hawks’ flicks. You are on to something essential about Hawks and his view of men and women–especially women. If you pay attention to the background relationships in many of his movies, those relationships don’t necessarily follow your model. It is ‘real’ men who need(maybe not the correct word, perhaps require)’real’ women to interest them meaningfully, and vice versa. His male heroes generally have no time for standard issue women, and his female counterparts give short shrift to ‘small’ men. I have never read the word “insolent” used to describe his ideal woman, but it is appropriate. If I found a woman who could talk to, and around, me the way Rosalind Russell does to Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, I might be capable of madness. Rarely is such dialog written. It is difficult to think of any current actors capable of pulling off that rich verbosity today. This is a singularly great post. If not in awe, I am deep in admiration.

  8. MikeR says:

    “to fight with someone with “delicious confidence”.”

    That’s a pretty accurate capsule description of what I’ve always been (unsuccessfully) looking for.

  9. CW says:

    “Only Angels Have Wings”: one of the all time greatest aviation movies. There’s so much history in that flick that there’s no way to even begin discussing it… If I remember correctly, Charles Lindberg was somehow an advisor.

    Howard Hawks met Slim in Hollywood when he saw her dancing with Cubby Broccoli. He asked Cubby if he could meet her, and it went quickly from there.

    In 1939, Howard and Slim Hawks were in Key West as guests of Papa Hemingway. Martha Gelhorn was just away covering the winter war in Finland and Hemingway was seriously infatuated with Slim. It was on this trip to Key West that Hawks boasted to Hemingway that he could make a movie out of anything, even “To Have and Have Not”, which was, of course, originally set in Key West.

    Later, of course, Slim located Betty Bacall to play the screen version of herself, in the movie that was mainly a drunken boast from Hawks to Papa on Duval Street in December 1939.

  10. red says:


    I knew I could count on you. :) I forgot – yes, it was Slim who saw Betty Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and convinced Howard to hAve her out for a screen test.

    Is there a good biography of Hawks you can recommend, by the way?

  11. red says:

    DBW: Reading your comment makes me realize I left some subtleties out of this whole dynamic. The need of the men in Hawks’ movies to have a woman who he can feel safe with – although these guys would NEVER say that.

    The Cary Grant charcter in Only Angels Have Wings lambasts Rita Hayworth for not being there for her husband – “You’re gonna make him go through it all alone, aren’t you?”

    She says, “Yes.”

    His face doesn’t move, but you can see the hatred, his scorn of that kind of woman (the kind of woman who hates weakness in men) – and he says something like, “Have you ever heard of a thing called trust?”

    These men are NOT islands. They need women – but just a certain KIND. Also – they’d never be able to articulate it. They just need the girl to “get it”. No questions asked.

  12. red says:


    I freakin’ love the Donnas. And you know – you have mentioned The Eyeliners a couple times now. I think it’s about time I check them out. Any particular album I should get?

  13. red says:

    Bill – I haven’t seen Ball of Fire. And I also haven’t seen Rio Bravo – DON’T SCORN ME. I’ll get to it!!

  14. red says:

    Oh and CW: Another thing which I thought was so great and exciting about Only Angels Have Wings are all the flying sequences. They all are REAL, aren’t they? There was only one section which seemed to be against a projected background – but all the other flying stuff looked real. The scene where the plane has to do very difficult maneuvers to get that wounded guy out of the mine … these weren’t model planes, there was some real flying going on.

    It gave the whole thing a real nuts and bolts reality that I very much liked.

    I also SO want to hang out in that crazy juke joint. SO MUCH.

  15. CW says:

    Don’t get me started…

    Paul Mantz flew a Fokker F-10 (looks just like a Ford Trimotor), a Hamilton Metalplane, a Bellanca Airbus, and a couple of other models that I can’t totally remember (it’s actually been years since I’ve seen the movie). He won an Oscar, in a new category invented specifically for the occasion, for the aerial sequences.

    I know remember the Lindberg connections:

    Lindberg only became famous for making the famous trans-Atlantic flight because Guiseppe Bellanca’s “Miss Columbia”, which was a far superior airplane to Lindberg’s Ryan, was impounded in New York because of a strange legal maneuver. Two weeks after Lindberg’s flight, Miss Colombia flew from New York to Germany in 43 hours, setting both distance and speed records.

    But Cary Grant’s airline in “Barranca” was actually modeled after SCADTA, the Sociadad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aereos, based in Barranquilla, Colombia. SCADTA in the early 1930s was a principal competitor of Pan Am (and the Pan Am-Grace Shipping joint operating company, PANAGRA) and a perennial thorn in Juan Trippe’s side. SCADTA and PAN AM/PANAGRA competed for routes and business throughout the 1930s, until the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 (notice the “Aleman” in “SCADTA”). Fear of German influence gave Juan Trippe the leverage he needed to buy out SCADTA, creating AVIANCA, which is the national airline of Colombia to this day. Because of the SCADTA connection (SCADTA was founded in 1919), AVIANCA can lay claim to being the oldest continously-operating airline in the Western Hemisphere.

    AVIANCA only gained that distinction because Chalk’s Ocean Airways, formerly Chalk’s International Airlines, who still fly 50-year-old Grumman seaplanes in the Caribbean, ceased operations for a while several years ago while in Chapter 11, after their abortive merger with the Carnival Cruise Lines-sponsored Pan Am Airbridge in the mid-1990s.

    OK – I’ll quit before everyone’s eyeballs roll back in their heads…

  16. Jack H says:

    Great piece Red, thanks. BTW, didn’t Cary Grant refer to Rosalind Russell in HGF as “Slim”?

  17. MikeR says:

    Red, my favorite Eyeliners album is their second full-length, Here Comes Trouble. It’s just stuffed chock-full with fast-paced, high-spirited, rocking songs. My favorite songs on that record are Party Til The Break Of Dawn, Rock-N-Roll Baby and Do The Zombie, but they’re all excellent. Their latest album, Sealed With A Kiss, shows their growth as musicians and has great songs as well, but overall I have to give a very slight edge to Here Comes Trouble. It just has an irrepressible energy and sense of excitement about it that blows me away.

    I actually just got back home late last night from a quick weekend trip to Los Angeles to see The Donnas play at the Sunset Junction Festival. They put on a great show as usual and the Festival was fun, but I had a lovely Alice In Wonderland experience with their public transportation system and I hafta say that I’m really not champing at the bit to go back to California any time soon…

    P.S. Almost forgot to mention, the URL for my blog comes courtesy of another cool song on Here Comes Trouble, Johnny Lockheart.

  18. red says:


    I live to get you started on stuff like that.


  19. red says:


    I can’t remember if Hildy is also “slim” – You know, come to think of it – I can’t remember him EVER calling her by her name.

    She’s my idol, that one. What a dame!

  20. Dave J says:

    Are you OK? This is the longest I can ever remember you going without posting a single thing.

  21. Cull-tcha

    To be perfectly honest, I’m feeling a bit burned out by politics at the moment, so when I came across this long post over at Sheila O’Malley’s on the movies of Howard Hawks it made me feel a lot better….

  22. Alan Adamson says:

    DBW rightly lists Red River in this context. It is a long film, but well worth the watch – and note at the end what Hawks does with the convention of the rival male figures having to resolve it all by combat (one of the most tedious requirements of dull-wiited art, and a near-universal). It gets nicely turned on its head, as I recall.

  23. Steve Wilson says:

    I have to second the sterling recommendation for Ball of Fire. Stanwyck and Cooper have that special dynamic between them, and supporting cast of character actors who are Cooper’s colleagues are priceless.

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