Archie Leach day: The Howard Hawks Woman

Howard Hawks directed Only Angels Have Wings in 1939, and To Have and Have Not in 1944. In between he directed His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Ball of Fire, and Air Force. In these films, he was still working on the male-female dynamic, what he saw, what he looked for, what he loved about women, the kind of men he admired … searching for the perfect woman. His tastes were very specific, and now we can even call them “Hawksian”.

Many of the ideas about all of this were touched upon in Only Angels Have Wings – but in To Have and Have Not – all of that stuff takes center stage. Hawks has gotten clearer about what he wants, and clearer about how to EXPRESS all of it.

Only Angels Have Wings feels a little bit like a rough draft of To Have and Have Not.

In both films, Hawks has the lead female character say to the lead male character:

“I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.”

Same exact line. The line is deceptively simple. There’s a lot going on there. It seems, at first, that what it SHOULD say is: “I’m not hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.” But it doesn’t, it says “I’m hard to get.” Which makes a much deeper kind of sense.

Jean Arthur (as Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings) finds herself in love with the Cary Grant character (Geoff Carter) – but he’s so independent, so macho, and he says over and over, like a mantra: “I’d never ask a woman to do anything!” that Jean Arthur is left twisting in the wind. He’s obviously interested in her, they kiss a couple of times, they have major sexual tension … but he makes a big point of showing her:- You are free to come and go at any time. I will never ask you to do ANYTHING! Which is all well and good, but Jean Arthur is tormented trying to play by his rules, trying to hold herself back, trying to be all tough-guy and nonchalant about him … when she’s obviously crazy about the guy. Finally, by the end of the film, Bonnie has practically fallen apart (in a comedic way, though – Jean Arthur is beautiful!! So funny!) and she decides: “Fine. If he won’t point-blank ASK me to stay on here with him, then I am GONE. I will take the next boat out.” When Cary Grant finds out she’s leaving, he gets – of course – kind of cranky about it – like: I didn’t think she’d actually BEHAVE that freely!! Very funny. After all his boasting and bragging (“I’d never ask a woman to do anything!!”) – he looks suspiciously crestfallen when Jean Arthur decides to leave, and he says something to her, tentatively, like, “Why don’t we flip a coin to see if you stay or not?”

By that point, she has had it. Here’s the tension of the moment, captured:

She throws her head back and says, angry, but with tears: “I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.”

He ignores this, it’s a hurried scene, people pulling him every which way … he’s about to run off and fly the mail-plane … so he needs to go … He ignores her tears, takes out a coin, says, “Heads you stay, tails you go!” – flips it, looks at it, exclaims happily, “It’s Heads! You stay!!” He hands her the coin, gives her a huge juicy kiss on the mouth, orders her: “Keep that coffee warm!” (his way of saying: “Don’t get on that boat, I want you to be here when I get back“) and dashes out the door, leaving her stunned, and HURT.

Until she looks down at the coin. The coin has a head on both sides. No tails. So no matter which way it fell, she would be staying. That is the closest Geoff Carter will ever come to asking anything of anyone. This huge goofy happy grin breaks across Jean Arthur’s face … it’s very funny. Moving too, in a weird way.

There is an almost identical situation in To Have and Have Not, only with different characters. Steve and Slim (Bogie and Bacall) have this INSANE sexual tension (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow…” Mmmmmm) … but Steve is very independent (in a typical Bogart “I stick my neck out for nobody” way) – and, finally, in this film, Howard Hawks had found a heroine to match his hero. A woman AS independent and AS free as the man.

In Only Angels Have Wings, Jean Arthur has to learn the ropes the hard way, she has to get burnt, she has to lose the guy, she has to realize, the hard way, that typical female games will not work with him.

But in To Have and Have Not, from the second Lauren Bacall appears (“Anybody got a match?”) – we can see that this is a different kind of woman altogether. Her voice is low, and un-girlish, she never seems perturbed, she’s got that insolent little grin on her face – the same way Bogie does. Slim would never crumple into a million pieces because of the imperturbability of Geoff Carter. Geoff Carter would be mince-meat in her insolent hands. What Carter is really looking for is not total independence, but a woman who can really “handle” it, a woman who can really go the distance with him. Slim appears, beats Bogart at his own game, Bogart has met his match.

Slim is stuck in Martinique, with no money to get out. (Similar situation to Bonnie being stranded down in Peru, or wherever it was that Angels took place)

Steve (Bogart) – perhaps afraid that he will fall in love with this woman – buys her a plane ticket out of there. Both of these men push these women away, not because they don’t need them, but because they fear they need them too much. (Hence, the red-hot sexiness of the performances. It’s sexy because everyone’s fighting with themselves about their own desires … I don’t know why that is sexy, but it is. Perhaps it’s only when human beings are faced with obstacles, either inner or outer, can they truly come alive. And that’s sexy.)

Slim, during their conversation about whether or not she should leave, is trying to get a sense of where Steve is coming from. Slim is no dumb girlie-girl woman. She’s talking to him – she keeps asking him – “Do you want me to go? Do you want me to stay?” (But not in a needy way, of course. She’s calmer than that.)

Finally, Slim says, flat-out, “I’m hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask me.”

Funny – the way Bacall says it gives it a bit of a different spin. There’s a bit more self-knowledge behind it, perhaps. Jean Arthur is saying it out of hurt, and out of self-protection, although it is sincere enough. Like: “I am not gonna sit around panting at your heel, Mister. I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.”

Slim says it more like – she’s giving Steve a helpful tip on how to seduce her.

Like – “You want to get into my skivvies? Here’s the deal. I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.”

I think, too, that these women are looking for these men to step up to the plate and state their intentions. Worthy sparring partner.

Because Geoff Carter and Steve are who they are, it’s not that simple. Something in them resists declaring themselves. Also, something in them so believes in man’s essential freedom, that they yearn for a woman equally as free. Make your OWN choice, sister, why are you waiting for me to do all the work??

So there they are – the male, the female – across a divide – sparring about all of this – beautifully – and at the ends of these films, these issues are STILL unresolved, to some degree.

Carter DOESN’T ask Bonnie to stay. Slim tricks Steve and “misses” her flight out of Martinique … she refuses to disappear. The men and women still circle each other, warily, but with desire as well. Always with desire.

Hence: Drama. Sexual tension. People NOT getting what they want (which is always far more interesting to watch than people getting what they want).

“I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.”

Much to ponder in that one simple line. Obviously Howard Hawks thought so, too – otherwise why would he have used it twice?

Only Angels Have Wings is my favorite of all of Grant’s movies. He has never been better.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.