Happy birthday, Howard Hawks!

He’s my favorite director. Not only has he directed some of my favorite films of all time, but you look at his run of hits in the 30s and 40s (and beyond – but that was his real heyday) – and it rivals other directors’ entire bodies of work over their entire lives. How on earth did that happen? Amazing.

Sometimes I think of the comments that Wes Anderson gets about his films sometimes, along the lines of: “When is he going to stop making films about privileged disturbed siblings? It’s like he’s OBSESSED with childhood or something!” As though obsession is somehow a bad or a weird thing. On the contrary: a director with one over-riding obsession (besides directing, I mean – I am talking thematically here) is actually doing his job. You may not like the film, you may not relate to the particular theme in question – but to suggest that being obsessed with one thing is somehow not right for a director – that a director should have more range, a director shouldn’t limit himself to one theme … is to completely misunderstand not only the history of films and directors, but to misunderstand what the job actually is. Hitchcock didn’t make an endless variety of films with a million different themes. He created indelible characters, different from film to film – but the basic concerns are the same, and carry the label “Hitchcockian”. It is immediately recognizable as his own. He didn’t have five million obsessions. He had one or two that he kept working on, over and over and over, in film after film. So to those folks who demand variety, who get sick of Woody Allen always doing films about neurotic Upper West Side people, or (fill in the blank) seem to me to be mistaking personal taste for critical value. It’s a common thing that happens – it happens with me all the time, it happens with everyone. You may find Woody Allen’s movies and characters annoying – that’s fine, that’s a personal taste – but to suggest that because he focuses on the same demographic with the same neuroses his work is somehow lesser … well, sorry, that’s stupid. A director is not just a craftsman who knows where to put the camera. Directors have personalities, styles, and interests, just like any other artist. John Ford, George Cukor, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman … these people are unmistakably individual. You would never mistake a John Ford film for a George Cukor film, and vice versa. It’s funny that the “auteur theory” of filmmaking came along after the giants of the craft in the 30s and 40s … guys who, yes, worked under the studio system but you could never ever say that these guys were slaves, that they were somehow “not allowed” to express their own vision of the world. What? Auteur shmauteur, these guys were GIANTS, and their films are extremely personal. You can see what John Ford cares about when you watch his films. Same with Howard Hawks. And one of the things that those who interviewed them say (like Bogdonavich) – is that all of them were relatively self-deprecating, you would never catch them being self-important about the job. Bogdonavich would ask questions, and more often than not, he’d get, ‘Well, you just have to tell the story” as an answer … These guys thought simply, directly, and about STORY … not about expressing themselves or anything like that. However: express themselves they did. And better than anyone.

Howard Hawks did not make a million different movies with countless themes. He basically made the same movie over and over again with different characters (sometimes even borrowing lines from film to film. “I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask me.” That line appears in To Have and Have Not and Only Angels Have Wings but there are many other examples). You can list Howard Hawks’ themes (or obsessions) on one hand. The camaraderie of men in a purely masculine setting: war, early aviation, science, ranching … The element of the female and how she has to keep up with the guys if she wants to be accepted. The equal footing of male and female – and the rat-a-tat-tat repartee back and forth. Woman giving as good as she got. The woman going toe to toe with the man. Being as “insolent” (his direction to Lauren Bacall in her debut in To Have and Have Not) as the man. And the man either getting baffled and confused in the face of the formidable female (Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire) … or getting cranky and even more macho when the girl is around (Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings, John Wayne in Rio Bravo). Either way, it is a meeting of the MINDS. Howard Hawks was interested in equality – not in a political way, or a social way – but on a personal one to one basis. Hawks has said that the women he always liked were women who could hang out with the guys and not have their delicate sensibilities ruffled. He liked to hunt, fish, play poker, drink … and he liked a woman who could do all of those things, too – but still be ladylike. He didn’t like floozies. No, no. He liked DAMES. You know what I mean? DAMES. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday was a DAME. Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings is KIND of a dame, but then she realizes, over the course of the film, that she has fallen in love with Cary Grant, and – as happens to so many of us when in love – she falls apart spectacularly. All of her strength and self-assurance flies out the window, and she becomes, well, GIRLY. She cries, for example, a big no-no in Howard Hawks’ lexicon. Her task, over the film, is to put all of that aside – without sacrificing her womanliness – and love the man in question without stepping into any kind of traditional gender-assigned role. Be a woman, but don’t be a weakling. Be brave, be stoic, but also be sexy and FUN. Hawks liked FUN girls. He didn’t like drips. Drips don’t do well in his films at all. The men wouldn’t tolerate it.

The big thing in Hawks’ films: Men would prefer (if it weren’t for that whole sex thing) to hang out only with each other. They would rather be in the company of a man than a woman, because the rules are understood (“Who’s Joe?”) – and you don’t have to explain yourself, etc. etc. Women muck up men’s serious business. But of course … you want to sleep with women. And of course sometimes you actually fall in love with one of the pesky creatures. And then what do you do? Hawks was versatile enough to look at this issue through multiple lenses. For example, in Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire – he looks at it through a sheerly comedic lens. The men in those films are intellectuals, stiff, humorless, and rigid. Which is why it is so hilarious when they start to fall apart and unravel because of a woman. A WOMAN!! They might not have the macho bluster that the men in Hawks’ more macho films have – but they still feel that women are, well, rather silly, and it is best if they keep out of men’s business. But oh, these men meet their matches – in Susan Vance (played by Katharine Hepburn) and Sugarpuss O’Shea (played by Barbara Stanwyck). These women refuse to stay out of men’s business. They set their eye on the prize and will not be swayed … and even when the poor men BEG them to go away, they blithely refuse. In those films, it is the man who is in the more typically female role – the passive, the resistant … and it is the women who are the powerhouses. It’s hilarious to watch. Nobody has ever portrayed the war of the sexes with so much love, humor, and creativity. It’s a war, sure, but isn’t it a lovely war?? Wouldn’t we rather fight that war than not? That was Hawks’ view.

Here’s a long piece I wrote about “The Howard Hawks Woman”. He was directing at the height of strong female portrayals in the movies. Despite the salary power and star power of female stars now, we have a long way to go to see as many awesome intelligent funny sexy obnoxious female characters as we did back in the 30s and 40s. There were truly giants in those days!

I adore him. And I never get sick of his films.

Happy birthday, Howard Hawks!

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9 Responses to Happy birthday, Howard Hawks!

  1. tlb says:

    Maybe you remember where this was from, but someone asked Howard Hawks if a certain one of his films had the theme of “anti-fascism” (or something), and he replied…”to tell you the truth, I don’t even know what that means.” It was something along those lines, but that tickles me. Thanks for celebrating his birthday! I also love his nose. It just suits him.

  2. red says:

    Ha!! I love that! Yeah, you’d never catch him assigning any “meaning” to his films – although, of course, they are chock full of meaning. But that’s for US to decide, as audience members – not for him to lecture us about what we should “get”.

    Love him!

  3. Hawks was an incredible artist. Rarely has there lived a director with so deft a touch across so many different genres. In fact, maybe there aren’t any. He even succeeded with horror/sci-fi if we take his role as Producer on “The Thing From Another World” to be a directing credit (many do with director Nyby admitting that Hawks guided the whole thing, although Arness, according to IMDB trivia, says Nyby did direct him). Also, suspiciously, Nyby never directed another feature film before or after, continuing to work only in television.

    One of my older movie books (can’t remember which right now and I’m at work) says that Hawks really wanted to do a horror/sci-fi but knew of the lesser quality stigma that went with the genre (even though completely undeserving) so the studio hired Christian Nyby and let Hawks work through all the prep work, rehearsals, and filming, basically standing by Nyby and directing by proxy – which may be why Arness thought Nyby was the director.

    And like you say in your post, it has that male comradery again. The men, all together, alone, fighting a common enemy and strengthening their bonds.

    And a p.s. – Poor Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. The moment Hepburn walks into the picture he doesn’t stand a chance. How could he not go crazy over her?

  4. miker says:

    I think there is a lot to be said for having to work within the strictures of the old studio system. It sort of forced people to be creative in ways that might not have surfaced in a less structured environment.

    Hawks is one of the giants in American cinema – a singular icon to all of us who love dames.

  5. Marissa says:

    Really enjoyed this–I’m in a Hawksian mood having just seen “His Girl Friday” for the first time yesterday. I’ve only recently realized what a great track record Hawks had–I mean, I’ve always loved “Bringing Up Baby” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” but it took me a long time to figure out that they were directed by the same guy, you know?

  6. justjack says:

    I think I’ll always love John Ford best, if only for sentimental reasons, but in the last year I have suddenly discovered that maybe I like Howard Hawks nearly as much. Between Peter Bogdanovich’s writings, the audio commentary on “Rio Bravo,” and yes, all the terrific Hawks-related writings here, I finally figured out those handful of Hawksian themes.

    When we finally got Turner Classic Movies, the first movie I got to watch was “Only Angels Have Wings.”

    Last week I had the fun of introducing my 13-year-old son to “The Thing From Another World.” What a revelation seeing it again after many years — I tellya, if it *wasn’t* directed by Howard Hawks, then it’s directed by Christian Nyby the way “I Got You Babe” was produced by Sonny Bono (and not Phil Spector), which is to say boy did the disciple learn well the lessons of the teacher.

  7. red says:

    Jonathan – yes, poor David Huxley!! He couldn’t escape if he tried! And even at the end when she singlehandedly wrecks his brontosaurus, the culmination of a decade of work – his main response is, “Oh Susan….. oh well” and then hugging her. It’s hysterical! Putting up any sort of resistance is not only useless but dangerous!

  8. red says:

    Marissa – If you’re not familiar with the rest of his work, I so recommend all of it! He’s my favorite director. Only Angels Have Wings is a great movie, as far as I’m concerned – but they’re all good. Ball of Fire is so much fun, and then of course there’s the Bogie-Bacall pairings in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep – both of them SO satisfying!

  9. justjack says:

    I almost forgot to mention my eye-bugging shock at one scene in particular in “The Thing;” early on, when the dame in the tight-fitting sweater is feeding shots (and wiping the dribble off his chin with her thumb) to the captain, who sits backwards on the swivel chair with his legs spread apart and his hands tied behind his back. OMG!! That scene was so deliciously deviant on so many levels — talk about gender role reversals!! How in heaven’s name did it get past the censors?

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