(1896 - 1977)
Three Key Films: Bringing Up Baby (1937), The Big Sleep (1946), and Rio Bravo (1959)
Underrated: Ball of Fire (1941) Hawks retells the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a group of cloistered scholars writing an encyclopedia. While Gary Cooper is miscast as an academic and not terribly convincing as Prince Charming, Barbara Stanwyck in the title role does what she did better than any other actress in the history of film: play the bad girl gone good. Not Hawks at his best, but still enormously entertaining.
Unforgettable: No one does dialogue better than Howard Hawks, so of course Hawks’s most iconic moment features people talking. Slim (Lauren Bacall, in her screen debut) reduces the tough guy Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), whom she calls “Steve”, to a quivering mass of jelly:
Slim: You know Steve, you’re not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you’re going to say. Most of the time. The other times… [sits in his lap], the other times you’re just a stinker. [Kisses him].
Steve: What’d you do that for?
Slim: Been wondering whether I’d like it.
Steve: What’s the decision?
Slim: I don’t know yet. [Kisses him again, long; after a while she stands up and walks to the door]. It’s even better when you help…You know you don’t have to act with me Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything, not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.
Bringing Up Baby (1937)
The Legend: Many critics, even while ranking him as one of the two or three greatest directors of the studio era in Hollywood, nonetheless denigrate Hawks as a director. Many regard his work as too entertaining to be serious cinema, not like what you get with Bergman or Fellini. Certainly Hawks did not regard himself as an artiste (though Jean-Luc Godard has in fact called him “The great American artist”).
Howard Hawks was born in a financially well-to-do family in Goshen, Indiana, and later went to Exeter and Cornell, making him one of the more urbane Hollywood directors. While not an intellectual, he was friends with writers like Faulkner and Hemingway. An avid flier—he flew in WWI—and briefly a race car driver, Hawks drifted into the movies in the twenties, first as a writer before becoming a director.
Although in many ways a man’s man, Hawks’s films explore the complexities of gender to a degree unusual in his era, so that Hawks is one of the most heavily studied directors by feminist theorists. His women typically want to be with men, but seeking romance was not their primary goal in life. Not terribly demure, the Hawks woman often takes the initiative. In Bringing Up Baby, it is Katherine Hepburn’s Susan who pursues paleontologist David (who was, in one of the many mildly dirty jokes that Hawks enjoyed, looking for his bone, literally; in fact David’s first line in the film is a confession that he doesn’t know where his bone goes), not David who pursues Susan. In the same film David (Cary Grant), trying to explain to Susan’s aunt why he is dressed in a woman’s dressing gown, shouts, “I just became gay all of a sudden!” perhaps the first open use of the term in pop culture.
No director in the history of film mastered as many genres as Hawks. He directed one of the greatest gangster films in Scarface (1932). Though only a few of his films were strictly speaking comedies (though all of his films contained both a great deal of humor and darkness), he is easily one of the two or three greatest comedy directors cinema has known. He is the second most important director of Westerns after only John Ford. He directed (uncredited) the first alien invasion SF film, The Thing From Another World (1951), and made several great war films, a musical, and a truly great detective film in The Big Sleep.
Hawks reputation continues to rise and the reason lies in the films. Few directors ever made so many good ones (Hawks defined a good movie as “Three great scenes. No bad ones.”). The great British critic Robin Wood, while insisting that choosing “The World’s Greatest Film” was a silly enterprise, nonetheless put forward Rio Bravo as his candidate for the title. David Thomson not only names The Big Sleep as his favorite film but claims that if he had possession of the world’s great movies on a sinking ship, but with time to save only ten, they would be: Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Rio Bravo. All directed by Howard Hawks. Robert Moore