Sunday, May 30, 2021

This Day in Film History (Howard Hawks, ‘Great Professional’ of Hollywood Golden Age, Born)

May 30, 1896—Howard Hawks, who developed a reputation as a competent craftsman before being reevaluated as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors toward the end of his five-decade career, was born in Goshen, Ind.

Though associated with a score of Tinseltown’s best-loved, timeless classics, Hawks made little impression on critics for a long time. Holding neither the interests nor the talents of a specialist, he made it difficult to identify what constituted “A Howard Hawks Film,” in the way that some contemporaries made their marks with particular genres or settings, such as Alfred Hitchcock (thrillers), John Ford (westerns, war films, or cinema about Ireland), or Billy Wilder (fast-talking, cynical comedy-dramas).

Instead, Hawks took it as a challenge to create top-flight movies across genres: the gangster film (Scarface), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby), biopics (Sergeant York), musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), film noir (The Big Sleep), sci-fi (The Thing), widescreen historical epics (Land of the Pharoahs), and westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo). No wonder a 1967 TV summary of his career was entitled, “Howard Hawks: The Great Professional.”

Remarkably, this versatile director was nominated for a competitive Oscar only once in his career, for Sergeant York. (In one of the Academy Awards’ embarrassed annual attempts to honor a film giant before it’s too late, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement in 1974, only three years before his death.)

Yet, in addition to the French “New Wave” critics-directors who began to reappraise his work as an “auteur” in the 1950s, Hawks also influenced such American filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Brian de Palma, John Carpenter, and Peter Bogdanovich (who signaled his great debt to Hawks in his first two major successes, The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?).

Majoring in mechanical engineering in college, the director was less interested in inventing entirely different methods of moviemaking than in tinkering with a celluloid product until it moved faster and more smoothly.

Even if faced with a script with only the wispiest of plots, he’d sit down on the set, pull out a big yellow legal pad, and scribble down dialogue that made audiences enjoy this scene and forget about the overall lack of a substantial story, recalled Kirk Douglas about a turning point in their 1952 western, The Big Sky.

An even more telling example of this is in the sexually charged encounter between Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Dorothy Malone’s Acme Bookshops proprietess in The Big Sleep. The plot of the film is almost preposterously serpentine (even author Raymond Chandler had trouble recalling the killer), but the fencing between the private eye and the bespectacled but seductive bibliophile in this scene remains fondly recalled three-quarters of a century later.

Hawks got his start in film at the technical end during the silent era as a prop man, then parlayed some training in architectural drawing at school to land a job building a set for a Douglas Fairbanks film. Part of the reason why he commanded so much respect on a film set was that he had performed so many functions before finally getting a chance as a director: assistant director, casting director, script supervisor, screenwriter, editor and producer.

While possessing his own ideas on how a scene would work, Hawks was so self-assured that he allowed those he worked with to arrive at the solution themselves. He encouraged actors to improvise (as demonstrated vividly and brilliantly in “Self-Styled Siren” film blogger Farran Smith Nehme’s analysis of Rosalind Russell’s performance in His Girl Friday).

Angie Dickinson, who worked with him on Rio Bravo, related Hawks’ indirect approach in this interview for the Web site “Ain’t It Cool”:

“Hawks was tough, because he would not really tell you what to do. He would just sort of get around to what he was after, because, and I finally analyzed it, if he told you what to do it wouldn’t come from you, so he had to make you, through osmosis, do what he had in mind, but not specifically.”

Henry Adams’ terse description of Theodore Roosevelt may be applied just as easily to Hawks: “he was pure act.” A racing car and airplane aficionado, he reminded listeners that the essence of movies was motion pictures. Unenthusiastic about sending messages through his work, he was equally unpretentious about working well but swiftly and within budget. (On Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion death scenes in The Wild Bunch: “Oh, hell, I can kill and bury ten guys in the time it takes him to kill one.”)

Adept at fashioning rapid dialogue, Hawks was a slow, deliberate talker himself. It forced the listener to hang on his every word, only reinforcing his reputation for gravitas.

John Ford, Hawks’ good friend, bestowed on him the nickname “The Silver Fox,” in simultaneous tribute to his exalted reputation as a ladies’ man and his white hair. Though many of his films reflected his Hemingwayesque appreciation for the skill and sang froid required by male professionals such as airplane flyers, racing-car drivers, soldiers and hunters, they never wasted the opportunity to highlight self-confident, wisecracking women too wise to tolerate nonsense.

Three actresses were especially shaped under his direction:

*Lauren Bacall attracted attention in her film debut, To Have and Have Not, as Hawks reportedly based her cool, brassy, athletic persona—even her onscreen nickname “Slim”—on his wife at the time, Nancy Gross.

*Marilyn Monroe took a major step forward in her career by moving from eye-candy adornment to sexy but vulnerable in Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

*Angie Dickinson enjoyed a career-making performance, after only four years in the business, as the traveling card shark who holds her own against sheriff John Wayne through humor, flirtation, and a steely refusal to be wronged in Rio Bravo. (Do I even have to mention that the actress appears on the right, with the director and The Duke, in the image accompanying this post?)

Even after all his late-career attention, “Hawks remained the least understood among the great American directors,” Bogdanovich wrote in Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. “But his films represent one of the most vivid, varied, yet consistent, bodies of work in movies; ironically, too, perhaps the most typically American. Which maybe explains why his pictures don't date as so many do, even the best: he touched some parts of the American psyche that are there forever.”

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