He averaged a film a year for forty-three years. He left us comedy gems, legends of the old West, brought together inspired casts that became the stuff of legend, and hailed the greatness of ordinary heroes. He was Howard Hawks.
Seetimaar-Diary of a Movie Lover is hosting a blogathon dedicated to Howard Hawks and this is the first of (hopefully) three entries I plan on submitting. Considering the extraordinary career of this man is overwhelming, as is trying to choose just one film from his repertoire to comment on. So I thought, as my introduction to the event, that I’d put in my DVD of The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks, a 1973 documentary directed by Richard Schickel, narrated by Sydney Pollack and produced by Turner Classic Movies (TCM). I did – and sat riveted, clutched to his every word. In a fascinating combination of commentary by Pollack, clips of many films interspersed with clips of the director reminiscing about his films and the actors who starred in them, the documentary is a lesson in humility and nonchalance. The kind of humility and nonchalance that can be truly appreciated because it is communicated sincerely by one who did what he was born to do. His passions quelled. When it was over I knew I could never do him proper justice – and so this post came to be.
By way of commentary on his films, supplemented by images, a this-n-that of cinema greatness…
Howard Hawks in his own words…
“I never believed in being under contract and never was under contract. Consequently I can choose…or if I like a story that a studio has I can say in advance, ‘I’m gonna change it. And they’d say, ‘well, go ahead.’ And if you get lucky the way I did, well they’d let you do about what you want to do.”
I attribute the astounding breadth of his work to the fact that Howard Hawks was not contracted with any one studio. He was never pigeonholed. Although there are similar themes evident in many of his films, such as friendship between men, strong women and the fact his films are “fast,” whether it be by virtue of lightning-speed dialogue or quick-moving stories, he made films in genres ranging from broad comedies to action/adventure to Westerns. And he excelled in all.
After directing eight pictures during the silent era, Hawks went into the realm of “talkies” with some flair, following his first talking picture, The Dawn Patrol (1930), with his first immortal one, Scarface: Shame of a Nation in 1932. (Note that although uncredited he played a part in the direction of Martin Flavin’s, The Criminal Code in 1931). For all its blatant, in-your-face violence, I love Scarface, which features an unforgettable performance by Paul Muni, as the ultra-violent, Tony Camonte, a character based on real-life gangster, Al Capone. This film, a controversial study in visuals is a must-see. It set the standard for the crime/gangster genre, which remains popular to this day. Scarface is the one Hawks film that I would have been inclined to comment on without question. However, I already dedicated a post to it, one I am proud of, which you can read here, if interested.
Howard Hawks makes no comment himself on the Schickel documentary referencing Scarface and, since this is the film I most wanted to know his views on, I searched other avenues and found a great article by Stephen Jacobs that discusses the making of the film, “The World is Yours: The Writing of the Original Scarface.” A very interesting read. Jacobs notes that of all the pictures Howard Hawks directed, Scarface remained his favorite. True or not, I can easily see that would likely be the case as he was allowed near free rein to push the envelope as far as it would go by the film’s producer, Howard Hughes. “The whole thing was a challenge and a lot of fun,” Hawks said. “Then it turned out very well and became a kind of legend.” Scarface remains a powerful film more than eighty years after it was made.
The practice of pairing a young actress and a veteran would be another Hawks trademark.
“I am not very fond of using established actresses. They like only the left-side of their face photographed and…that’s too much trouble. So if I can I always find new actresses and put them in the picture to work with the men who are so good. And they help her. In that way I found quite a number of stars – Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Angie Dickinson, Lauren Bacall. All of them made their first picture with me.”
Hawks recants the story of how he got John Barrymore to star in Twentieth Century: “I called him. Told him I had a story and said I wanted to see his house so prefered to come up there. So I went up and…he’d read the thing by that time…and he said, “just why do you think I can play this?” and I said, “well, you’re the greatest ham in the world and there’s no reason you can’t play this, the story of the next greatest ham.”
On Katharine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby – “I believe it was Katie’s first time as a comedienne. We had a man on the set playing a small part who used to be a great comic with the Ziegfeld shows, Walter Catlett. And Katie was stumbling a little bit and I went over to Catlett and said, ‘Walter, would you show Miss Hepburn what to do about this scene?’ and he said, ‘Oh no. Never!’ so I said, ‘what if she asked you to?’ and he responded, ‘Well, then I’d be glad to.’ So I went back to Katie and said, ‘Katie, there’s a man over there who could show you a couple of things…but you’re gonna have to ask him.” and she walked right over and asked him and was absolutely delighted, came back to me and told me I had to keep this fella around so I had to write scenes to keep him around or three or four weeks and in the end he had a really good part in the picture.”
“That’s why she’s so great. She hasn’t any ideas she can’t learn from somebody and this was a man who was a master.”
“When talking pictures came about they asked all of us – Jack Ford and everyone – what we knew about dialogue. I responded, ‘nothing. I just know how people talk. I was out of work for a year and a half because they said I knew nothing about dialogue.”
That’s an astounding fact given Howard Hawks would direct the quintessential dialogue-centered film, in my view. The aforementioned His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Although, Hawks would state he didn’t like “stiff” dialogue, “motion is far more interesting than just talking,” which reminds one of the perfection in casting that this film is as both Grant and Russell cannot be equaled in both line delivery or physicality – two of the greatest screwball comedians ever.
“They’re moving pictures, let’s make ’em move!”
Howard Hawks had always liked “The Front Page,” the play His Girl Friday is based on. One evening while having people over for dinner, he asked a girl in attendance to read the part of the reporter in the play and he read the part of the editor. After going through a few pages he was convinced his hunch was correct, “it’s better with a girl playing the reporter than with a man.” GENIUS!
“I tried to make my dialogue go fast. Probably twenty percent faster than most pictures.”
On the “trick” of overlapping dialogue in His Girl Friday, one of the elements in the film that make it so memorable – “Sometimes we put a few unnecessary words in the front of a sentence and a few on the end so that people can overlap in their talking and you still get everything they wanted to say…we held a discussion and butt in to what each other was saying and it worked, we’d hear what each other was saying. But our little trick of adding the words in front and at the end makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.”
Here’s the trailer – a hoot in its own right, which offers glimpses of the “Hawksian cross-talk.”
When talking about Only Angels Have Wings, his 1939 picture starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, Hawks is clearly offended about having read that critics felt this was “the only picture that Hawks ever made that didn’t have any truth in it.” He sent them a letter stating that, “every bloomin’ thing in that was true. I knew the men in it and everything about it. It was just where…truth was stranger than fiction.”
In Angels, Hawks centers on his familiar theme of male bonding, deep friendships that in this case are interrupted by accident and tragedy. He mentions one scene in the film he seems particularly proud of. Geoff Carter’s (Cary Grant) best friend is dying and rather than show the melodrama, Hawks chose to have the dying man (played by Thomas Mitchell) asks Geoff to step out of the room, to leave him to die with dignity. Or so Hawks saw it. “Death scenes are very hard to do because they either get mawkish or sentimental or something like that. It’s nice to be able to do them honestly.”
Grant’s character steps out into the rain to grant his friend his last wish. A rain that Hawks would say is the only thing in the film he added that wasn’t true.
“I worked with Cary Grant a lot because he was so easy to work with.”
Howard Hawks and Cary Grant made a total of five pictures together so it’s worth making a special note of. These were, Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), I was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952).
“Cary Grant was so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.”
I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Gary Cooper’s although I enjoy many of his films. While listening to Hawks’ commentary on the film and Cooper’s performance, I felt somewhat vindicated.
“Cary Cooper, you’d watch him do a scene and you’d wonder whether you had it…on this film. And I’d go home worrying about it. But I’d come look at the rushes the next day and there was more there than I wanted in the first place. I don’t know why accept that I think that he thought it and it was registered. Some people you look at and you can tell what they’re thinking.”
If only I could access the rushes. Although this shows what I know – Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his performance as Sergeant York and the film was Hawks’ biggest hit.
Hawks talks about his good friend, author William Faulkner with whom he collaborated on several movies. In fact, Faulkner worked a lot in Hollywood, collaborating on many films but his only credited screenwriting was for Howard Hawks. There’s one story I enjoyed a lot. The director and the writer were getting ready to go hunting one day when Hawks received a phone call from Clark Gable. Long story short, Gable joined the duo on the hunting trip. They met, heading toward their destination and naturally started to talk. Somehow the conversation turned toward literature so Gable asked Faulkner who he thought the good writers were. Faulkner mentioned a few, “Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and myself.” To which Gable asked, “you write, Mr. Faulkner?” and without missing a beat Faulkner retorted, “yes, what do you do, Mr. Gable?”
“‘To Have and Have Not’ came about in rather odd circumstances. I was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to write for pictures,” but the famous author didn’t want to go to Hollywood or take chances with his success. Trying to convince him, Hawks said, “Ernest, I can make a picture out of your worst book. “What’s my worst book?” Hemingway asked, “Oh, ‘To Have and Have Not’ is a bunch of junk.” Hemingway warned Hawks couldn’t make a picture out of that work and Hawks said he could. One of them was very right!
On the match-up of Bogey and Bacall – “We discovered (Lauren) Bacall was a little girl who, when she becomes insolent, becomes rather attractive. That was the only way you noticed her, because she could do it with a grin. So I said to Bogey [Humphrey Bogart], ‘We are going to try an interesting thing. You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I’m going to make this girl a little more insolent than you are.'”
On the famous “You know how to whistle” scene – “I wrote the scene and it had no relation to the story and it made such a good scene that Jack Warner, the head of the studio asked, ‘Howard, where does that come in to the story’ and I said, ‘it isn’t in there” and he said, ‘it better be when you make it!’ So we had a hell of a time adapting that to the picture…and finally it worked in and became the best line in the whole thing.”
Considered the perfect “Hawksian” woman, Lauren Bacall was the director’s greatest discovery. Just the kind of woman the director liked…
“The type of woman who I’ve used on the screen has been a rather straightforward, honest person. It isn’t the girl who meets other girls and has cocktails and plays bridge and things like that. They like to ride and hunt and shoot, do things…they don’t usually like other women, they prefer to be with men. If they don’t like something they come out and say it. The kind of person that I like.”
To Have and Have Not was such a hit that the studio ordered an immediate reteaming of all the players. William Faulkner signed on to cowrite again, this time adapting the work of Raymond Chandler for The Big Sleep in 1946.
“While making The Big Sleep I found out for the first time that you don’t have to be too logical, you should just make good scenes. Faulkner and Leigh Bracket, a young girl who wrote like a man, wrote the entire script in eight days because they didn’t want to change anything. They said Chandler’s stuff was so good they wanted to leave it alone.” So apparently no one bothered with minor details as Hawks explains that Bogart’s character finds a body in one scene and that the actor, confused, stopped to ask, “hey wait a minute, who killed this fellow?” Hawks thought about it and said he didn’t know. Neither did the screenwriters so Hawks sent a wire to Chandler who gave him a name, Hawks replied, “it can’t be, that guy was at the beach during the murder.”
“So nobody knew who killed the guy and it didn’t hurt the picture.”
“The camera likes some people and other people it doesn’t. If it likes people those people can’t do any wrong. Almost everything they think comes out when you photograph them.”
“Bogart was not a good-looking man, and everything he did you seem to know why he was doing it.” The camera loved Humphrey Bogart.
“He was an extremely hard-working actor. He’d always pretend that he wasn’t, that he didn’t give a damn, but that wasn’t true. One day I said to him, “Bogey, you’re just a great big phony.” He put his finger to his lips and grinned at me. “Sure,” he said, “but don’t tell anyone.”
“I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director.”
Amen to that!
This has all been just the tip of the Howard Hawks iceberg, a few films seen, to a degree, through the words of the one who helmed them. Hopefully, a fun and appropriate way to pay tribute to a man who would reinvent himself with every film and in every genre he tackled, fascinating audiences with lines of dialogue and images for decades.
Howard Hawks won an honorary Oscar in 1975 for being, “A master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema.”
Howard Hawks – Intellectual. Artist. Humble. Nonchalant. An American master.
To read more about the films, life and career of Howard Hawks, please visit Seetimaar-Diary of a Movie Lover. The diversity of the Hawksian film guarantees a great read for everyone. I’m heading there myself. Whistling…I know how.