The names of many of the great directors of the golden age of Hollywood movies are synonymous with the types of films they made. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Billy Wilder was the king of comedy, and John Ford was the storyteller who turned the western into an art form. But Howard Hawks, the subject of a magnificent, 14-movie, retrospective which starts at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse tomorrow, is the odd man out – a great director whose name variously evokes a certain tough attitude, a spirit of camaraderie, an unpretentious style, brilliant storytelling, great entertainment and a terrific sense of humour.
You only have to look at the list of titles that will be screened in Edinburgh over the next two months to see that his name can’t be synonymous with one category of film because he made great films in pretty much every genre – and some of them were among the very best of their type. Hawks’s His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River and Rio Bravo are among the best films ever to come out of Hollywood during his time in the director’s chair.
And the others – including Ball of Fire, Sergeant York and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – are among the most entertaining. He gave us such memorable moments as Lauren Bacall instructing Humphrey Bogart in the art of whistling (“You put your lips together and blow..”) in To Have and Have Not, and hoodlum George Raft’s iconic tossing of a coin in Scarface.
Hawks’s films are also high points in the careers of such stars as Grant, Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, Lauren Bacall, whom he discovered and moulded into a screen personality. He had a gift for teasing the most fantastic performances from actors (just look at Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire compared with most of her other comedies, or Marilyn Monroe in the films she made before Hawks’s Monkey Business) and making characters come alive on screen.
Not only that, but – as one of his snappy dialogue writers might have said – he got in on the ground floor of such of-the-moment genres as the gangster movie (Scarface), the screwball comedy (Twentieth Century) and the film noir (The Big Sleep), and helped shape them.
For most of his career, Indiana-born Hawks – a charismatic, dash-cutting figure who balanced out a bookish side with a passion for aviation and racing cars – was generally regarded within the movie business as a terrific storyteller, a reliable pair of hands in which to place a film. He didn’t have aspirations to innovate, he didn’t pose deep questions or make “important” movies, and he didn’t go in for fancy flourishes in his films. Rather, he made straight-forward, un-pretentious movies which interested him – being an independent director-producer most of the time, he was able to pick and choose.
Born in 1896, Hawks began his Hollywood career as a prop man. He first tried his hand at directing in 1917, when silent era movie sweetheart Mary Pickford asked him to fill in for the drunken director of her picture The Little Princess. After briefly serving in the First World War and working as an aviator, an airplane builder and a race car driver, he returned to Hollywood to direct and produce a number of comedy shorts before joining the story department of Paramount in 1922.
His name began to appear as director from 1926 but he directed more movies than he received credit for. As talking pictures came in, Hawks came into his own – he appreciated good dialogue and hired such top writers as Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, William Faulkner – and turned out hit after hit. He developed a way of handling dialogue so that it moved along briskly and naturally, and in no film was this more effective than in the fast-talking newspaper comedy His Girl Friday in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell routinely talk over each other in their excited, sexy, banter – but not a laugh gets lost in the process.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s, when serious film criticism became fashionable, that Hawks’s genius began to be widely appreciated. The French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, which counted such leading lights of French cinema as Francois Truffaut among its contributors, named Hawks as the embodiment of its newly-evolved auteur theory – the idea that the authorship of a film, the artistic credit, should be attributed to its director, and that an auteur’s body of work is unified by recurring themes, regardless of genre.
Film theory took off in a big way in the States in the 1960s and in the decade before his death, in 1977, Hawks found himself being interviewed extensively – and regularly – by film students and critics who had pored over his life’s work and come to the conclusion that his films did feature numerous recurring themes.
Strong, feisty, ahead-of-their-time women – most memorably Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby – who got the guy on their own terms were celebrated in of Hawks’s films. (This was, he later explained, the exact type of woman he found attractive himself.) Groups of professionals, usually men, working together on a common cause, was another theme which is evident in many of his films notably the westerns Red River and Rio Bravo, the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and in the glorious romantic comedy Ball of Fire, which was based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The threat that women pose to male relationships – also evident in Ball of Fire, in which a brassy gangster’s moll hides out in a household of professors working on an encyclopaedia – pops up in film after film, from the 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings onwards. And there are various recurring motifs which the theorists have also identified through Hawks’s work – cross-dressing (usually by Cary Grant – see Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride) and communal singsongs (Hawks often gathered his cast round a piano or inserted some jazz greats into the proceedings), to name but two.
At the end of the day, however, what Hawks’s films offer is pure, unadulterated entertainment of the highest order. That’s what he set out to make – and that’s why the films are still so fresh and popular.
* The Howard Hawks retrospective kicks off at The Filmhouse (www.filmhousecinema,com) today with a week’s run of The Big Sleep.