Howard Hawks

Jack of Multiple Genres, He Was a Master of Them All

Howard Hawks, Jack of Multiple Genres, He Was a Master of Them All


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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Howard Hawks is the man behind such classic and near-classic films The Dawn Patrol (1930), Scarface (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) and such first-rate entertainments as I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), Hatari! (1962), Man's Favorite Sport? (1964) and El Dorado (1966). Ironically, Hawks -- one of the most celebrated of American filmmakers -- was little celebrated by his peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences during his career. Despite making some of the best films in the Hollywood canon, he was nominated just once for a Best Director Academy Award, in 1942 for Sergeant York. He lost to John Ford -- his friend, contemporary, and the director arguably closest to him in terms of his talent and output.
John Ford, a four-time winner of the Best Director Oscar, told Hawks that it was he and not he who should have won the Academy Award that year. The Academy eventually made up for the oversight in 1975 by voting him an honorary Academy Award, which came to him shortly before his death while he basked in the midst of a two-decade-long critical revival. To many cineastes, Howard Hawks is one of the faces of American film and would be carved on an American film pantheon's Mt. Rushmore honoring America's greatest directors, beside his friend Ford. It took the French Cahiers du Cinema critics to teach Americans to appreciate one of its own masters, and it was to the Academy's credit that it recognized the great Hawks in his lifetime.
Howard Hawks' career spanned the freewheeling days of the original independents in the post World War I-era to the vertically integrated studio system in Hollywood, from the silent era through the talkies and on through the Golden Age of cinema. His career survived the death of the studio system in the '60s and made his last film in 1970, at the time of the emergence of the director as "auteur," the latter a phenomenon that Hawks himself directly influenced.
Hawks was he most versatile of all American directors, and before his late career critical revival, he had earned himself a reputation as a first-rate craftsman and consummate Hollywood professional who just happened, in a medium that is an industrial process, to have made some great movies. Recognition as an influential artist would come later, but it would come to him before his death.
He was born Howard Winchester Hawks in Goshen, Indiana, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1896, the first child of Frank Winchester Hawks and his wife, the former Helen Howard. The young Hawks was born with the proverbial silver spoon firmly clenched in his young mouth. His wealthy father was a member of Goshen's most prominent family, and his maternal grandfather was one of Wisconsin's leading industrialists. His father's family had arrived in America in 1630, while his mother's father, C.W. Howard, the first-generation son of English immigrants, made his fortune in the paper industry.
In 1898, the Hawks family relocated from Goshen to Neenah, Wisconsin, when Howard's father was appointed secretary/treasurer of his father-in-law's paper company. Howard was spoiled by his grandfather C.W., who lavished his grandson with expensive toys. C.W. had been an indulgent father, encouraging the independence and adventurousness of his two daughters, Helen and Bernice, who were the first girls in Neenah to drive automobiles. Bernice even went for an airplane ride. (The two sisters, Hawks' mother and aunt, likely were the first models for what became known as "the Hawksian women" when he became a director.) His brother Kenneth Hawks was born in 1898, and a second brother, William B. Hawks, was born in 1902. A sister, Grace, followed William.

The Hawks family moved to the more salubrious climate of Pasadena, California, northeast of Los Angeles, for the winter of 1906-07, and finally settled in California for good in 1910, joined by Howard's grandfather C.W., who wintered in Pasadena. C. W. Howard continued to indulge his grandson Howard, though, buying him whatever he fancied, including a race car. C.W. also arranged for Howard to take flying lessons so he could qualify for a pilot's license, an example followed by Kenneth.
Howard Hawks was sent to Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, for his education, and upon graduation attended Cornell University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. In both his personal and professional lives, Hawks was a risk-taker and enjoyed racing airplanes and automobiles, two sports that he first indulged in his teens with his grandfather's blessing.
The Los Angeles-area quickly evolved into the center of the American film industry when studios began relocating their production facilities from the New York City area to southern California in the middle of the 1910s. During one summer vacation while Howard was matriculating at Cornell, a friend got him a job as a prop man at Famous Players-Lasky (later to become Paramount Pictures), and he quickly rose trough the ranks. During other summer vacations from Cornell, Hawks continued to work in the movies.
During World War I, Hawks served as a lieutenant in the Signal Corps, and later joined the Army Air Corps, serving in France. After the Armistice, he worked as an aviator and a professional racing car driver. He eventually decided on a career in Hollywood and was employed in a variety of production jobs, including assistant director, casting director, script supervisor, editor and producer. He and his brother Kenneth shot aerial footage for motion pictures, but Kenneth tragically was killed during a crash while filming. Howard was hired as a screenwriter by Paramount in 1922, but he eventually left the studio when it refused to let him become a director. Moving to Fox in 1926 as a writer-director, Hawks directed his first film, The Road to Glory.
Howard Hawks made a name for himself by directing eight silent films in the 1920s, His facility for language helped him to thrive with the dawn of talking pictures, and he really established himself with his first talkie in 1930, the classic World War I aviation drama The Dawn Patrol. His arrival as a major director, however, was marked by 1932's controversial and highly popular gangster picture Scarface, a thinly disguised bio of Chicago gangster Al Capone, which was made for producer Howard Hughes. His first great movie, it catapulted him into the front rank of directors.
Although always involved in the development of the scripts of his films, Hawks was lucky to have worked with some of the best writers in the business, including his friend and fellow aviator William Faulkner, who adapted Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (1944) for the big screen for Hawks. Screenwriters he collaborated with on his films included Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecht, John Huston and Billy Wilder. Hawks often recycled storylines from previous films, such as when he jettisoned the shooting script on El Dorado during production and reworked the film-in-progress into a remake of Rio Bravo.
The success of his films was partly rooted in his using first-rate writers. Hawks viewed a good writer as a sort of insurance policy, saying, "I'm such a coward that unless I get a good writer, I don't want to make a picture."
Though he won himself a reputation as one of Hollywood's supreme storytellers, he came to the conclusion that the story was not what made a good film. After making and then remaking the confusing The Big Sleep (in 1945 & '46) from a Raymond Chandler detective novel, Hawks came to believe that a good film consisted of at least three good scenes and no bad ones--at least not a scene that could irritate and alienate the audience. He said, "As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture - it doesn't matter if it isn't much of a story."
It was Howard Hawks' directorial skills, his infusion of energy into the scenes that made up the picture, that fooled audiences. who remained unaware of the recycling of his narratives. Hawks the director was skilled in getting top-notch performances out of his actors, molding their line-readings to give the dialogue a snap and verve. Dialogue in a Hawks picture typically was delivered at a staccato pace, with the characters' lines frequently overlapping. Hawks' direction gave the his films a feeling of spontaneity and naturalness, abetted by his habit of encouraging his actors to improvise.
Howard Hawks treated his lead actors as collaborators and encouraged them to be part of the creative process. He had an excellent eye for talent, and was responsible for giving the first major breaks to a roster of stars, including Paul Muni, Carole Lombard (his cousin), Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift and James Caan. It was Hawks, and not John Ford, who turned John Wayne into a superstar, with Red River (shot in 1946, but not released until 1948). Of Wayne's performance in the film, Ford said, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act," and proceeded to give Wayne some of his best roles in the cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), in which Wayne played a broad range of diverse characters.
During the 1930s Howard Hawks moved from hit to hit, becoming one of the most respected directors in the business. He developed a reputation as the ultimate Hollywood professional. Hawks was unique and uniquely modern in that, despite experiencing his career peak in an era dominated by studios and the producer system in which most directors were simply hired hands brought in to shoot a picture, he also served as a producer and developed the scripts for his films.
Hawks was determined to remain independent and refused to attach himself to a studio, or to a particular genre, for an extended period of time. His work ethic allowed him to fit in with the production paradigms of the studio system, and he eventually worked for all eight of the major studios. He proved himself to be, in effect, an independent filmmaker, and thus was a model for other director-writer-producers who would arise with the breakdown of the studio system in the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of the director as auteur in the early 1970s. Hawks did it first, though, in an environment that ruined or compromised many another filmmaker.
Howard Hawks was not interested in creating a didactic cinema but simply wanted to tell give the public a good story in a well-crafted, entertaining picture. Hawks' philosophy of life was reflected in the characters in his films. Hawks' protagonists tend to play fair, according to a personal or professional code. A Hawks film typically focuses on a tightly knit group of professionals who must work together as a team if they are to survive, let alone get the job done. His movies emphasize such traits as loyalty and self-respect.
Aside from his interest in elucidating human relationships, Hawks' main theme is the execution of one's job or duty to the best of one's ability in the face of overwhelming odds. The main characters in a Hawks film typically are people who take their jobs very seriousness, as their self-respect and identities are rooted in their work. Though often outsiders or loners, Hawksian characters work within a system in which they can ultimately triumph by being loyal to their personal and professional codes.
In a sense, Howard Hawks' oeuvre can be boiled down to two categories: the action-adventure films and the comedies. In Hawks' action-adventure movies, such as Only Angels Have Wings (1938), the male protagonist, played by Cary Grant (a favorite actor of his who frequently starred in his films between 1947 and 1950), is both a hero and the top dog in his social group. In the comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), the male protagonist (again played by Grant) is no hero but rather a victim of women and society. Women have only a tangential role in Hawks' action films, whereas they are the dominant figures in his comedies.
The sprawl of Hawks' oeuvre over multiple genres, and their existence as examples of film as its purest, emphasizing action rather than reflection, led serious critics before the 1970s to discount Hawks as a director. They generally ignored the themes that run through his body of work, such the dynamics of the group, male friendship, professionalism, and women as a threat to the independence of men. Granted, the cinematic world limned by Hawks was more limited when compared to that of John Ford, the poet of the American screen, whose cinematic world was richer and more complex. However, Hawks' straightforward style that emphasized human relationships undoubtedly yielded one of the greatest groups of outstanding motion pictures that can be attributed to one director.
Howard Hawks' movies not only span a wide variety of genres, but frequently rank with the best in those genres, whether the war film (The Dawn Patrol), gangster film (Scarface), the screwball comedy (His Girl Friday); the action-adventure movie (Only Angels Have Wings), the noir (The Big Sleep), the Western (Red River and Rio Bravo), the musical-comedy (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and the historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs). Though Howard Hawks created some of the most memorable moments in the history of American film a half-century ago, serious critics generally eschewed his work, as they did not believe there was a controlling intelligence behind them. Seen as the consummate professional director in the industrial process that was the studio film, serious critics believed that the great moments of Hawks' films were simply accidents that accrued from working in Hollywood with other professionals. In his 1948 book The Film Til Now, Richard Griffin summed this feeling up with the dismissal, "Hawks is a very good all rounder."
Serious critics at the time attributed the mantle of "artist" to a director only when they could discern artistic aspirations, a personal visual style, or serious thematic intent. Hawks seemed to them an unambitious director who lacked the personal touch of an Alfred Hitchcock or an Orson Welles, did not have the painterly sensibility of a John Ford, and had never tackled heavy themes like the failure of the American dream or racism, like George Stevens. Howard Hawks was seen as a commercial Hollywood director who was good enough to turn out first-rate entertainments in a wide variety of genre films in a time in which genre films such as the melodrama, the war picture and the gangster picture were treated with a lack of respect.
One of the central ideas behind the modernist novel that dominated the first half of the 20th-century artistic consciousness (when the novel and the novelist were still considered the ultimate arbiters of culture in the Euro-American world) was that the author should begin something new with each book, rather than repeating him/herself as the 19th century novelists had done. Howard Hawks was not like this, and in fact, the latter Hawks constantly recycled not just themes but plots, so that his last great film, Rio Bravo, essentially was remade as El Dorado and Rio Lobo (1970). Rio Bravo, itself, was a remake of -- or a response to -- Stanley Kramer/Fred Zinneman's High Noon. Thus, in his constant recycling of themes, stories and even visual tropes, Hawks did not fit the "modernist" paradigm of an artist.
The critical perception of Hawks began to change with the emergence of the auteur theory in France in the 1950s. The auteur theory was the idea that one intelligence was responsible for the creation of superior films regardless of their designation as "commercial" or "art house." In the early '50s, the French-language critics who wrote for the cinema journal Cahier du Cinema (many of whom would go on to become directors themselves) elevated Howard Hawks into the pantheon of great directors. The Cahiers critics claimed that a handful of commercial Hollywood directors like Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock had created films as artful and fulfilling as the masterpieces of the art cinema. Andre Bazin gave these critics the moniker "Hitchcocko-Hawksians."
Jacques Rivette wrote in his 1953 essay, "The Genius of Howard Hawks", that "each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing."
Hawks, however, considered himself an entertainer, not an "artist". His visual aesthetic eschews formalism, trick photography or narrative gimmicks. There are no flashbacks or ellipses in his films, and his pictures are usually framed as eye-level medium shots.  His definition of a good director was simply "someone who doesn't annoy you."
Howard Hawks was never considered an artist until the French New Wave critics crowned him one, as serious critics had ignored his oeuvre. He found the adulation amusing, and once told his admirers, "You guys know my films better than I do."
The auteur theory did not begin to influence American movie criticism until the 1960s, when critic Andrew Sarris introduced it with his essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" and refined it in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Commenting on Hawks' facility to make films in a wide variety of genres,, said of Hawks, "For a major director, there are no minor genres."
A Hawks genre picture is rooted in the conventions and audience expectations typical of the Hollywood genre. The Hawks genre picture does not radically challenge, undermine or overthrow either the conventions of the genre or the audience's expectations of the genre film, but expands the genre by revivifying it with new energy. As Robert Altman said about his own McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), he fully played on the conventions and audience expectations of the western genre and in fact, did nothing to challenge them as he was relying on the audience being lulled into a comfort zone by the genre. What Altman wanted to do was to indulge his own artistry by painting at and filling in the edges of his canvas. Thus Altman needed the audience's complicity through the genre conventions to accomplish this.
As a genre director, Hawks used his audience's comfort with the genre to expound his philosophy on male bonding and male-female relationships. His movies have a great deal of energy, invested in them by the master craftsman, which made them into great popular entertainments. That Hawks was a commercial filmmaker who was also a first-rate craftsman was not the sum total of his achievement as a director, but was the means by which he communicated with his audience.
While many during his life-time would not have called Hawks an artist, Robin Wood compared Hawks to William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both of whom created popular entertainments that could also appeal to elites. According to Wood, "The originality of their works lay not in the evolution of a completely new language, but in the artist's use and development of an already existing one; hence there was common ground from the outset between artist and audience, and 'entertainment' could happen spontaneously without the intervention of a lengthy period of assimilation."
Commenting on this phenomenon, Sarris' wife Molly Haskell said, "Critics will spend hours with divining rods over the obviously hermetic mindscape of Bergman, Antonioni, etc., giving them the benefit of every passing doubt. But they will scorn similar excursions into the genuinely cryptic, richer, and more organic terrain of home-grown talents."
When Howard Hawks was awarded his lifetime achievement Academy Award, two and one-half years before his death on December 26, 1977 at the age of 81, the citation referred to the director as "a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid, and varied bodies of work in world cinema." It is a fitting epitaph for one of the greatest directors in the history of American, and world cinema.