Hawks was an accomplished anecdotalist who, like Ford, tended to mythologise his earlier life and work. His youthful passion for reading fiction encouraged self-education in storytelling techniques through intensive viewing, watching a movie that he admired through at least two or three times. Hawks joined the story department at Paramount in 1922. At William Fox Productions from 1923-6 he accumulated several writing credits then directed his first film from his own story, Road to Glory in 1926, the first of 8 silent features. From 1930-70 Hawks directed 34 features beginning with The Dawn Patrol, also credited as producing 20 of them, almost invariably worded in order of priority and emphasis: “Directed and Produced by Howard Hawks.” He had sufficient status through most of his filmmaking career to involve himself in a project from casting through to editing, giving him a degree of control matched by few of his peers working in the studio system.
|Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday|
“I try to tell my story as simply as possible, with the camera at eye level.” Like Ford, Hawks did not want to give the studio bosses any other way to cut a scene and, like Ford, he also never storyboarded; they both disliked flashbacks, unmotivated camera movements, dissolves and hated “screwed up (camera) angles.” Yet Hawks's images, to quote Todd McCarthy “actually are the most stylised this side of Sternberg” reflecting his degree of construction and control of spaces and places.
|Frances Farmer, Joel McRea, Come And Get It|
His collaborations with writers constitute something of screenwriters’ who's who: Seton Miller and William Faulkner (his two “fixer uppers”), Charles Lederer, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (on the screwball comedies), Jules Furthman (an on-going major influence), Dudley Nichols (Air Force, The Big Sleep), Borden Chase (Red River) and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, the 'Rio Bravo' western trilogy) whom Hawks said approvingly “writes like a man.”
When he worked with actors like Cagney and Bogart Hawks said that he made sure that they were “free to try anything.” He made it clear how collaborative it was working with them, trying different things then deciding together if they worked. “Having scenes with good actors - Wayne and Mitchum, Bogart and Bacall – relating to each other on the screen is always going to be better than the scripts.”
|John Wayne, Red River|
|Montgomery Clift, Red River|
|Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not|
|Dorothy Malone, Bogart, The Big Sleep|
|Walter Brennan (without teeth)|
In three of Hawks's four screwball comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and I Was a Male War Bride) the woman is aggressively pursuing a shy man. Hawks agreed that he rather liked a relationship where the woman is the aggressive one. Hawks's screwball comedies are based in a dialectic opposing believability and lunacy in a love story, uniquely for romantic comedies without any trace of sentimentality in an oeuvre notably devoid of it, Redline 7000 (1965) perhaps being a revealing exception.
|Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Scarface|
In the Hawksian dialectic lines of dialogue only become funny because the attitudes of the characters are contrary to what they are trying to say. Pacing is an essential element. In His Girl Friday (1940) they pushed the dialogue faster than it was in The Front Page (Lewis Milestone,1931) in which it was already fast. It was not done with editing. The dialogue was reworked, written like real conversation which naturally overlaps, then putting extra words in the front and end of a speech so that it was overlapped, giving a sense of speed that doesn't actually exist, then making the actors talk a little faster. All that was needed is for the audience to be able hear the essential things. In a preliminary reading of the play before filming commenced, Hawks decided that it was better to centre the comedy between a woman and a man rather than between the two men in the original play. Ben Hecht agreed.
|Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Baby, Bringing Up Baby|
Hawks had a way with launching new actresses overcome by the occasion. When a new girl was starting a picture he had members of the crew build her confidence by prompting her to repeat her lines to whistled appreciation. Another way was to spring surprises if a scene was dying because a new actor was trying to play it, as when he instructed Cary Grant without warning to empty a jug of ice water over Rita Hayworth playing a drunk scene in her first film role. It won praise from the critics and Harry Cohn, crucially boosting her confidence in her debut film, Only Angels Have Wings.
|John Barrymore, Carole Lombard,|
If at the coalface, genre was the province of the journeyman, the measure of the auteur director in classical Hollywood was located in the inclination and ability to orchestrate (or as John Ford saw it, to 'predesign') the elements in both reinvigorating and testing the constraints in storytelling conventions. Films like Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo are, as David Thomson terms them, “masterpieces of the factory system” in which genre is central. With the exception of domestic based drama (1), Hawks's intuitive imagination was realised in at least one superior work in each individual genre across almost the whole range in the industry within which he was more or less content to work.
As Peter Wollen noted, Hawks has a special place in Hollywood with the global reversibility of genre in his oeuvre: adventure dramas have comic sub-texts while the comedies parody the dramas. Within the films there are often mercurial shifts of mood. What further makes them the most 'modern' to come out of classical Hollywood, is Hawks's treatment of sexuality and gender (2). He acknowledged A Girl in Every Port (1928) and The Big Sky (1955) as “love stories between two men.”
An essential variant in the Hawks ethos, which he did not explore in
the earlier film with Louise Brooks, is the presence of an “honorary male” as a
single strong female in the patriarchal male group. This is made most explicit
with Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). The heterosexual couple
are portrayed as equal sparring partners in the screwball comedies; Bogart and
Bacall's iconic love story is mythologised on the screen. These films remove
the traditional roles occupied by women in classical narrative, as Robin Wood,
in his 1981 second edition commentary points out, leaving them in the position
of male fantasy-figures while at the same time investing them with something of
“a fresh aliveness in their refusal to be confined in the traditional role.”
|Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Only Angels Have Wings|
1. He made only one feature film in a domestic setting - Monkey Business (1952) which Robin Wood rates as “his greatest comedy because his most organic.” The closed groups in about ten of his other films constitute a form of 'family'.
2. See comment on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in Part 1 of this series.
Main Sources: Todd McCarthy Howard Hawks The Grey Fox of Hollywood 1997; Robin Wood Howard Hawks 1968;
Jim Hillier & Peter Woolen eds. Howard Hawks American Artist 1996; Joseph McBride Hawks on Hawks1982; Jean-Pierre Coursodon American Directors Vol 1 1983; David Thomson The New Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema 6th Ed. 2014; Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur 2017; Adrian Danks “Space, Place and Community in the Cinema of Howard Hawks” essay in Howard Hawks New Perspectives 2016.