Monday 30 October 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood and after (7): Howard Hawks Storyteller, “a helluva good life”

Howard Hawks
Howard Winchester Hawks was born into a wealthy upper middle class family in Goshen, Indiana in 1896 spending his childhood and high school years in Pasadena, California. After first working in Hollywood in a summer job as a props boy in 1916 Hawks was promoted to directing a few scenes of a feature film prior to being drafted into the army after being awarded a Degree of Mechanical Engineering at Cornell University, 1917. He learned to fly during a short military career establishing contact with a number of fliers who would later work for him in Hollywood. Champion junior tennis player, skilled silversmith and carpenter, Hawks also claimed to have worked as a racing car driver and in aeroplane construction before becoming involved in the financing of independent film production including films directed by Allan Dwan, nurturing the ambition to direct himself, especially appreciating John Ford's work.

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
For Manny Farber “no artist is less suited (than Hawks) to a discussion of profound themes.” Any underlying seriousness rests on “his poetic sense of action.” What is profound in Rosalind Russell's Hildy in His Girl Friday, in whom “there is a magic in the mobile unity of the woman” in her mannish dress, her stylized gestures, the swagger in her walk, so that Hawks is able to poeticise dialogue with “an air of poignant voluptuous cynicism” as in her “goodbye and good luck” to Earl Williams in his death cell.

“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
Hawks had a particular eye for identifying and nurturing talent in breakthrough roles, most notable examples of his star making being Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak, Jane Russell, Montgomery Clift, Lauren Bacall, Angie Dickinson and James Caan. He was the only director to recognise the ill-starred talent of Frances Farmer during her short career.

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.”

Male actors
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
John Ford told Hawks that it was John Wayne in Red River (1947) that convinced him that the Duke could act. Hawks said that Wayne never read a script for him in advance. What Wayne wanted was to be given an impression of what he was supposed to do but didn't want to hear the story or learn the lines before talking about it which he said threw him off. He could memorise a page or two of lines in a few minutes. He then just went ahead and did it for the camera. He had an instinct for a good scene and would indicate when something was wrong with a scene and Hawks would generally try something else. According to Hawks, Wayne helped capable actors like Angie Dickinson (in Rio Bravo) and Charlene Holt (El Dorado) to hold their own opposite him on the screen.

Montgomery Clift, Red River
To Hawks, Bogart and Mitchum were two of the best actors he worked with and in interviews (c1970), in comparison he spoke of contemporary actors like McQueen and Eastwood as being “a little bit on the dilettante side.” Brando he criticised as taking too long over a scene. Impressed by how hard he worked to acquire the skills required for the role of a cowboy in Red River, Hawks tolerated the “baloney” of Montgomery Clift spending hours on his lines and handled well the tensions that arose between Clift and the macho Wayne entourage. Hawks liked to recount how he bought Bogart into line on the first day of their initial collaboration by warning him after he'd had “a couple of drinks at lunch...not to get tough with me...All was fine after that.” 

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not
There seems little doubt that this account of his assertion of authority, as the filming of To Have and Have Not proceeded, reflected his reaction to Bogart's growing emotional involvement with Hawks's protégé Lauren Bacall, a new star the director believed he was in the process of creating. This was aided, writes McCarthy,“by the hothouse atmosphere” surrounding the filming and “the characters they were playing.” Hawks nevertheless recognised the need to make Bogart part of the creative process and their working relationship remained good over the back-to-back films with Hawks directing Bogart and Bacall, not in a portrayal of mature romantic emotions but applying his sexual imagination to how a man and a woman can meet in To Have and Have Not (1944), his unsentimental version of Casablanca (1943).

Dorothy Malone, Bogart, The Big Sleep
Bogart made contributions to lifting scenes as in his playing in The Big Sleep (1946) of his encounter with Dorothy Malone in a bookstore, a scene which otherwise threatened to be routinely dull. It was one of a memorable series of such encounters by Marlowe with women from which Hawks extracts maximum character and suggestiveness. In The Big Sleep he pioneered, in a classic Hollywood 'A' feature, the telling of a story while leaving core elements of the plot unexplained in what McCarthy sees to be a turning point in Hawks moving away from classical linear structure towards a more existential moment by moment, scene by scene emphasis.

Walter Brennan (without teeth)
By comparison Hawks found that he could write a scene for Cary Grant and know how he would play it, working with James Cagney in The Crowd Roars (1931) and Ceiling Zero (1936) was fun because you never knew what he was going to do with bits of business like how he would hold his hands in a scene. What made him great for Hawks was the way he worked with movement. He didn't work with lines,  it’s the way he did the lines. Hawks gave him an early chance to fill out his on-screen character.  He gave Walter Brennan a similar chance in main supporting roles (he appeared in six of Hawks's films “with or without his teeth”) in the role of unobtrusively clarifying the plot, also given to Arthur Hunnicutt in El Dorado (1967).

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
Ford and Hawks agreed that early talkies talked too much and they cut down dialogue in almost every scene of their pictures. Hawks's first talkie The Dawn Patrol (1930) was underplayed, reducing the emoting that was common in the early days of talkies. He started using speed in Scarface (1932). At the same time he started experimenting with unremittingly fast paced dialogue in his screwball comedies. Hawks attributed the subsequent pacing of his films to his early training in two-reel silent comedy which audiences responded to, so he decided to play comedy faster in Twentieth Century (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). He considered that his own pictures moved twenty per cent faster than other pictures.

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.

Starting new
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Baby, Bringing Up Baby
Bringing Up Baby was Hepburn's first comedy. Hawks sought help in the film from comedian William Catlett, who was playing the bit part of the sheriff, for a scene in which Hawks could not make clear to Hepburn what he wanted. Catlett would only agree if she asked him directly because he felt she was too good. After accepting his help Hepburn then asked Hawks to keep Catlett around and he kept feeding Hawks scenes up to three weeks in advance. “Hepburn was completely serious about being zany.” In retrospect, in a critique of his dialectic, Hawks thought that there were too many good comics in the film, “that they didn't have any sanity.”

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,
Twentieth Century
Carole Lombard relaunched her then lacklustre career in Twentieth Century. Hawks had offered Lombard a starring role having seen her acting, with the aid of a few drinks, in an hilarious and uninhibited fashion at a party. Petrified at the prospect of acting opposite John Barrymore in a type of comedy Lombard had never played, she was stilted and stiff from trying too hard.  Barrymore signified to Hawks her acting was 'on the nose'. The director was able to inveigle her into admitting her natural reaction to the Barrymore character - the inclination, elicited by Hawks, in the stalled scene was to “kick Barrymore in the balls” - from which Lombard, thus freed, never looked back.

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.” 

Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Only Angels Have Wings
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.”

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.

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