HOWARD HAWKS – Furious Filmmaker
When I was told about the Howard Hawks Blogathon by my friend Ratnakar of Seetimaar – Diary of a Movie Lover I was really happy because Hawks is a filmmaker I’ve been a fan of for many years now. I think what made Hawks’ work appealing to me was the fact he could take any genre and entertain you through his mastery of it. Whether it was comedy, adventure, western or a crime picture, he was one of those multi-talented journeyman filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. To celebrate his extensive and varied career I’ve decided to list a few of my longtime favorite Hawks films. Admittedly I still haven’t seen all his movies but I’m always trying to catch up on the ones I’ve missed and look forward to discovering even more gems.
SCARFACE (1932) Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, (based on real life gangster Al Capone) a low level street thug who rapidly works his way up the ranks of the organized crime underworld to become a feared boss. What Hawks did brilliantly was capture the anarchic nature of the “live fast, die young” lifestyle of the Prohibition mobsters with an energy that’s palpable. The screenplay was written by Ben Hecht based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail. While working on the script, Hecht was approached by Capone’s “representatives” who wanted to make sure it wasn’t about him. The story goes that this movie later actually became one of Capone’s personal favorites and he even owned a print to screen in private. After repeated demands for a script rewrite from the Hays Office, Producer Howard Hughes ordered Hawks to just shoot the film, he said: “Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible.” Hawks later decided to include an X symbol above each of Camonte’s victims and offered each crew member a hundred dollars to think of a different way to depict the X for every death. This movie might have been made in the 1930s but if you watch it today it still packs a real bang. 50 years later Scarface was updated by Brian DePalma who dedicated his version to Hawks and Hecht.
BRINGING UP BABY (1938) A nerdy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who is trying to put the final piece of an ancient dinosaur together runs into a wealthy socialite Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) the niece of a potential sponsor for the museum he works for. Susan has been sent a small tame leopard named Baby by her brother to give to their mother as a gift. When David and Susan end up traveling to her house in the country with Baby, their brief trip turns into an all out hullabaloo. To me this film is the gold standard when it comes to screwball comedies. I’m actually not a fan of couples bickering a lot in movies but I can listen to Grant and Hepburn argue for hours since they were the perfect comedy duo. Katherine Hepburn was never funnier and more goofy as she was here. Hawks’ direction is also a sight to behold, I love some of the camera movements in this film which just add to the laughs. It’s a hysterical adventure that I can always enjoy just as much as I did the first time.
BALL OF FIRE (1941) This film, like Bringing Up Baby, is another screwball comedy about how opposites attract. A young beautiful Barbara Stanwyck plays sexy nightclub performer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea who meets a nerdy grammar professor named Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). Potts is doing research on modern language and becomes obsessed with Sugarpuss because of her fast talking style. At first she doesn’t want anything to do with him but when she’s sought by the police who want to know the whereabouts of her mobster boyfriend (Dana Andrews) she hides out at Potts’ home. He lives with several other bachelor professors and they all have a fun time getting to know Sugarpuss who they regard as an exotic specimen. I really love the characters and humor in this film but the main thing I enjoyed was the focus on the slang terminology of the day and how it was used. This is one of my top 3 favorite Hawks’ comedies.
SERGEANT YORK (1941) Gary Cooper plays Alvin York, a goodhearted, slightly dimwitted Tennessee hillbilly who is drafted to fight in World War I. Although York enters as a conscientious objector, he is soon discovered to be an exceptional marksman and stands out among the troops because of his affable personality. He is moved up to the rank of Corporal and battles the Germans, becoming an unlikely national hero who’s later awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor. The film won two Academy Awards the year it was released: Best Actor: Gary Cooper and Best Film Editing: William Holmes. To me this movie is like the Forrest Gump of its day. It’s got a great script/cast and as far as war genre films go, it is one of the most entertaining ever made.
AIR FORCE (1943) This engaging action-adventure story of a B-17 Bomber nicknamed The Mary-Anne was one of the first films made following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a fast paced powerhouse of thrills as the crew played by John Ridgely, John Garfield, Harry Carey, Arthur Kennedy, John Drake and George Tobias get in firefights both in the air and on the ground. It also features some of the most violent anti-Japanese attack sequences which caused the film to be considered war propaganda. That aside, Hawks’ tautly directed, highly energetic and explosive work way back in 1943 makes most modern filmmakers who try to do war films look like total hacks. This is easily one of his best films and a World War II masterpiece.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) When it comes to science fiction cinema, this movie which was credited to Christian Nyby (but which most people believe was directed by Hawks) is one of the all time greatest. An U.S. Air Force crew from Anchorage Alaska are chosen to head an expedition to search for what is thought to be a crashed spaceship. Inside a large block of ice lies an alien creature which is basically a giant vegetable. When the ice thaws, the “thing” (James Arness) goes on a rampage, forcing the team to try to figure out a way to destroy it. This film featured the trademark Hawks group banding together to fight outside forces, only here it was an alien bent on destroying them, not some outlaws in the Old West (as we’d later see in Rio Bravo). There are some truly shocking scares that will make you jump even if you’ve seen it before. It contains No major SFX, No Blood and No Gore, just good old fashioned slowly built up suspense and terror that will have you on the edge of your seat. John Carpenter’s remake was brilliant as well.
RIO BRAVO (1959) What can I say about this Western masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? It’s simply one of the most easy to watch movies ever made. For me this film is akin to slipping into a warm jacuzzi. Once the opening credits and music by Dimitri Tiompkin roll I’m stuck and won’t move for the next two hours. The characters are beautifully written (By Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) and played by stars Wayne, Martin, Nelson, Dickinson and Brennan. They become your best friends and as they joke with each other and when they face danger you’re right there with them. This is one of those films that you either completely love or you don’t. I’d guess that most film fans who’ve seen it love it. Rio Bravo was my introduction to Director Howard Hawks and inspired me to seek out all his films.
EL DORADO (1966) For fans of the last film, this one’s story structure should seem very familiar. That’s because its essentially a remake with some slight adjustments. Instead of Claude Akins, this time Ed Asner is the villain. Robert Mitchum takes the place of Dean Martin as the town drunk/best friend, but he’s also the sheriff. Star John Wayne plays a drifter passing through town that chooses to stay until the conflict is over. Walter Brennan’s faithful old deputy Stumpy is replaced by Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt) and James Caan plays Mississippi, the stand in for Ricky Nelson’s young rookie Colorado. Is El Dorado as good as Rio Bravo? For me they’re very close. The original remains the best, but this one is just as fun to watch, contains another great cast and features some exciting action. One more detail you should know: it wasn’t the last remake of Rio Bravo, there was one more after it: Rio Lobo!
MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? (1965) When I first saw this film I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. It was originally to be a homage to Bringing Up Baby and was to again star Grant and Hepburn but that never worked out. Hawks then had to find two new actors to fill the lead roles and they ended up doing a fantastic job. Rock Hudson plays Roger Willoughby a sporting goods sales rep/fishing expert who is pursued by a nagging public relations woman named Abigail Page (Paula Prentiss) to take part in a big fishing tournament being held at a country club in the mountains. The trouble is Willoughby actually has been lying to keep his job and has never fished in his life. Roger runs into more trouble when it’s discovered that he’s basically a big klutz who can’t do much of anything that’s physically demanding. He and Abigail have a stormy relationship while staying at the campsite as he tries to maintain his status as a macho man who’s in control. Hudson and Prentiss do the same kind of screwy Grant/Hepburn arguing/romance schtick but it’s really just as enjoyable and funny because of the downright wacky gags (like a bear riding a minibike) that are set up over the course of the film. It should be noted that the loopy score by Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) also increases the humor as it plays over the different hijinks Roger, Abigail and the other supporting characters get into. Hawks was able to pull off yet another screwball masterpiece with this outing. I’m not even sure if most longtime Hawks fans even consider it to be one of his best but I happen to love it.