Who the Hell Is Howard Hawks?

Article excerpt

There is an interesting story concerning Howard Hawks to be found in Barbara Learning's Avon biography of Katharine Hepburn. In this book, Learning tells the story of Hepburn's romance with John Ford, which began, apparently, during the filming of Mary of Scotland (John Ford, U.S., 1936) The following year, she was to make Bringing Up Baby (U.S., 1938) with Howard Hawks. The screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols and, according to Learning, Hawks wanted it tailored for Hepburn, whose relationship with Ford was already well-known to Nichols. In fact, Hawks's set was full of what Learning calls 'members of the Ford group'-Ford cronies such as Ward Bond, Barry FitzGerald and D'Arcy Corrigan were all in the cast and the associate producer, once again, was Cliff Reid. Ford himself visited the set a couple of times. The relationship between Susan (Hepburn) and David (Gary Grant) in Hawks's film, Learning argues, was based on Hepburn's relationship with Ford, whose dignity she was forever puncturing and who, in Learning's words, possessed an 'exasperating ambivalence; he [Ford] is the sort of man who says, I love you, I think.' Howard Hawks, Learning also points out, 'gave Gary Grant, who played David, the small round glasses that were Ford's trademark.' Also, it might be added, Harold Lloyd's.

It is a fascinating anecdote, not least because it underlines Hawks's liking for scenes which mirrored or even parodied the behavior of people he personally knew or knew of, their own mannerisms and relationships or just odd things that had happened to them, whether they were film people or aviation people or whoever. In the same way, Lauren Bacall's performance in To Have and Have Not (U.S., 1944) made soon afterwards, was clearly modeled on Hawks's own new wife, 'Slim'. Hawks would direct actors by asking them how they would deliver a line if they were in the same situation, asking them to be themselves rather than characters, to re-live episodes from their own lives, even the most embarrassing and humiliating (and therefore the funniest) like the time Cary Grant somehow managed to get the dress of the wife of the head of the Metropolitan Museum caught in the zip of his flies (in a theater, of all places) so that, in Todd McCarthy's words, "they had to lockstep to the manager's office in order to find a pair of pliers.'

This parasitism on real life was fundamental to Hawks's whole modus operandi as a director. It is why his films veer towards a strange kind of cinéma vérité, as Bogart and Bacall fall in love or Montgomery Clift learns to respect John Wayne. He also relied shamelessly on scenes and situations borrowed from both his own and other people's movies, for whose memory of which the screenwriter Jules Furthman was especially prized-thus explaining, perhaps, Hawks's many echoes of Von Sternberg. At the same time, Hawks was always inventing self-aggrandizing stories about his own exploits-how he told Von Sternberg how to dress Marlene Dietrich, for example, or how he gave the original idea for Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, U.S., 1942) to Michael Curtiz, a particularly audacious claim when you consider what he himself had blatantly borrowed from Casablanca in making To Have and To Have Not. Yet, in a way, Hawks's compulsion for purloining and collecting and mix-and-match and tall story-telling may have been his strongest quality as a director, the one that made his films look like the very essence of Hollywood.

On the other hand, in making films which looked like the essence of Hollywood rather than like original works of art, Hawks also made it difficult for dubious critics to accept him as an artist, an innovator or a director with a clear personal agenda. Hawks's style turned out to be no-nonsense studio professionalism, salted with a kind of Robert Altman talent for improvisation on the set. Notoriously, Hawks worked in almost all the genres, treating them pretty much the same-the group could be cow-punchers or pilots delivering the mail or Free French patriots-it didn't much matter as long as there was danger and loyalty and sacrifice and a romance, salted with wisecracks and gimmicks, or, in the case of a comedy, plagued by humiliation and misunderstanding and descent into chaos. …