H oward Hawks is today considered one of the most important directors of American cinema, being praised not only in the USA but all around the world. However, recognition was not easily attained since Hawks, like most genius minds, was not fully understood at his time and was considered not to have what it takes to be included in the canon. For instance, many film critics couldn’t find a unique, well-defined vision in his movies as they would in the movies directed by Ford or Chaplin and regarded Hawks more as a mediocre director who would recycle stories and lines both from other filmmakers’ pictures and from his older movies.
Nevertheless, history (and a very dedicated group of French film critics) made him justice, and his movies are now accessible again to be watched at home or projected on a big outdoor screen, so everyone can look and marvel at the first version of Scarface or laugh in tears at one of the best comedies ever written and directed – Hard Times.
Hawks was born May 30, 1896, in a very prominent family in Goshen, Indiana. The marriage between a wealthy paper maker, who was his father, and the daughter of a rich businessman, who was his mother, set the premises for a happy childhood during which the future director was spoiled by his parents and grandparents. This added to his stubborn character who wouldn’t take no for an answer or accept limitations – later he would enter into conflict with his employers for going over the budget multiple times.
The young Hawks didn’t get excellent results in school, but he became interested in tennis (he won the Tennis Championship for Juniors) and coaster racing (his grandfather bought him a racing car as soon as he was old enough to drive). He continued his studies at Cornell University, from which he graduated as a mechanical engineer.
While still at the university, his grandfather pushed him to join the Army as an aviation lieutenant, but he never made it to the front during WWI. Instead, he was an instructor for the aviators. Later, he used the experience he gained during these years to render a feeling of authenticity to some of his movies about aviation.
Hawks was not only a very resourceful director but also a great storyteller who liked to invent a lot as he was recounting different episodes in his life. This is why it is unclear to what degree is his first directing experience true. The story told by Hawks is that once, as he was employed as a prop boy on a picture directed by Marshall Neilan, he offered to direct a scene in a moment when Neilan was not available, and he was permitted to do it.
The next years brought Hawks a series of jobs in the film production industry, which ranged from assistant director to scriptwriter, and producer. His ambition was nonetheless to direct, but Paramount was not yet convinced that he should get a chance. So, once he got a proposal from Fox, Howard jumped in and directed his first movie, The Road to Glory, in 1926.
Hawks started directing just before silent films were replaced by “talkies”. His first pictures were without sound – he did 8 films in this style – and some of them enjoyed great feedback from the public. His first movie, The Road to Glory was founded on a screenplay created by Hawks and was an experimental one that contained messages never to be found again in other Hawks movies. He wasn’t too content with the final result, although there were a few critics who found it worthy of attention.
A Girl in Every Port appeared in 1928 and is believed to be the best picture from Hawks’ silent movie career. It is the first time when themes that will dominate his entire work appear, and the viewer can glance at portions of how the director’s style will be. This picture focuses on the theme of friendship between two men who are brought together by their passion for women and a similar seamen career. The movie was extremely well received both by the critics and the public and broke the record for the highest receipts made in a single day at the Roxy Theater in NY, where it was shown.
With The Air Circus, which appeared in the same year, Hawks got to experiment with another theme that was one of his favorite: aviation. He used a lot of what he had learned as an aviation instructor, and the film was, overall, a success, although Hawks had a dispute with Fox, which insisted on including 15 minutes of voice. Hawke found the dialogues to be horrible, and so did many of the critics.
Adding sound to movies brought a big change in everything that cinematography meant to that moment. Suddenly, the actors weren’t only supposed to look good on the glass, they were supposed to have diction and a pleasant voice. Lines needed to be written for them, and there was a big problem at the beginning with making them sound natural. Hawks and other Hollywood directors found the solution in hiring writers like William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway to help write the dialogues. The screwball comedy also become extremely popular, and Hawks explored it extensively.
His first sound movie success was The Dawn Patrol, which appeared in 1930 and was another picture about aviation that had in center stage the friendship between two aviation aces, upset that new pilots were sent to combat as soon as they arrived without receiving proper training or equipment. The film had conversations written by Dan Totheroh and Seton I. Miller and a powerful anti-war message. It earned over 1 million dollars in the USA and over half a million overseas. A remake was produced in 1938, called Flight Commander, and the movie entered popular culture with Warner Bros releasing two Looney Tunes cartoons that parodied it.
In 1932, Hawks directed The Crowd Roars, which was a picture about racing, another of his many passions, and Tiger Shark, a melodrama about love and betrayal. 1932 was also the year in which he finished his favorite movie, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, which featured Paul Muni in the role of Antonio Camonte. The screenplay belonged to Ben Hecht and was based on the life of Al Capone. The movie dealt with censorship, as many censors considered that it promoted violence and asked Hawks to make modifications, which delayed the release by 1 year. The finale was replaced at the request of the censors, but most variants today are presented with the original scene. The censorship continued outside the US, with Nazi Germany prohibiting it and Italy criticizing the depiction of Italian gangsters. Nevertheless, the reception was great, and the movie sold a lot. In 1994, it was selected to be included in the United States National Film Registry as it was considered it was a valuable piece of cinematographic history that required conservation.
With Twentieth Century, which was released in 1934, Hawks stepped into a succession of screwball comedies that would bring him plenty of popularity among the viewers. It continued with Bringing Up Baby in 1938, in which Katherine Hepburn and Carry Grant shone through impeccable acting and made the public laugh in amazement at the absurd of someone having a leopard as a pet and all the funny situations that derived from this. Cary Grant is cast again the next year in Only Angels Have Wings, where he plays the role of a flight pilot and a manager of a company, who is pushed to risk his pilots’ lives to increase the company’s economic situation. The aviation theme is present again, with Hawks having no problem with recycling his ideas.
His Girl Friday (1940) was nevertheless more innovative, with the director encouraging the actors to leave aside all they knew about acting and act spontaneously and sometimes even aggressively. In some scenes, the actors ignore the convention that they should pretend not to be aware of the presence of the public and look directly into the camera, addressing them with their eyes.
A big commercial success, Sergeant York (1941) told the story of Alvin C. York, which was the most appraised and decorated American soldier after WWI. The film was released during the period of the Pearl Harbor attack, and its patriotic theme helped recruit soldiers for WWII. In fact, there were many cases when men went directly to enrolling offices after viewing the movie. Based on what Hawks considered to be the worst book of Hemingway, To Have and Have Not was released in 1944 and received good critics, although it was often regarded as a remake of Casablanca.
In 1946, The Big Sleep appeared, which was a film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as lead actors. The script received the involvement of William Faulkner and was considered by the critics as insightful but difficult to understand due to some scenes that were removed. Red River received 2 Academy Awards proposals two years later, while the opinions were divided when I Was a Male War Bride was released in 1949.
Howard gave another big commercial hit in 1953 when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes appeared. The cast included Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel, and the story was a delicious comedy. In 1970, Rio Lobo was the last film produced and directed by Hawks. Just like El Dorado and Rio Bravo, it told the story of a sheriff who needed to protect his office against threatening elements.
What made it difficult to identify Hawks as a great director was his inclination toward entertainment and not toward illustrating a vision. He was concerned with producing movies that would give the public a good laugh, a great story, motivation, and so on. His characters do not abide by the general code and are not exemplary, but they have personal moral codes, which become the only ones to count in the movies.
In general, Hawks’ movies are either comedies, in which men are put in many humiliating situations, leading to hilarious responses (women play important parts in these pictures), or adventure films (men are main characters and women appear only tangentially).
When he was 81 years old, Hawks tripped on his dog and fell, which led to a series of medical complications. He spent a few weeks in the hospital, trying to recuperate from the contusions, but he died a few days after asking to be taken home.
His movies were not very popular after his death, at least not as popular as those that were produced by his friend John Ford. Yet, a group of French cinephiles composed of critics Jean Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol rediscovered his movies and started writing reviews and pushing for them to be played again. The actions ended up getting Hawks back to light and including it in the cinematographic canon.