Friday, September 13, 2013

The “invisible” auteur — "the Complete Howard Hawks” festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, now through November 10

Of all the master directors in Hollywood’s “golden age,” Howard Hawks remains the most enigmatic. Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Lang, Von Sternberg — all had readily discernible visual styles, while Hawks avoided every kind of visual flourish and concentrated instead on pure storytelling. He also not only made films in just about every great Hollywood genre, he made seminal films in those genres, a feat that was beyond the mega-talents mentioned above.

A comprehensive festival of Hawks’ work (39 in all, spanning 44 years) — the first such in a long time in the New York area — is going on now at the Museum of the Moving Image in my old nabe of Astoria, Queens. In the past two weeks I’ve watched 10 of Hawks’ films (both at the museum and on disc in preparation for a segment on the festival for the Funhouse TV show), and Hawks’ mastery of genre remains breathtaking. The key bonus and blessing of this festival is that the features are all being shown ON FILM, which is getting increasingly rarer and rarer in this digital era.

But back to the films: In some cases Hawks reproduced genre tropes that were already around (could The Big Sleep have existed without The Maltese Falcon?) and in others he was devising the tropes himself — as with the screwball comedy, which he jumpstarted with Twentieth Century and perfected with Bringing Up Baby. But in all the films that weren’t mere “assignments” from studios (and there were few of those after the mid-Thirties) Hawks stuck true to his “codes.”

The Cahiers du Cinema critics in France (who of course later became the standard-bearers of the nouvelle vague) and Andrew Sarris in this country were the first to notice what Hawks’ seemingly dissimilar films had in common. The first tenet they deemed “the code of professionalism” — the fact that the heroes of his pictures took their professions very seriously, and that the mark of a person’s worth was how well they did their job.

This extended from Walter Huston risking his life as a steadfastly honest prison warden (The Criminal Code, 1930) to the trio of cowboys guarding a prisoner whose confederates want to bust him out of jail (Rio Bravo, 1959). One of the single best examples is the sublime Only Angels Have Wings (1939), in which Cary Grant plays a flyer in South America who is willing to lay his life (and those of his colleagues) on the line for what seem like ridiculously routine assignments.

The second tenet of a lot of Hawks’ dramas is that they concern a ragtag group of individuals who band together to accomplish something in a short span of time. This occurs frequently in his male-bonding films, which are miles away from today’s perception of machismo in the movies.

Sure, his characters were sometimes soldiers, had fistfights, raced cars, flew planes in dangerous weather, and indulged in lethal gun battles, but it’s the solemn, quiet nature of Hawks’ macho cinema that makes it so appealing. Especially when you compare it to present-day testosterone-charged, explosion-riddled Hollywood action pics. (The photo to the right shows Hawks showing Kirk Douglas how to throw a punch on the set of The Big Sky.)

And then there were the “Hawksian women.” Although he himself was a very old-fashioned gent (see the documentary below), he made numerous films featuring active, independent, wise-cracking women. His female characters frequently make the first pass at the men and are also career-minded — the perfect example being Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940).

The men in Hawks’ screwball comedies are not the noble figures from his male-bonding pictures. They are generally dignified gents who have their dignity slowly stripped from them as they play the comic foil to the female leads. Cary Grant became the personification of that character, but Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson (in the underrated Man’s Favorite Sport?) did wonderful jobs playing essentially the same part.

Hawks’ visual style is indeed “invisible,” except for the feverishly wild compositions in Scarface (1932), his gorgeously-lit images of some of his female stars (most notably Bacall in To Have and Have Not), and "artsy" camera movements of his silent feature Paid to Love (1927). Sarris noted that he crafted “good, clean, direct, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.” Hawks favored medium shots of his characters — to further Sarris' point, the composition is called the plan américain by the French.

The modernity of his characters certainly makes his films age well, but what about the lengths of his films? Both Hawks’ action pictures and his comedies are much longer than those by his contemporaries (for example, Rio Bravo is 141 minutes, and the very light-hearted Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) is a full 120 mins).

There are two elements that make his films so breezy despite their somewhat daunting running times. The first, of course, is the casts — he flitted from actress to actress (although he did use Marilyn twice, both brilliantly), but he made five films with both Cary Grant and John Wayne (that fact alone says a lot about his disparate output), and worked more than once with Cooper, Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart. He also used memorable supporting actors, the uncommonly mom-like (or wife-like, if you please — see Mark Rappaport’s 1997 video-essay The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender) Walter Brennan being a favorite.

But the central reason Hawks’ films are so compulsively watchable despite their length is the roster of first-rank screenwriters he used. In addition to the great Ben Hecht, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett (whom he worked with a lot), he filmed scripts by Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Charles MacArthur, Dudley Nichols, Charles Lederer, W.R. Burnett, and John Huston. He also had the distinction of being the only director who had a sterling relationship with William Faulkner — he filmed several Faulkner scripts, including the seemingly unlikely Land of the Pharaohs (1955). One of the singular joys of seeing a bunch of Hawks films in a row is hearing the same lines of dialogue (and, in some cases, seeing entire physical bits of business) crop up in different films.

To conclude this overview, there is no substitute for clips. I urge those in the NYC area to check out the festival at the Museum of the Moving Image. MoMI had one of the best retrospectives of the last decade with its comprehensive Jacques Rivette fest (which I count as one of the most enlightening and important repertory festivals I’ve been to in my life). Most of the films in the Hawks-fest are not as rarely shown as those in the Rivette retro were, but the experience of seeing a number of them in a row, in pristine film prints projected on a screen in an auditorium, is one that can’t be beat.


There are a few documentaries about Hawks available online (here is one in Spanish; here is one in French), but the best filmed interview with him took place in the 1970s when Richard Schickel was assembling the Men Who Made the Movies series. The episode about Hawks finds him open and honest about his opinions (and decidedly unimpressed by the Westerns of that era):

His first silent is lost, but the second one has survived and is quite charming. It starts out in the stone age and jumps to the present-day (and then back to the stone age!), telling the tale of a wife who has “nothing to wear.” There’s a lot of late Twenties fashion on display, and some pre-screwball sitcom-like comedy, in Fig Leaves (1926):

A scene from The Criminal Code (1930) that might seem laughable today — I would be willing to bet Lenny Bruce got his “yadda yadda, warden” (later appropriated by Seinfeld) from his scene — but which is still tense as hell. New warden Walter Huston decides to walk among his inmates unprotected:

Hawks loved the world of racing, but he only made two films about it. Here is a short segment from the Cagney classic The Crowd Roars (1932):

I am not a war movie fan and have yet to catch up to Hawks’ war pics (I will, I will), but I absolutely love Hawks’ aviator pics (in real life, Hawks had been a flyer and you can feel it in the films). The best of the bunch, and probably the film not already deemed a classic that I would *heavily* recommend in the MoMI festival, is Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Director Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) apparently feels the same way:

Hawks’ Scarface (1932) has been eclipsed by De Palma’s over-the-top ridiculous remake (one thing I will admit: both Paul Muni and Pacino give terrible performances). Here is a clip of directors Walter Hill and Michael Mann talking about the original:

The Big Sleep (1946) is one of the great detective films of all time. It’s not a comprehensible mystery (the pre-release 1944 version of the film makes more sense — but who really needs a noir-era mystery to make sense?). Here’s the great scene in which Bogart charms a book store clerk, played by a young Dorothy Malone (“you begin to interest me…”):

To show that Hawks truly did work in just about every classic Hollywood genre, here are scenes from a film he produced and supposedly co-directed, Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World (1951). It’s a classic Fifties paranoid sci-fi picture that concentrates on plot and characterization — the monster (played by James Arness) doesn’t appear until the very end of the film:

And speaking of classic H’wood genres, here’s the trailer for his big, brassy, Technicolor Fifties musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952). There are many feminist studies of the film (it is Hawks’ one and only female bonding pic):

He made only five Westerns, but those qualify him in the first rank of Hollywood Western directors. His first was Red River (1948), a fascinating inter-generational saga that pits the old Hollywood (John Wayne) vs. the new (Montgomery Clift). The very notion of using the subtle, “sensitive” Clift in a Western is a radical one, and he is excellent facing off against “the Duke.” Here he discusses guns with John Ireland (hey, no one ever said these films weren’t highly Freudian):

One of the best-ever Hollywood major studio Westerns is Rio Bravo (1959). It doesn’t have the psychological complexity and gorgeous location-shoot visuals of the films of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, but is a hands-down masterpiece as both a Western and a male-bonding picture:

Hawks’ movies will continue to be watched by generations to come, but it is perhaps his screwball comedies that are best loved by old movie fans of the current era. There are no good clips online from his first great screwball opus, Twentieth Century (1934), so we jump straight to the masterwork. Could there have been I Love Lucy or any of the sillier, broader TV comedies of the Fifties and Sixties without the superb Bringing up Baby (1938)? Here’s a short scene (sans Katie Hepburn) that shows again what a modern director Hawks really was:

His Girl Friday (1940) is another Hawks comedy that was a wellspring of a lot of modern situation comedy. This remake of The Front Page proceeds at a frantic pace and is one of the greatest “battle of the sexes” comedies. It fell into public domain some years ago, so copies of it can be found everywhere (it is available in its entirety online, but is, again, best seen on a movie screen).

Here is a sequence that clearly inspired the overlapping dialogue found in the work of Funhouse favorite Robert Altman (when asked about his use of many characters speaking at once, Altman would point to screwball comedies as having done it years before he did).

Ball of Fire (1941) is Hawks directing a script co-written by the inimitable Billy Wilder. Here is a little segment in which the professors are exposed to modern slang:

I Was a Male War Bride (1949) is a miraculously odd creation – a film that is half “sexual tension” battle-of-the-sexes, and half gender-bending comedy in which Cary Grant is the “wife” of his U.S. WAC wife (the fact that he’s supposed to be a Frenchman makes no sense whatsoever, but hey…). Here’s the scene at the midpoint of the film where the plot switches gears:

Hawks’ last movie with Grant was the high-energy farce Monkey Business (1952). Here’s the trailer:

The final Hawks screwball comedy is Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964). Rock Hudson stars as a fishing “expert” who has never actually fished in his life (he’s just absorbed info from customers in the store he works in). The film finds Hudson playing yet another character who is hiding something — we return to Mark Rappaport, this time to Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.

The film was not a major success, but has acquired a cult in the half century since it came out. It clearly was “out of time,” appearing only a few month before A Hard Day’s Night changed the tone of screen comedy, but it holds up surprisingly well, thanks to its clever scripting and solid lead performances (it’s got to be Paula Prentiss’ finest moment in film). Here’s the trailer:

And it’s always best to close off with a song. One of the most unlikely scenes in Rio Bravo — but one which comes off perfectly — is the odd moment where Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson duet on “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” Walter Brennan then joins them (!) for “Cindy,” a song I mentioned in my Dolores Fuller obit, as she re-wrote it for Elvis. Dean, Ricky, and Walter are doing the traditional North Carolina folk tune version, discovered by John Lomax:

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