Saturday, July 17, 2010

#7: Howard Hawks


- “I'm a storyteller - that's the chief function of a director.”

His is the first name to come to mind when I think of the preeminent American-born directors of the classic Hollywood era. Many of his contemporaries, both in terms of time period and actual talent or stature, immigrated to America and then rose to dominate Hollywood – Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak were just a few of many who were born in Europe and rose to prominence in Tinseltwon. There were also many other outstanding Americans rising to prominence around the same time – indeed, other great American directors like Anthony Mann and John Huston have already been featured in this series. But in my mind, when I think of the archetypal American director of the period, it is always Howard Hawks.

What makes this such a natural belief is that Hawks not only dabbled in nearly every significant genre of the 30s, 40s and 50s, he produced all-time classics. His comedies of the 1930s are considered to be not only among the best screwball comedies, but some of the funniest movies ever made. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are routinely listed among the greatest comedies. His original version of Scarface in 1932 is arguably the best of the classic gangster films. The Big Sleep is among a handful of absolutely essential films noir that anyone wishing to familiarize themselves with the genre/style must see early in their quest. Air Force is as good as out-and-out propaganda films get. To Have and Have Not is as close as anyone would ever come to matching Casablanca. The Thing From Another World (which he is commonly assumed to have handled much of the directorial duties on) is a splendid piece of 1950s science-fiction and horror. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical comedy par excellence, which even someone like myself who normally has no interest in such films finds outstanding. And westerns like Rio Bravo and Red River are as incredible a one-two western punch as any director – Ford, Mann, Leone, Eastwood, anyone – ever made.

I could go on listing examples, but I think you get the point. There are other directors that can match his versatility, but I can count on one hand the directors who can match his mastery of such different genres and styles. Why was he so successful while moving in such varying fields? It might play like a broken record in these parts, as regulars here at Goodfella’s have heard me say it again and again, but Howard Hawks is simply one of the finest storytellers in the history of cinema. He might not have been a writer like other greats such as Wilder, Welles, and others. But he worked with a core group of writers that brought staggering talent to the page – Jules Furthmann, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecth, William Faulkner – and whose screenplays inevitable possessed the characteristics that have now come to be recognized as “Hawksian.” Themes concerning friendship, professionalism, and seeing a job through to very end regardless of the consequences are the foundations of a Hawks drama. I still maintain that no one, not even the great Sam Peckinpah, ever handled ideas of bonding and close, intense friendship among male characters better than Hawks.

So with such versatility and excellence, it is easy to understand why I revere Howard Hawks. This is a placement that I almost regret, as I want to nudge him just a little higher. For now, I can’t as the competition is getting far too tough. Suffice to say that from this point on, the list could be inverted and I wouldn’t really quibble with the rankings.

1. Rio Bravo (1959)
2. Red River (1948)
3. The Big Sleep (1946)
4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
5. To Have and Have Not (1944)
6. Scarface (1932)
7. Twentieth Century (1934)
8. His Girl Friday (1940)
9. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
10. Air Force (1943)
11. Monkey Business (1952)
12. The Thing from Another World (1951)
13. El Dorado (1967)
14. The Criminal Code (1931)
15. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
16. Tiger Shark (1932)
17. Sergeant York (1941)
18. Ball of Fire (1941)
19. Rio Lobo (1970)

13 comments:

  1. I imagine that anyone can find a Hawks film to like, especially if they approach the work without preconceptions of what's "Hawksian," a notion that has little to do with his screwball films, after all. In fact....

    1.Bringing Up Baby
    2.His Girl Friday
    3.Only Angels Have Wings
    4. Red River
    5. Twentieth Century
    6. Scarface
    7. Rio Bravo
    8. To Have and Have Not
    9. The Big Sleep
    10. Hatari!
    11. Ball of Fire
    12. El Dorado
    13. Sergeant York
    14. Monkey Business
    15. Land of the Pharaohs
    16. A Song is Born

    Regarding The Thing From Another World, can't James Arness or some other surivior finally set us straight? Did none of those actors every say who called the shots on the set? If they say Hawks, then it'd go into my top ten.

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  2. I agree with your top 3 Dave. My order is slightly different but those are my favorites as well. The Thing From Another World just feels like a Hawks film. Even if he didn't actually direct it, his influence is the deciding factor in its success and overall structure.

    1. The Big Sleep
    2. Red River
    3. Rio Bravo
    4. The Thing From Another World
    5. To Have And Have Not
    6. Scarface
    7. Only Angels Have Wings
    8. Sergeant York
    9. His Girl Friday
    10. Bringing Up Baby

    I personally would place a couple of American directors you've already listed above him. Saying that, the top 4 on my list are pictures I treasure....M.Roca

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  3. This was a tough one to place in some kind of order for me,. I could probably sit here all day and move some of them around in order as I continue to think about it. The top 5 are rock solid in their placement. So many good films !

    Rio Bravo
    The Big Sleep
    Scarface
    To Have and Have Not
    Red River
    Only Angels Have Wings
    His Girl Friday
    Twentierth Century
    Ball of Fire
    The Thing from Another World
    Bringing Up Baby
    I Was A Male War Bride
    Barbary Coast
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    Hatari
    The Crowd Roars
    Man's Favorite Sport
    El Dorado
    The Criminal Code
    Tiger Shark
    Sgt York
    Monkey Business
    Rio Lobo
    Viva Villa
    The Outlaw

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  4. Hawks is probably my #1. There is no other director that I enjoy so completely across the board and who has a top-notch film for any mood I'm in, or even just a good-time film for when I'm in a lazy mood, like Rio Lobo. Having said that, there are still several of his I haven't seen yet.

    1. Rio Bravo
    2. His Girl Friday
    3. The Big Sleep
    4. To Have and Have Not
    5. Bringing Up Baby
    6. Ball of Fire
    7. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    8. Scarface
    9. I was a Male War Bride
    10. El Dorado (I know, but it has Mitchum)
    12. Red River
    13. Sgt York

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  5. Hawks would certainly have a fair shot to land in my Top 10, certainly the Top 20 in any case, and his remarkable versatility in negotiating so many genres places him athe forefront in this regard. You make an excellent point Dave, in that Hawks not only took on these genres but turned in masterpieces within those parameters. He's like fine wine, his films seem to get better with age, and like Lubitsch he's as sophisticated as any director. And yes John, I would never grow tired of hearing you say that he one of the greatest storytellers. It's certainly a fact.

    1 Red River
    2 His Girl Friday
    3 Bringing Up Baby
    4 Rio Bravo
    5 The Big Sleep
    6 Come and Get It
    7 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    8 Scarface
    9 The Thing From Another World
    10 Only Angels Have Wings
    11 Twentieth Century
    12 Ball of Fire
    13 Hatari!
    14 Land of the Pharaohs (a childhood favorite)
    15 The Dawn Patrol
    16 To Have or Have Not
    17 The Criminal Code
    18 El Dorado
    19 Barbary Coast
    20 Monkey Business
    21 Rio Lobo
    22 The Ransom of Red Chief (anthology part)
    23 Sergeant York
    24 Men's Favorite Sport
    25 I Was A Male War Bride
    26 Tiger Shark
    27 Viva Villa
    28 Air Force

    I am rather surprised that COME AND GET IT (always a favorite) and THE DAWN PATROL weren't mentioned by others, but Hawks' prolific output will always yield disperate value judgements. Fair enough. He would be the perfect subject for a comprehensive festival at some point too. GENTLEMEN is running for two weeks next month at the Film Forum.

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  6. Dave

    1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
    2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
    3. His Girl Friday (1940)
    4. Scarface (1932)
    5. The Thing from Another World (1951) (uncredited)
    6. To Have and Have Not (1944)
    7. The Big Sleep (1946)
    8. Red River (1948)
    9. Ball of Fire (1941)
    10. Monkey Business (1952)
    11. The Dawn Patrol (1930)
    12. Come and Get It (1936)

    An excellent choice, which I find particularly thought provoking. I have kept in mind your comment in your Coppola posting where you stressed favorite vs. greatest (always a difficult old chestnut to crack open). I write this having read your introduction but before reading the other comments to your posting -- I am beyond curious to see how others think.

    There has long been an undercurrent in Hollywood, at least, of not evaluating comedy with the same standards brought to “serious” films. But the sheer brilliance and joy of “Bringing up Baby” and “His Girl Friday” make me place these at one and three.

    I was a boy on a Bronx hill once looking down at a store rooftop that had a large billboard of “Only Angels Have Wings." (I could take you there now to the very place on Google Earth Street View.) The trip from the billboard to yet another showing on TCM seventy years later has not diminished this film’s fascination. Nor has listening to Hawks discuss (in “The Men Who Made the Movies”) the Thomas Mitchell death scene – which reminds us to look askance at critics.

    I believe most of the other films on my list are all excellent examples of Sarris’s description of Hawks’s themes of “instinctive professionalism.” It permeates across genres.

    The films I listed are from the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. (I did not see “Scarface” on the first round; it was famously elusive.) I chose on preference, not on year of issue, but the absence of Hawks’s later work cannot be ignored. Perhaps there is an unintended generational prejudice. My choices have been, in essence, lifelong companions, akin to lifelong friends. And we have all survived the journey to the age of “Avatar.”

    One of your commenters occasionally uses the word "connect" describing his relationship to films. I find the word helpful in discussing my omitting “Rio Bravo.” I think it is a very good movie, I have just never connected with it. This places me in a different corner not only from you, but also puts me at odds with my most important mentor, Andrew Sarris. Also at odds with the one “best film” list (Sight and Sound 100) to which I pay attention. And to endless others with whom I agree on much else. I am unsure why; I cannot explain it.

    But Hawks was a master. And you have done him good service. I believe a goodly number of my peers in our youth knew about Hawks. And some of us became aware of the rediscovery by the French in the 1960s and, subsequently, on this side of the Atlantic. We thought it was less an epiphany than some being late to the dance. But they came, which is what really matters.

    Best

    Gerald

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  7. David Thomson wrote that he would be content to be marooned on a desert island with no movies but those of Howard Hawks. He's one of my favorites too, and the versatility others have mentioned is proven by the fact that his best movies straddle so many genres. My favorite Hawks movie is "Bringing Up Baby," which is one of my 10 favorite of all time. Other films of his I consider masterpieces (in chronological order):

    Twentieth Century
    His Girl Friday
    To Have and Have Not
    The Big Sleep
    Red River

    Also excellent but a cut below the above:

    Only Angels Have Wings
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    Hatari!

    He made many other movies that are enjoyable (most of those mentioned by others) but to me not as good as the ones I've mentioned above. I have mixed feelings about "Rio Bravo" (although on the whole I like it, but I'm with Gordon on this one and also in the observation that his best work was done in the 30s and 40s) and find "Sergeant York" overrated (I'm with John on this one). Interestingly, I've read that Michael Curtiz was originally set to direct "York" and Hawks "Casablanca," but they agreed to switch after Curtiz told Hawks he didn't understand those hillbillies. Haven't yet seen "Scarface," which sounds promising.

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  8. Samuel - As can be seen by my list, Bringing Up Baby is one that has just never connected for me, but I agree with your overall assessment of Hawks's work. There is certainly something for everyone.

    Maurizio - Yes, our ordering may differ a little bit, but we're on the same page in terms of Hawks favorites. He's certainly among the handful of greatest American directors of all time.

    John - Glad to see some sanity and someone else with Rio Bravo at the top of a list! LOL... An impressive collection of Hawks that you have listed here.

    Retro Hound - There are times when I think Hawks could easily be my #1 as well. Like I said, these top 7 definitely separate themselves from the pack.

    Sam - I haven't seen Come and Get It or The Dawn Patrol, but I will definitely make a point of checking them out. I love seeing Red River place so high also!

    Gerald - Rio Bravo is the one film that I have no trouble placing. I easily rank it Hawks's best film and #1 on my list of favorite westerns... in short, one of the easiest placements of this entire project! As you say, Hawks was a great director comedy - I LOVE His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - but Bringing Up Baby is one that has never worked for me. I just don't find it funny. So just as Rio Bravo has never connected for you, Bringing Up Baby has never worked for me.

    R.D. - As you'll notice from my other comments, Bringing Up Baby is not a favorite of mine, as I don't find it very funny. The rest of your list looks good though, despite the fact that it leaves off Hawks's best film! LOL

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  9. Ah, I was expecting Hawks to come any time soon. Now there are three more directors I'm expecting here.

    I've only seen three Hawks films, all masterworks:

    1. Red River
    2. His Girl Friday
    3. Rio Bravo

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  10. I (nearly) agree with David Thomson: if I could be stranded on a desert island with just the films of Hawks and Godard, I think I'd be OK without any other movies. I could probably get by with just Hawks, too. He's the greatest American director, in my opinion, because he brings a distinctly personal style to every movie without ever seeming to. There's something effortless and magical in the best Hawks films, and yet they also contain unexpected thematic and emotional depths that just seem to rise naturally from his way of treating his material, his sure instinct for getting the most out of performers, his underrated and unshowy aesthetic sensibility. He made one masterpiece after another, in countless Hollywood genres, and even the least of his work merits a look. Only Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, all of whom not so coincidentally adored him, would rank with him in my personal pantheon.

    This is a rough ranking, and especially towards the top they're all so close that it's hard to pick one over the other.

    1. Only Angels Have Wings
    2. His Girl Friday
    3. Rio Bravo
    4. The Big Sleep
    5. El Dorado

    Twentieth Century
    The Thing From Another World
    Scarface
    A Girl in Every Port
    Hatari!
    Bringing Up Baby
    Ball of Fire
    Ceiling Zero
    Air Force
    The Big Sky
    Tiger Shark
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    Monkey Business
    The Dawn Patrol
    Red River
    To Have and Have Not
    The Criminal Code
    Come and Get It
    The Road to Glory
    Sergeant York
    Land of the Pharaohs
    I Was a Male War Bride
    Man's Favorite Sport?
    Barbary Coast
    Today We Live
    The Crowd Roars
    A Song Is Born
    Red Line 7000

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  11. A great director who grew on me over time. I don't think he jumps out at most fresh/precocious film buffs - they're more prone to recognize gratness in a flashy auteur like Kubrick or Scorsese; Hawks' art is more subtle. Heck, it took film historians and critics about 20-30 years to recognize him as an artist of towering stature, so my own decade or so (granted, for much of that decade I'd not yet seen any of his films) of cinephilia sans Hawks is less awkward.

    And boy do I envy you, Gerald/Gordon Pasha. The last time I was in the Bronx they had billboards...for Garfield 2.

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  12. Really not a fan of Hawk's work. There's next to know substance involved and if Rio Bravo was a statement against High Noon, then it's a pretty weak and pathetic statement. Like Orson Welles said, "Unless a director can give something to a picture, other than that which will happen automatically,if the writing is good, if the actors are good, then he's just someone who yells cut, action, take it a little faster take it a little slower." This is how I feel about Hawks. Now I enjoyed Scarface but his other films seem so...well bland. To me his films are on Autopilot, and follow the cliches and rules laid out in manuals. To me that's not a good director, that's simply a technician.

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  13. Howard Hawks, a producer-director who obviously is deeply in love with the storied, pioneer West, again is proving his unabashed sentiment for sturdy men and rugged places in "The Big Sky," a saga as long as the day and as big as all outdoors, which is being spun now at the Criterion. Mr. Hawks' source material is the finest on the subject and if he simply captured the muscular, surface effects and some of the scenic glories of A. B. Guthrie's novel he has done a viewer a real service.

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