Great Directors: Howard Hawks

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 23, 2014

Howard Hawks


“I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director.  And they’re moving pictures.  Let’s make ‘em move!”

The Gray Fox (as Hawks is called in the subtitle of a biography by Todd McCarthy) was a contemporary of John Ford and rivals Ford’s record of brilliant films across a spectrum of movie genres.  He only made five westerns, but four of them are great or near-great, and he was much better at gangster movies and comedies than Ford.  His films continue to rank very high in re-watchability, and they are known for assertive female roles in a pre-feminist age.  Many of his films seem to examine a Hemingway-esque vision of what it means to be a man (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not [based on a Hemingway story] and Rio Bravo, for example).  

Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy family in Indiana in 1896.  They settled in Pasadena, California, before 1910, but he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Cornell, majoring in mechanical engineering.  Returning to California in 1916, he met fledgling director Victor Fleming while racing cars, and Fleming’s connections drew him into the movie business.   By the end of April 1917 Hawks was working on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American, where he met and befriended the then eighteen-year-old slate boy James Wong Howe.  Hawks next worked on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess, directed by Marshall Neilan.  According to Hawks, Neilan did not show up to work one day and the resourceful Hawks offered to direct a scene himself, which Pickford agreed to allow.


He began to direct more regularly, along with serving irregularly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I.  He was discharged as a Second Lieutenant without having seen active duty.  Hawks used his family money to make a loan to Jack Warner, and that gave him an in at Warner Brothers as a producer.  But by 1923, he decided he wanted to direct, rather than produce.  He became a story editor for Jesse Lasky (later Paramount), based on a recommendation by Irving Thalberg, and had his first official screenplay credit in 1924 on Tiger Love.  He moved to MGM in 1925 based on a promise by Thalberg that he could direct.  He quickly moved on to Fox, where he directed eight films over the next three years, making the transition from silents to talkies.  He would be an active director for the next 45 years.  After the expiration of his contract with Fox in 1929, he remained an independent director for the rest of his career.


Hawks’ first talkie, The Dawn Patrol, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn and David Niven by a different director.  Barthelmess would show up again in a Hawks flying movie in 1939 (Only Angels Have Wings), a comeback role for him and one of his last.

In 1928, Hawks married Athole Shearer, Norma’s sister.  His brothers Kenneth and Bill married Mary Astor and Bessie Love, so the family became even better connected in the industry.  In all, Hawks would be married three times.  Kenneth, also an up-and-coming young director, died in a spectacular and much-publicized airplane collision over Santa Monica Bay in 1930 while filming Such Men Are Dangerous.

HawksScarface HawksAngelsP

As Hawks’ career as a director took off in the 1930s, he showed his versatility.  After his first talkie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), he made the first great gangster movie, Scarface (1932).  He proceeded to show a deft touch with screwball comedies, including Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).  His best films of the period also include male action films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Sergeant York (1941, for which he received his only nomination for  the Best Director Oscar), To Have and Have Not (1944) and, edging into film noir, The Big Sleep (1946). 

He cast young model Lauren Bacall in her first role in To Have and Have Not, where she met Humphrey Bogart.  Her character is called Slim, like Hawks’ wife at the time, and her assertiveness and manner of speaking are characteristic of the typical Hawks female.  Among the writers he worked with on this project and others from the period were his favorites William Faulkner, Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett.  Hawks was a friend of author Ernest Hemingway, and apparently To Have and Have Not arose from a bet by Hawks that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst story.  He did.


Hawks directing Red River, with John Wayne and Joanne Dru.

In 1941, he had started directing The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie, but he didn’t finish it and was uncredited on the project—just as well, since it’s kind of a cinematic bomb.  In 1946 Hawks made his first western (if you don’t count Viva Villa!, the 1934 biopic about the Mexican revolutionary), the classic Red River, starring John Wayne and introducing Montgomery Clift.  It is the first great cattle drive western, and it finally convinced John Ford that John Wayne could really act.  Wayne went on to his long-term partnership with Ford, making the Cavalry Trilogy, The Searchers and others, but he also continued to work with Hawks, appearing in four of Hawks’ five westerns and in Hatari! (1962).  The release of Red River was delayed for a couple of years while Howard Hughes raised spurious legal claims against it, but upon its eventual release, it was a great box office and critical success.

The second of Hawks’ five westerns was 1952’s The Big Sky, with Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt, a mountain man-fur trading story set in the 1830s and based on a best-selling novel by A.B. Guthrie.  It’s not often seen now, because (a) the film was mutilated in the cutting room by the studio to shorten it, and the footage that was removed has mostly been lost, and (b) it’s not available on DVD.  But it is an excellent western, the second-best mountain man movie yet made, after Jeremiah Johnson.


Blocking out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky, directing Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo.

Hawks’ third western was another classic, Rio Bravo in 1959, with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson.  Hawks said he made it in part as his take on the High Noon situation.  In the Hawks version, the beleaguered sheriff John T. Chance does not go around asking for help from townspeople but puts together a team consisting of himself, a drunk former deputy (Dean Martin, effective in an early movie role), a gimpy jailer (veteran character actor Walter Brennan) and a young untested gunman (singer-television actor Ricky Nelson) to fight much greater numbers.  It was taken as a commercial sort of film and not given much critical attention on its release, but time has shown it to be one of the very best westerns and a film with high re-watchability.  Angie Dickinson’s female gambler-dance hall girl Feathers is quite similar in her assertiveness to Slim in To Have and Have Not.  With writers Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett the same on both projects, the dialogue even sounds quite similar.

Hawks liked Rio Bravo so well that he used the story twice more for the basis of his last two westerns, both times with John Wayne again.  El Dorado (1966) is mostly successful, although not a classic like Rio Bravo.  Starring Robert Mitchum as a drunken sheriff with Wayne’s ethical gunman, it’s quite worth watching.   He made the story again in his last movie and last western, Rio Lobo (1970), and it’s not a very good movie—his only western dud.  Hawks died in 1977.

HawksFaulkner Working with William Faulkner.

Among the themes to which Hawks returned in his movies is an examination of male bonding and what it means to be a man.  Those are strongly present in his first talkie, Dawn Patrol (1930, with obvious connections to his World War I flying experiences), and he comes back to it throughout his career.  Compare Only Angels Have Wings from 1939 and Rio Bravo from twenty years later in that regard.  He’s more persuasive than Sam Peckinpah in dealing with those themes, in part because he doesn’t take his eye off the story and doesn’t lose his footing in self-indulgence as Peckinpah sometimes could.

Hawks didn’t win the awards that John Ford did, but his best work in a variety of genres is still widely watched.  Some would say that it ages better than Ford’s work, not being hampered by Fordian nostalgia and sentimentality.  In general, his work does not have the visual sense of Ford’s best movies; although Hawks’ visuals are less obtrusive, he is fine visually without calling much attention to that aspect of his work.  He was known for the use of overlapping dialogue in his films (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), including his westerns; see, for example, Red River and Rio Bravo., especially in male-female interchanges.  He is remembered now as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age, into the 1960s.  Hawks’ own definition of what constitutes a good movie is revealing of his no-nonsense style:  “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”  Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.”  If what he made was art, he didn’t want to talk about it that way.  His reputation as a director is higher now than it was during his lifetime.


Hawks Western Essentials:  Red River, The Big Sky, Rio Bravo

Second-Rank Hawks:  El Dorado

Don’t Bother:  Rio Lobo

Hawks Non-Western Essentials:  Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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