The Essentials: 5 Great Howard Hawks Films

We love a chamelonic director here at The Playlist, and Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War?  “To Have And Have Not” and “Sergeant York,” the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death). Science-fiction? The much ripped-off “The Thing From Another World.” Gangster movies? “Scarface,” which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride.

The filmmaker famously said that the secret to a good movie was “three great scenes and no bad ones,” and he hit that target many times. The director was born 116 years ago today, on May 30th, 1896, and to commemmorate the occasion, we’ve picked out five films that we consider to be the very finest that he ever made. We could have gone on and on, so we’re sure you’ll disagree — let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.

Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
Boy meets girl. Girl stalks boy in order to get him to look after her leopard. Girl falls in love with boy who’s about to get married. Girl’s dog steals dinosaur bone. Leopard runs away. Boy and girl sent to prison. Boy ends up in a dress. Boy falls in love with girl. Not exactly a Garry Marshall movie, as far as romantic comedies go, but so much the better. Howard Hawks‘ 1938 film neatly followed the template established by “It Happened One Night” in setting up a boy and a girl — in this case soon-to-be-wed paleontologist David (Cary Grant) and prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl heiress Susan (Katharine Hepburn) — to bicker and flirt across a series of adventures before falling in love at the end. But the formula was never quite as perfect as it was here, in part because Hawks retained what’s so often absent in romantic comedies today. Simply, “Bringing Up Baby” is one of the funniest films ever made, riding the outstanding chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, each arguably giving the performance of their careers, through a series of uproarious set pieces. But as funny as the film is, Grant and Hepburn’s courtship feels genuinely hard won, and you don’t question the way that Grant’s defenses gradually come down. It’s also unusually subversive, especially for the era — Grant is increasingly feminized, even to the point of ending up in a dress (“Because I just went gay all of a sudden!”), while Hepburn was always one of the more masculine starlets, and it’s her that’s doing the pursuing. The film was something of a failure at the box office, and Hawks was released from his contract at RKO as a a result, but history is firmly on his side on this one.

Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)
Significantly overshadowed by some of his other films of the era, these days at least, “Only Angels Have Wings” might be one of Hawks’ very finest pictures. It’s a big, broad melodrama set among the men of a tiny, struggling mail air service in South America, who take risky flights over the Andes daily. As it opens, the men, including Geoff (Cary Grant) and his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell) are callously talking about the death of a colleague, but we soon discover it’s the only way they can cope with a job that means that every flight could be their last. Things are heightened with a group of new arrivals. There’s Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a singer who takes a shine to Geoff, and than there’s Bat (Richard Barthelmess), along with his wife Judy (a breakthrough role for Rita Hayworth). Bat’s loathed by the others after he bailed on a crashing plane, leaving Kid’s brother to die, but Geoff needs pilots, and hires him, putting him only on the most dangerous routes. It’s a heady dramatic mix, but Hawks gives the interplay between Arthur and Grant real spark and complexity, and when the hyper-masculine fronts of the actors slip — from Bat’s redemption, to Geoff breaking down at the death of his friend — it’s genuinely moving. The flight sequences still thrill 73 years on (it was one of the nominees for the very first Special Effects Oscars, although was beaten by “The Rains Came“) and the performances across the board are terrific. A lost classic that more than deserves to have its reputation boosted, “Only Angels Have Wings” is well worth seeking out.

His Girl Friday” (1940)
Much attention has (rightfully) been paid to the whiplash-inducing dialogue and the fizzy chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Hawks’ version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s oft-adapted stage play “The Front Page” (which had already been made once before, and would be remade by Billy Wilder in 1974, and bastardized in 1988’s “Switching Channels“). Breezing past the page-a-minute average of most screenplays, the adaptation by Charles Lederer, follows editor Walter Burns (Grant), who hopes to stop ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving town to get remarried by getting her to cover the story of an upcoming execution. Hawks’ film got an injection of energy from switching the two main characters from a pair of male journalists to feuding exes played by Grant and Russell, a pairing that matches Grant’s work with both Hepburns and Irene Dunne for sheer fire. The romance is as fast-paced as the dialogue, but viewers shouldn’t overlook the contributions of the Greek chorus of journalists, including Porter Hall, Cliff Edwards and Roscoe Karns, who add character and a bit of authenticity (there’s also great support by Helen Mack, as the girlfriend of the soon-to-be-executed man). But it is the Grant & Russell show, and the gags fly so fast between them that you couldn’t possibly hope to catch them all the first time around. That, and the fact that its satire of the journalism trade remains entirely bang-on today, explains why it’s a comedy that’s only grown in stature over the years.

The Big Sleep” (1946)
Having already played one of the great screen P.I.’s, Sam Spade, in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon,” Humphrey Bogart took a swing at another five years later, by taking on the mantle of Philip Marlowe in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler‘s “The Big Sleep.” And you couldn’t ask for  a better group of collaborators, with a script by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, and a reunion with both his director and co-star from “To Have And Have Not,” Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall. Even today, the plot remains terrifyingly complex (to the extent that when the filmmakers contacted Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur, they were told that the writer didn’t know either), but essentially, it follows Marlowe, as he is hired by the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to resolve some family gambling debts, only to become emtangled with blackmail, murder and the General’s femme fatale daughter Vivian (Bacall). While the film doesn’t make a ton of sense (it was partially gutted by a need to adhere to the Production Code), it’s also a glorious puzzle box to dig into. The seedy world that Hawks creates, thanks to great character actors like Elisha Cook Jr., is also a deeply weird one — there’s something almost Lynchian in the way that Marlowe has to trawl deeper and deeper into the mire. It’s beautifully paced too, with some of the greatest black & white photography ever (courtesy of the great Sidney Hickox). But above and beyond anything else, the thing you’ll never forget is Bogart and Bacall. The two were only recently married when they shot the picture, and even more so than on “To Have Or Have Not,” you’re looking at two people who can’t wait for the director to call cut so they can go home and fuck each other’s brains out. In fact, the studio asked for reshoots to add more provocative scenes of the pair, and as one can see from the original version (which was restored and re-released in 1997), it’s one case where the studio was absolutely right to interfere.

Rio Bravo” (1959)
The ever-diverse Hawks went to the Western well several times, and while his excellent (though perhaps overly indebted to John Ford) “Red River” has many fans, it says something that in the last years of his life, he loosely remade his 1959 film “Rio Bravo” not once (1966’s “El Dorado“), but twice (1970’s “Rio Lobo“). The original (which also inspired John Carpenter‘s “Assault On Precinct 13“) might be relatively frothy, but it’s also as fine, and purely entertaining, an action Western as was ever made. The set-up is simple: Sheriff John T. Chance (a seminal turn by John Wayne) and his drunken deputy Dude (Dean Martin) arrest Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder, and find themselves under siege by the killer’s brother, rancher Nathan, and his men, with only gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson, in a part originally intended for Elvis Presley) to help. The action is positively crackling, still holding up today, but it’s the character interplay and atmosphere that are really worth watching. Among the highlights is Wayne’s stiffness and pride being worn down as he falls for Feathers (Angie Dickinson), while gradually accepting that he can be helped by the motley group around him, and Martin (in his best screen role by about a million miles) facing up to the responsibility he long since abandoned. It’s funny too (perhaps one of the reasons some find the more po-faced “Red River” superior), and includes a couple of songs that never feel extraneous. There are issues here, mainly in the shape of Nelson, who’s flat and uncharismatic, clearly cast in order to appeal to a younger generation, and sticking out like a sore thumb. But for the most part, Hawks is on top form with his compositions — which hardly ever include close-ups, really amping up the claustrophobia — and his handling of the action showing a master at the top of his game. If we’d made “Rio Bravo,” we might have made it twice more too.

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