Howard Hawks (1896-1977) was perhaps the greatest director of American genre films. He made films in almost every American genre, and his films could well serve as among the very best examples and artistic embodiments of the type: gangster, private eye, western, screwball comedy, newspaper reporter, prison picture, science fiction, musical, racecar drivers, and pilots. Into each of his narratives Hawks infused his particular themes, motifs, and techniques.
Born in Goshen, Indiana on May 30, 1896, Hawks migrated with his family to southern California when the movies did. He attended Pasadena High School from 1908 until 1913. Hawks went on to Exeter Academy in New Hampshire from 1914 until 1916. He spent his formative years working on films, learning to fly, and studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University. During vacations, he worked in the property department of Famous Players-Lasky in Hollywood. After graduating from college in 1917, Hawks served in the U.S. Army Air Corps until 1919. Following his discharge from the army, he worked as a designer in an airplane factory until 1922.
Hawks began his career in films as an editor, writer, and assistant director. He was put in charge of the story department at Paramount in 1924 and signed as director for Fox in 1925. Hawks directed his first feature film, Road to Glory in 1926. His initial work in silent films as a writer and producer would serve him well in his later years as a director, when he would produce and, if not write, then control the writing of his films as well. Although Hawks' work has been consistently discussed as exemplary of the Hollywood studio style, Hawks himself did not work for a single studio on a long-term contract. Instead, he was an independent producer who sold his projects to every Hollywood studio.
Whatever the genre of a Hawks film, it bore traits that made it unmistakably a Hawks film. The narrative was always elegantly and symmetrically structured and patterned. This quality was a sign of Hawks' sharp sense of storytelling as well as his sensible efforts to work closely with very talented writers: Ben Hecht, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman being the most notable among them. Hawks' films were devoted to characters who were professionals with fervent vocational commitments. The men in Hawks' films were good at what they did, whether flying the mail, driving race cars, driving cattle, or reporting the news. These vocational commitments were usually fulfilled by the union of two apparently opposite physical types, who were spiritually one. In some cases, they represented the union of the harder, tougher, older male and a softer, younger, prettier male (John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, Wayne and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo). At other times, they united a sharp, tough male and an equally sharp, tough female (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century). This spiritual alliance of physical opposites revealed Hawks' unwillingness to accept the cultural stereotype that those who are able to accomplish difficult tasks are those who appear able to accomplish them.
This tension between appearance and ability, surface and essence in Hawks' films led to several other themes and techniques. Characters talk very tersely in Hawks' films, refusing to put their thoughts and feelings into explicit speeches that would either sentimentalize or vulgarize those internal abstractions. Instead, Hawks' characters reveal their feelings through their actions, not by what they say. Hawks deflects his portrayal of the inner life from explicit speeches to symbolic physical objects—concrete visual images of things that convey the intentions of the person who handles, uses, or controls the piece of physical matter. One of those physical objects—the coin which George Raft nervously flips in Scarface—has become a mythic icon of American culture itself, symbolic of American gangsters and American gangster movies (and used as such in both Singin' in the Rain and Some Like It Hot). Another of Hawks' favorite actions, the lighting of cigarettes, became his subtextual way of showing who cares about whom without recourse to dialogue.
Consistent with his narratives, Hawks' visual style was one of dead-pan understatement, never proclaiming its trickiness or brilliance but effortlessly communicating the values of the stories and the characters. Hawks was a master of point-of-view, knowledgeable about which camera perspective would precisely convey the necessary psychological and moral information. That point of view could either confine us to the perceptions of a single character (Marlowe in The Big Sleep), ally us with the more vital of two competing life styles (with the vitality of Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century, Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby, Walter Burns in His Girl Friday), or withdraw to a scientific detachment that allows the viewer to weigh the paradoxes and ironies of a love battle between two equals (between the two army partners in I Was a Male War Bride, the husband and wife in Monkey Business, or the older and younger cowboy in Red River). Hawks' films are also masterful in their atmospheric lighting; the hanging electric or kerosene lamp that dangles into the top of a Hawks frame became almost as much his signature as the lighting of cigarettes.
Hawks' view of character in film narrative was that actor and character were inseparable. As a result, his films used a lot of improvisation. He allowed actors to add, interpret, or alter lines as they wished, rather than force them to stick to the script. This trait not only led to the energetic spontaneity of many Hawks films, but also contributed to the creation or shaping of the human archetypes that several stars came to represent in our culture. John Barrymore, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant all refined or established their essential personae under Hawks' direction, while many actors who would become stars were either discovered by Hawks or given their first chance to play a major role in one of his films. Among Hawks' most important discoveries were Paul Muni, George Raft, Carole Lombard, Angie Dickinson, Montgomery Clift, and his Galatea, Lauren Bacall.
Although Hawks continued to make films until he was almost seventy-five, there is disagreement about the artistic energy and cinematic value of the films made after 1950. For some, Hawks' artistic decline in the 1950s and 1960s was both a symptom and an effect of the overall decline of the movie industry and the studio system itself. For others, Hawks' later films—slower, longer, less energetically brilliant than his studio-era films—were more probing and personal explorations of the themes and genres he had charted for the three previous decades.
Hawks was married three times, each marriage ending in divorce. His second marriage to Nancy Raye Gross produced one daughter. His third marriage to Mary (Dee) Hartford produced two sons and two daughters. Hawks died in Palm Springs, California on December 26, 1977.
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