Features & Columns

Howard Hawks retrospective
at the Stanford Theatre

No genre could identify or confine Howard Hawks, the most underappreciated
of golden-age Hollywood directors. A new retrospective at the Stanford Theatre
aims to change things.
Gentlemen prefer blondes TWO LITTLE GIRLS FROM LITTLE ROCK: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell redefined gold diggers in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'

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It remains a movie mystery. Why is Howard Hawks, the subject of a major 38-film retrospective at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, still the least-known of the major Hollywood directors?

Hawks was responsible for some of the best films of icons like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe—herself back in the news after last year's awards-contender My Week With Marilyn. Much has been written about the tragedy of Monroe. There are kitschy songs and fawning books about her demise, bad enough to make one want to avoid the phenomena in the first place.

But take Hawks' Gentleman Prefer Blondes (playing June 16), a musical comedy of exquisite confidence and artificiality "as awesome an example of Kino-Fist strategies as anything in Battleship Potemkin,' wrote the learned critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Here we see the essence of Monroe as a woman who could cause a perturbation just by walking down the street, but who gets smart by figuring out her own ability to stupefy.

Hawks made Monroe one of the Hawksean Women: true to her best pal (Jane Russell) and loyal to her code in the negotiable power of diamonds and the importance of marrying rich.

Monroe is superb in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, but there, the joke is more or less on her. After previously using her pretty routinely as secretarial eye-candy in Monkey Business, Hawks discovered the real power of Monroe, the venality, the succulence, the comic talent—as we never really saw again.

Hawks arranged name-above-the-title status for himself in the mid 1940s, and he kept it for decades. Yet he never won anything but an honorary Oscar after he was through making movies in 1974. There wasn't even a big biography of Hawks until 2000: Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks.

Raised in a moneyed background in the Midwest, Hawks (1896-1977) was notoriously aloof. That changed somewhat in his residual years, where he was deservedly toasted at film festivals and retrospectives, where he tended to tell dubious, credit-grabbing stories that ended with his own triumph.

In the realm of women, Hawks had the Don Draperish qualities found universally in the film industry then, and perhaps now. But McCarthy points out that the director/producer possessed one very "endearing' habit—he would walk out on a film if the producer or a studio head were telling him what to do.

This independence of mind makes Hawks' films still fresh today. Hawks tried and failed to get into Stanford University once; perhaps this ambitious 38 film series just down the block from the college in question might make up for it. Here are seven reasons to attend.

1 Howard Hawks was the master of every genre he tried.

Hawks' best films are also among the very best films in their categories. Westerns: Red River, Rio Bravo. Comedies: Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday. Sci-fi: The Thing From Another World. The detective movie: The Big Sleep. The action-adventure: To Have and Have Not. The musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The crime film: The Criminal Code and the original and best-ever version of Scarface.

This mastery goes on to even minor genres: I Was a Male War Bride is about as good as a 1940s service comedy gets; Sergeant York was one of the most financially and critically successful bio-pics ever made. And for better or worse, Hawks pioneered the bromance in his silent film A Girl in Every Port.

There's no such thing as a typical Hawks film. He wasn't a breakthrough visual innovator, though he signed up with outstanding second-unit directors and cinematographers. He named his son after his collaborator Gregg Toland, who shot Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Hawks avoided complex structures and flashbacks, preferring unfussy eye-level shots to anchor some of the most rapid and tricky dialogue in the history of the movies.

2 As a writer/producer unaffiliated with one studio, he led the way to independent cinema.

Hawks' refusal to just keep making the same style of movie again and again is an inspiration to the budding filmmaker—avoid careerism at all costs.

3 Hawks' post-'To Have and Have Not' films are examples of movies that were about nothing very serious— comedies that played like dramas, Westerns that played like comedies.

"I tried to make a story a comedy if possible,' Hawks said, even when the comedy arises even in mortal situations. The possibility of imminent massacre in Rio Bravo is met with a sing-along, as if Monty Python had come up with "Look on the bright side of death.' What keeps Hawks vital is the quiet, below-the-surface courage in almost all his films.

4 Hawks made films with such elan that he gave the French New Wave ammunition to free themselves.

Hence Jean-Luc Godard includes a poster of Hatari! in Breathless. Jacques Rivette calls Hawks' films a cinema of life-affirmation: "It is a beauty which demonstrates existence by breathing and moving by walking.'

Might Rivette have got some of the strength to do Celine and Julie Go Boating thanks to a similarly just-for-the-hell-of-it scene of Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan rowing down the river in I Was a Male War Bride? And consider Eric Rohmer's all-or-nothing comment: "I think that one can not really love any film if one does not really love the ones by Howard Hawks.'

5 A finder of new faces—Lauren Bacall to Walter Brennan to Frances Farmer—Hawks also figured new angles on the personas of stars.

He lengthening many careers by changing the games around stars. He gave Katharine Hepburn in her box-office-poison years a chance to kick up her heels in Bringing Up Baby, and he brought out Cary Grant's inner geek. He had John Wayne startled by a mule when he was on night patrol in Rio Bravo, to highlight the invincible man's vulnerability.

6 One hundred years (or more) of movies, and we still see active stars paired with passive starlets. Hawks fought that tendency with some of the most deathless movie examples of tough yet alluring female characters.

Some of the strength of the "Hawks woman' is due to his Pacific Grove-raised wife, Nancy "Slim' Hawks, who led the makeover on the ultimate example of the Hawks Woman: Lauren Bacall. When Slim was through, the shy 20-year-old beginner was the type, as James Agee wrote, that kisses out of the corner of her mouth.

But Hawks' films are full of the kind of women who all but come out and say, "It's better when you help,' as Bacall does in To Have and Have Not.

The roster is long: bookstore clerk Dorothy Malone picking up Philip Marlowe up in The Big Sleep; Frances Farmer in Come and Get It (Hawks told interviewer Joseph McBride "I changed the little lame girl ... to a lusty wench'); Angie Dickenson holding her ground in Rio Bravo; the "two little girls from Little Rock' in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Hawks was by no definition a feminist; John Huston said that the director was "a reactionary man, at least in his life. But you don't feel that in the films he makes.'

7 If you love film on film, this retrospective is a major event.

The phasing out of 35mm film is a whole different story. Digital visuals are improving, and expensive-to-transport and scratch-prone prints are giving way to systems meant to keep the image perfect. But there are qualities of warmth and light on film that digital doesn't have. The national switch to digital projection, which is happening fast, means that the chance to see the special qualities of celluloid is an ever-rarer experience. Moreover, it's unlikely some of these pictures will ever be shown in our area again.

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