Sunday, January 22, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #37: Howard Hawks - "The Slim Years"

In his book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy writes: "There is no question that the eight films [director Howard Hawks] directed during the eight years he and [his wife] Slim were involved - from Only Angels Have Wings to Red River - represent the greatest and most creatively vibrant period of his career." I'm certainly not going to question it, and I can't help noticing that almost all of these films feature memorable love stories. Here's the list:


"Only Angels Have Wings came from a true story. There was a little airfield like that - with a man who radioed the pilots when they'd get through the pass. A chorus girl stopped there, ran into this fellow, got a little tight, slept with him and fell in love with him. She hung around there and he married her. And they were two of the happiest people I've ever seen." - Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich

This is a story about a guy who's very reluctant to fall in love again, but who just can't help himself. The guy is Cary Grant - not the helplessly goofy Cary Grant of Hawks's earlier film BRINGING UP BABY, but Cary Grant in a more hyper-masculine mode. At times in this film he acts so self-righteous that you'd think he'd just stepped out of a Somerset Maugham novel. He's a daredevil pilot who refuses to give up his profession (which is also his true passion) for any woman, whether it's Rita Hayworth or Jean Arthur. Arthur falls for him anyway and, while her performance is a little weak (Hawks has said that he couldn't coach the actress out of her comfort zone, and Arthur has said - in no uncertain terms - that she later regretted it), her character nevertheless becomes an ideal partner. By the end of the film, she has made it clear that she loves Grant's character for exactly who he is, and wouldn't ask him to change for anything. What more can a guy hope for?


"We were having dinner one night at the house, six or eight people, and we were talking about dialogue. I said that the finest modern dialogue in the world came from [Ben] Hecht and [Charles] MacArthur. After dinner we went in, and I had two copies of their play The Front Page. There was a girl there who was pretty good, and I said, 'Read the reporter's part, and I'll read the editor's part.' And in the middle of it, I said, 'My Lord, it's better with a girl reading it than the way it was!' See, The Front Page was intended as a love affair between two men. I mean, they loved each other. There's no doubt about it." - Hawks to Joseph McBride

I'm not crazy about THE FRONT PAGE (1932), but there's no question that HIS GIRL FRIDAY is on fire whenever Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are onscreen together. In classic screwball comedies, verbal sparring is the substitute for sex, and with actors of this caliber, it's hard not to feel the passion behind the dialogue.

Walter Burns: There's been a lamp burning in the window for ya, honey... here.
Hildy Johnson: Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago.

Divorce never seemed so romantic.


A lot of critics tend to downplay this film when they're writing about Hawks as an auteur, probably because it lacks the cynicism of so many of his other films. Gary Cooper's backwoods soldier is a far cry from Cary Grant's smug businessman, and innocent Joan Leslie has even less in common with Rosalind Russell... but these two still have a pretty amusing courtship scene on her front porch, when Cooper runs off a competing beau. Sure it's hokey and mawkish, but Cooper wins the day, the girl and the audience through sheer charisma.

4) BALL OF FIRE (1941)

"I've been accused of promoting Women's Lib, and I've denied it, emphatically. It just happens that kind of a woman is attractive to me. I merely am doing somebody that I like. And I've seen so many pictures where the hero gets in the moonlight and says silly things to a girl, I'd reverse it and let the girl do the chasing around, you know, and it works out pretty well." - Hawks to Joseph McBride

Hawks says that his writers were having a hard time with the script for BALL OF FIRE until he told them how he saw it. It's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES, he explained, with a burlesque singer as Snow White and a bunch of stodgy academics as the dwarfs. The film pairs the kind of straightforward and straight-laced romantic hero that Cooper played in SERGEANT YORK with a smart and sassy Hawksian heroine, played by Barbara Stanwyck. It's an obvious mismatch - not unlike Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges's THE LADY EVE (1941) - but that's what makes it fun. Stanwyck is luminescent.

5) AIR FORCE (1943)

It's tough to make a case for AIR FORCE as love story, since there are few women in the film, but this is still a very emotional film. AIR FORCE is Hawks's tribute to the airmen of the World War II-era military, and the director's affection for every soldier onscreen is as heartfelt as any romance he's ever filmed.

In 1944, Hawks produced a similar (though much less heartfelt) tribute to the Canadian Navy, called CORVETTE K-225. In that film, Randolph Scott and Ella Raines make a charming enough couple, but the character development is marginal. Hawks later told Peter Bogdanovich that "it's very hard to make a good movie out of anything like that because you are always bound by limits laid down by the Army and Navy and so forth. There are too many people who have an idea of what it should be."

In the same year Hawks also co-directed a lusty western called THE OUTLAW, which introduced newcomer Jane Russell to drooling men around the world. His co-director Howard Hughes famously said, "There are two good reasons why men go to see her. Those are enough." It seems safe to say that Hughes wasn't quite the romantic that Hawks was. Hawks took no credit for the controversial aspects of the film, which completely overwhelmed the silly plot.


"So we had a party out at the house Saturday night, and I asked [Lauren Bacall] to come out there. I said, 'Can't you get somebody to take you home?' She said, 'I don't do too well with the men.' I said, 'How do you treat them?' She said, 'As nice as I can.' I said, 'Well, try insulting them and see what happens.' So she came around the next Saturday and said, 'I got a ride home.' I said, 'What happened?' 'Well, I insulted a man and he liked it.' I said, 'What did you do?' She said, 'I asked him where he got his tie, and he said What do you want to know for? and I said So I can tell people not to go there.' I said, 'Who's the man?' She said, 'Clark Gable.' She was doing pretty good. So on Monday, I went to the writer and told him about this girl who could insult people and make them like her. Insolence, you know - that they liked. I said, 'You know, Bogie is the most insolent man on the screen. Do you think we can write a girl that is as insolent as he is?' The writer said, 'It would be fun to try.'" - Hawks to George Stevens Jr.

What can I say about this film? Bogart and Bacall are perfect together. Walter Huston recognizes the chemistry right away, when Bacall responds to his non sequitur about being bit by a dead bee. "Why don't you bite him back?" she asks, exuding sexuality. Off screen, Bogart fell in love with his co-star, and who can blame him? Bacall knows how to put the old "stinker" in his place, and he loves it. There are stories that Howard Hawks also fell in love with her, which may be why he used his wife's name "Slim" as a nickname for Bacall's character. She, in turn, calls Bogie "Steve," which is what Hawks's wife called him.

7) THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

It was a no-brainer to pair Bogart and Bacall in another film. As with TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP is driven by great performances. The real-life lovers are eminently watchable, but in this one Bacall has a little more competition... from her character's jailbait sister (Martha Vickers) and a sultry bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone) who closes up her store early so she can seduce the private dick. The bookstore scene is unforgettable. According to Hawks:

"That wasn't the way it was written at all. We just did it because the girl was so damn good-looking." - Hawks to Joseph McBride

8) RED RIVER (1948)

Joanne Dru plays the love interest who initially comes between the father and son duo of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER. If the actress doesn't seem quite up to the task, that's because shewas a last minute replacement for Maggie Sheridan, who announced that she was pregnant two days before the film started shooting. Dru has one particularly good scene with Montgomery Clift, in which she plays it tough while he removes a war arrow from her shoulder, but RED RIVER is more of a love story between Wayne and Clift (and no, I'm not suggesting that this is Duke's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN). As for Maggie Sheridan:

"Maggie had been taught by a fellow how to deal cards and the whole idea was this woman couldn't be a whore because she was too good at cards - that sort of thing. She had some great stuff to do. But Maggie married a very dull man and led a dull life for about five years. When she came back she wasn't the same person. If she'd only done Red River she'd have been a big star." - Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich

So Dru took the role and Clift became a big star. Soon after making this film, Howard Hawks and his wife Slim divorced. Hawks's next film was A SONG IS BORN, an embarrassing musical remake of BALL OF FIRE starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Proof that good chemistry is everything.


  1. These are a great set of films by Howard Hawks, and particularly so for the women in them. All of them. I know Joanne Dru gets short shrift for being Sheridan's replacement in RED RIVER, but I still think the brunette smoldered (and little wonder Wayne's and Clift's character were attracted to her). And man, oh man, is that scene in the bookstore somethin' in THE BIG SLEEP between Bogart and Malone! Love that. Hell, all of these are great.

    Hawks still had some great films left in him, after this period, though (admittedly, fewer). And with some distinctive women in them.
    • I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE - Cary Grant and the ever underrated Ann Sheridan
    • THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD - a sci-fi classic with Maggie Sheridan (her banter with Kenneth Tobey doesn't get enough credit, IMO)
    • RIO BRAVO - I mean, Angie Dickinson as Feathers! Come on! There are some female friends of mine who don't like her in that role, but all the guys I know sure do.

    Great post, as usual, Joe. Many thanks.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I haven't seen I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE in years. I remember being underwhelmed, but maybe it deserves another look. Of course I agree with you about THE THING and RIO BRAVO! Viva Hawks!

  3. Thought you'd like to know that I gave you and this post a shout-out today in my Big Sleep review today.

  4. Thanks! I'm honored to be mentioned in your much more comprehensive and insightful piece.

  5. Joe, would you mind if I forward this link to a blogger hosting a Howard Hawks Blogathon later this month?

  6. Michael - Absolutely, feel free to forward the link. And let me know when you have more details about the blogathon... I'd love to participate.