How Howard Hawks Became Howard Hawks

howardhawksThe Complete Howard Hawks wraps up this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. And, while I will be sad to see it fade to black, I won’t miss the weekend subway construction that makes my jaunt out to Astoria only slightly less complicated than the cattle drive in RED RIVER (1948).

But it’s always worth the trip. And this weekend’s offerings are no exception, with Hawk’s swan song RIO LOBO (1970) on Saturday, and a closing triple feature on Sunday, headlined by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953).

The best part of the series for me has been the opportunity to see movies I’ve never seen before. Of the 26 screenings I’ve attended, more than half have been new to me. And what a way to see these films for the first time – in archival 35mm prints, in a beautiful venue, with an audience that almost always applauds at the end.

“Who are you clapping for?” my girlfriend usually asks (on the rare occasions she goes to an old movie with me). “Everyone is dead.”

“I’m clapping for the audience, because we didn’t spent $15 on (insert current blockbuster),” is my standard reply

But I’m also applauding the Museum, for a well-curated series (programmed by David Schwartz). I’m applauding the projectionist, for knowing how to properly screen a film in 35mm without burning down the building. And, in the case of the oldest films in The Complete Howard Hawks, I was applauding the accompanist.

On the first two weekends of the series, MoMI screened the director’s six extant silent films in two Sunday triple features, all presented with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin on digital piano. With prints provided by the Library of Congress, MoMA, and the George Eastman House, this sidebar provided a rare opportunity to study a segment of Hawks’ career that is little known.

1353772207Hawks’ silent films are surprisingly assured and show early indications of the genre-hopping mastery that would become his trademark. There’s comedy, romance, melodrama, action, and a remarkable instinct for pacing. Hawks also has a firm grasp on motifs he would revisit on cinema screens for the next four decades. In A GIRL IN EVERY PORT (1928), for instance, one male character says of another man, “That big ox means more to me than any woman.”  That’s almost a Hawks mission statement, and it came before he even made his first Talkie.

Unlike other directors who needed time to craft their personal signatures, Howard Hawks appears to have emerged from the cinematic womb fully grown. For an understanding of how this came to be, I’ve been reading Todd McCarthy’s The Grey Fox of Hollywood, the definitive 1997 Hawks biography from which MoMI excerpts most of their screening notes.

Born into a well-to-do family in Goshen, Indiana in 1896, Hawks was “pampered like American royalty” from his earliest days. His grandfather, a paper products mogul, left 19-year-old Howard $5,736 (the equivalent of more than $120,00 in current dollars) upon his death in 1916, not long after buying him one of the first Mercer high performance racing cars. It was while racing that Hawks met Victor Fleming, 13 years his senior, a man who would go on to have his own storied directing career and with whom Hawks would share a lifelong friendship.

the-little-american-1917-misspickfordAccording to McCarthy, the brotherly bond between Hawks and Fleming was the prototypical “love story between two men,” or what hacky writers nowadays might call “a bromance.” Fleming, who was shooting IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN (1916) for producer and star Douglas Fairbanks, helped Hawks get a job on the film as a prop man during his summer vacation from Cornell University. Hawks went on to work with the future Mrs. Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, on Cecil B. DeMille’s THE LITTLE AMERICAN (1917), doing his first un-credited directing on stop motion and double exposure sequences.

After a stint in the Army Air Corps during the Great War – an experience that would inform much of his later work – Hawks returned to the picture business, overseeing a series of shorts at Warner Bros. featuring Italian comedian Monty Banks. This assignment likely had something to do with a substantial loan Hawks floated to cash-strapped Jack Warner, and it wouldn’t be the last time the filmmaker used personal assets to fuel his pursuit of success.

Beginning in 1920, Hawks independently produced 14 features for release by First National Pictures, all directed by partners Allan Dwan, Marshall “Mickey” Neilan, and Allen Holubar. One of these films, A PERFECT CRIME (1921), marked the screen debut of Hawks’ 12-year-old cousin Jean Peters, who would later star in Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) under the name Carole Lombard. The partnership, known as Associated Producers, ended in acrimony and a flurry of lawsuits in 1923, after one of the films went over budget and Hawks was left holding the bag, to the tune of $95,490 (roughly $2 million today).

Hawks next went to work as a “production editor” at Paramount precursor Famous Players-Lasky, overseeing a slate of more than forty films in a year and a half. After an offer from producer Irving Thalberg to direct, Hawks abruptly quit Paramount and moved to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. But Hawks was apparently too good a producer, and Thalberg selfishly sought to keep him in the production office.

“Christ, we can get all the directors we need,” Thalberg reportedly told Hawks. “I can’t get anybody to do your work.”

lfFrustrated by the broken promise, Hawks left MGM and signed with the Fox Film Corporation, a decade before the merger that would form Twentieth Century-Fox. At the age of 29, Hawks had been honing his craft for nearly ten years when he first sat in the director’s chair in December of 1925. Sadly, how well he navigated THE ROAD TO GLORY (1926) is not known. While the lead character – a self-destructive party girl played by May McAvoy – is saved by her faith in God, the film itself is lost.

“It didn’t have any fun in it,” Hawks later said of his first directorial effort, which has no connection to his 1936 film of the same name.

figReleased by Fox six months later, FIG LEAVES (1926) may be Hawks’ rebuttal to his heavy-handed debut. With handsome George O’Brien as Adam and Olive Borden as a leopard-bikini-clad Eve, Hawks’ first comedy deftly mixes social satire with slapstick and delightfully inventive art direction by William Cameron Menzies. More than thirty years before The Flintstones, Adam is awakened by a coconut-and-sand alarm clock, reads a stone tablet newspaper, and rides a brontosaurus bus. He even has a Barney-type friend (Heinie Conklin) and Dino-esque pet dinosaur.

After Eve bites the apple (delivered by a puppet snake) the story leaps ahead to the present, where the battle of the sexes is in full effect 1920s-style. Adam is now a plumber and Eve is a fashion model with a snake-like flapper neighbor (Phyllis Haver). All’s well that ends well, of course, as both Adams and Eves resolve their differences, and the Garden of Eden couple heads off to “Cain and Abel’s slaying party.”

PaidNext up was the romantic drama PAID TO LOVE (1927) with the returning George O’Brien as Crown Prince Michael of the mythical kingdom of San Savona and William Powell as his caddish cousin Prince Eric. When the cash-strapped King (Thomas Jefferson) appeals to rich American Peter Roberts (J. Farrell MacDonald) for a loan, Roberts insists that the country needs a pretty young couple to excite the citizenry. Together they travel to Paris where they discover the ennui-laden Dolores (Virginia Valli) enacting daily burlesques as a murderous lover in a “dangerous” café that caters to adventure-seeking, easily duped tourists.

As the title suggests, the beautiful young woman is offered some quick cash to romance the prince, who is more interested in tinkering with motorcars than with the opposite sex. Hawks-style role-playing and mistaken identities complicate the story, but only temporarily. Love wins the day, Eric is thwarted and the rich American and the King make a very charming bromantic couple. (Sorry, I’m a hack.)

PAID TO LOVE is perhaps best known today among Hawksheads as the film in which the director dabbles in Expressionism. Using a cinematographer (L.W. O’Connell), who would go on to work with fellow Fox contractee F.W. Murnau, Hawks does a completely competent job with a more artsy approach, but the self-conscious style didn’t appeal to him.

“It isn’t my type of stuff,” he said. “At least I got it over in a hurry.”

Cradle-Snatchers-500THE CRADLE SNATCHERS (1927), based on the play of the same name, is another battle-of-the-sexes farce in which three wives get revenge on their wandering husbands by canoodling with college boys. J. Farrell MacDonald returns as one of the husbands, along with William B. Davidson and persnickety Franklin Pangborn. The wives are Ethel Wales, Dorothy Phillips, and Mack Sennett favorite Louise Fazenda (who married Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis that same year).  The frat boys are led by Arthur “Dagwood” Lake as Oscar “the Swede,” another Hawks hero who is disinterested in/afraid of women.

According to McCarthy, THE CRADLE SNATCHERS was believed to be lost until Peter Bogdanovich discovered an incomplete print at Fox. The Library of Congress print MoMI screened was struck from that version, but it was pretty easy to fill in the ten minutes or so that is missing from the seven-reeler.

nissen-fazil1FAZIL (1928) with Charles Farrell as the titular Arabian prince and Greta Nissen as Fabienne, a liberated French woman who falls for him, may have been the biggest surprise of the six for me.  It’s unlike any other Hawks film I’ve seen – a European-style melodramatic romance with a plenty of silhouetted nudity and lots of unapologetic sex (both implied and shown).  In fact, all that really unites these two characters from vastly different worlds is their unapologetic desire to jump each other’s bones. When their love dies, so must they, which is a bummer, because they make a pretty hot couple.

GirlA GIRL IN EVERY PORT (1928) is, according to McCarthy, the “first defining work of Hawks’ career.” Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong are tough-as-nails sailors who compete for everything, including the affections of duplicitous showgirl Louise Brooks. But in the end, nothing means more to them than their friendship.

There’s plenty of sub-text at work here: the lead characters’ names (Spike and Salami); the disposable nature of the women they pursue; their avoidance of commitment; and the resolution, in which the two men forget women and essentially walk off into the sunset together. (In how many Hawks films does that happen?) McCarthy suggests that the soon-to-be-married director may have been “inwardly agonizing over giving up his bachelor ways.” He went on to wed Athole Shearer, sister of Norma and sister-in-law of his former boss Irving Thalberg, just three months after A GIRL IN EVERY PORT was released.

the-air-circus-movie-poster-1928-1020455629THE AIR CIRCUS (1928), which is now lost, is a drama set at an aviation school, with Arthur Lake (again) as a Speed, a “boisterous” pilot and new Fox contract player David Rollins as Buddy, a student haunted by the loss of his bother, a WWI flying ace. Sue Carol plays the girl they (of course) both love.

Technically speaking, THE AIR CIRCUS was not a silent, but rather a part-Talkie. At the studio’s insistence, fifteen minutes of dialogue sequences (directed by Lewis Seiler) were added after the film was completed. Either Hawks was not asked to participate in this, or he declined. He later called the added scenes “mawkish,” though the film was a success.

Based on the British novel by E. C. Bentley, TRENT’S LAST CASE (1929) is the only LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01clunker in Hawks’ impressive silent roster. After the first few scenes of the murder mystery were shot as a talking picture, Fox instructed Hawks that star Raymond Griffith’s voice was unsuitable for sound. Griffith, best known as the top-hat-wearing comedian in comedies like HANDS UP! (1926), was only able to speak in a whisper after his vocal chords had become damaged by nerve gas in WWI. Hawks proceeded with the picture, but Fox had lost interest, giving it a brief run in England and no American release.

It was Hawks’ first failure, and the tensions between the director and Fox exec Winnie Sheehan bubbled over to his next assignment, LIFE’S A GAMBLE. Hawks had no interest in directing the film and, in May of 1929, the studio fired him for having “willfully neglected to perform his services in the manner agreed upon.”

After eight films, Hawks’ tenure at the Fox Film Corporation had come to a close. In the four decades after his dismissal, Hawks would remain fiercely independent, only once directing more than two films in a row at a given studio.

The Complete Howard Hawks concludes on Sunday, November 10. For more information, click here.  

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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4 Responses to How Howard Hawks Became Howard Hawks

  1. Good stuff, Will! I always love the early biography, the formative years, even if as you say Hawks seems to have emerged fully formed. Of those titles you describe here I’ve only seen A Girl in Every Port, but you’ve really whet my appetite for Fig Leaves and Fazil should I ever come across them. Enjoy the final weekend!

  2. Catnip says:

    *Blushes as still mixing up Howards Hawks and Hughes* – this made me want to watch Hawks’ early stuff, thanks!

  3. Watching the old 20/30’s movies always amazes me with their not so subtle sexual content. I learned about the Will Hays era from my Grandmother of all people (whose favorite movie when she was young was The Sign oF the Cross). I watch Sgt York every Memorial day in tribute to our war dead as well as the fine acting and directing. I was a Male War Bride was one of the first movies I saw in a Retro Theater in Norfolk Va…took sons Wallace and Michael to see The Creature from the Black Lagoon at the same theater…I thank God for TCM at least twice a week. Maybe more lol Enjoyed this history lesson very much..

  4. Jennifer says:

    Sounds worthy of applause to me!

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