Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for his Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked about his three favorite American directors and answered, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our greatest director, Howard Hawks? Of course it should be Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Preston Sturges. Ford was brilliant visually and emotionally but easily mired in his misty-eyed Irish sentiment. When he tried to do comedy he got lost in children's choirs and rolicking brawls. None of that for Hawksian men there's never any religion, or children. What these men do instead of all the stuff the Ford men do is to face danger on a daily basis, and make music together, and drink and smoke, and when they die, they die like men, or they survive like men; either way, without speeches. And if they meet a woman, it's ten times faster and more disorienting than a Maginot line charge. There's no chaperone, no parson beaming, no dance, no time for blarney. The whole fabric of the John Ford fort, the small town unity that extends in generations for centuries back, is sublimely shrunk down to a gummy old cripple, a drunk, and a limping sheriff, holed up in a jail and visited daily by attractive women who seem more modern and free of phony glamor than even Ford's dirty-faced tomboys. There's no mutually consenting nonmarital sex in a Ford film, and nothing but in a Hawks.
Needless to say, John Ford John Ford John Ford has won the history, he's got dozens of boxed sets in his name, Hawks none (aside from R2) and part of that may be that Hawks films are still very modern. There are very few misses in his canon but also nothing of superficial importance like GRAPES OF WRATH. The closest Hawks gets is maybe his most unHawkslike, SGT. YORK. Usually, instead of emotion, race, and historical accuracy, Hawks' films are fun, archetypal, witty, engaging, resonant more on a Jungian than Freudian level. In some ways it's as if Hawks films take place in the universe that Ford has set up, the same towns and valleys, but then hides out from all the boring town functions. While the Ford characters are square dancing, speechifying, voiting, learning to read and write, and eating big breakfasts, Hawks' characters quietly grab a bottle of whiskey off the table, sneak out back, roll cigarettes and skateboard around. Fords films are about obeying the rules, worshipping tradition, joining the social order with a deep Catholic devotion, and letting Victor McLagen ham it up; Hawks films are about breaking rules, sidestepping tradition, letting Dean Martin suffer through the shakes and PTSD brought on by past films enduring Jerry Lewis. "In case you haven't figured it out yet," John Wayne explains to his prisoner; "the minute your brother starts somethin' you're liable to get accidentally shot." The way Wayne says 'shot' is a chilling reminder of death's finality. In some films guns are just toys and marksmanship almost irrelevant - the heroes never miss and the villains never hit- but in Hawks it's about being a dead shot even with a pistol fired from the hip, or else staying the hell out of the way. The rules in most westerns seem very arbitrary and inconsistent. Hawks' films it's always perfectly clear. It's not that all good guys are great shots, it's that only great shots are welcome.
In the 30s, though, Hawks was still figuring himself out. He had some great writers, many of whom had also witnessed a lot of death, like William Faulkner, a fellow WW1 pilot who took very clear-eyed looks at buddies in danger. BUT Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation, the querencia mentality, wherein courageous, noble, chivalrous marksmen, pilots, or hunters band together against great odds in an enclosed space. He had some masterpieces like SCARFACE, but in some of these early films he's bound by love triangles and other odd choices. Anyway, maybe examining these five early films (in order of release) will help. They're all rather obscure so I mention how to locate each film, be it available only on VHS, DVD-R, or TCM--which is a crime considering nearly every John Ford movie ever made is remastered out there on disc, and my own ratings.
THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)
Avail. on VHS and Region 2 DVD
Walter Huston is a tough but fair warden who, as DA, sends a naive kid (Phillip Holmes) up the river for ten years after he whacks a masher with a bottle in a notorious speakeasy. "An eye for an eye - that's the foundation of the criminal code!" snaps Huston, waving a black book like a blackjack. But there's also a different criminal code, which means don't rat out your fellow inmates. And there's a climax wherein if Holmes rats out a killer of a squealer he'll walk out a free man, but he won't violate the code. He won't! He won't he won't! he won't! Huston gets in some intense acting, grabbing the boy by the lapels and demanding to know who did it. WHO DID IT!??
There's some good press room overlapping dialogue introducing the action, but this doesn't feel particularly like a real Hawks film. Once he becomes warden, Walter Huston gets some chances to be super tough, like walking unarmed into a throng of hateful prisoners, or getting a shave from a guy in for life for cutting another man's throat, and there's a great silent build-up to the whacking of a squealer, with Karloff looming around like a white tunic-sporting Frankenstein, but otherwise characters are trapped in situations clearly contrived for Big Moral Issues, and an air of existential gloom hangs; there's not much room for Hawksian heroics in such a clamped-down situation (like if the whole of RIO BRAVO was told from the point of view of the imprisoned Joe Burdett). In TARGETS (discussed here) it's the film Peter Bogdanovich and Karloff watch on TV while getting drunk in Karloff's hotel suite. The VHS is pretty solid, made back in the day when they built them to last.
TIGER SHARK (1932)
Occasional TCM airings, Warner Archive DVD
When Hawks focuses documentary-style on a tuna fishing off the coast of Steinbeckain California, going into the heart of tuna schools and pulling them up one after the other, throwing them all into a big trough where they flip and flop trying to escape, slicing each other up with their razor fins, you get an idea this was what John Huston was trying for with his mustang hunt in THE MISFITS. When one man fishes for himself, it's the natural order; when a crew fishes for half a state, it's mortifying. The good part here is that man's not strictly the apex predator, because where there's fish there's tiger sharks, and they love Portuguese commercial a-fisherman for dinner. Edward G. Robinson's jovial capatin loses his hand to one, and so wears a shiny hook (he gets it polished on his wedding day). Another guy loses his legs, dies, and leaves his daughter (Zita Johann) powerless against Eddie's boastful charms. Johann's weird pallor worked in THE MUMMY but she doesn't have the inner fortitude of, say, Greta Garbo's Anna Christie, and so when she falls for Eddie's partner, two-handed hunk Richard Arlen there's only the sense that he might have access to some benzos that would make the overacting of Robinson's angler bearable. Wrote Andrew Sarris, "Hawks remorselessly applies the laws of nature to sex.The man who is flawed by age, mutilation, or unpleasing appearance to even the slightest degree invariably loses the woman to his flawless rival." There's some good scenes and no bad ones in TIGER SHARK, but the problem is all this remorseless law applying and less natural danger. Robinson seems miscast, his constant chatter and Portuguese accent seem unduly weak for such a great actor. When he shoots at sharks from the safety of the crow's nest it only makes you sick, not inspired.
CEILING ZERO (1936)
Here's the first film where Hawks shows the rapid fire overlapping dialogue style that would become his trademark. A chronicle of the early days of Newark airport, wherein stray pilots are nursed through heavy fogs by a radio operator or two and Pat O'Brien, who try to deal with crises while old friends and a snoopy aviation bureau rep (Barton MacLane) try to interfere and/or say hello. We come to admire the way O'Brien can refrain from snapping people's heads off while he's engaged in life-or-death radio contact and some oblivious person walks through and starts joking around. Then, enter (tumbling) daredevil pilot James Cagney who served with O'Brien in the WW1 in the Signal Corp (where Howard Hawks served with William Faulkner). It's a bit similar to DAWN PATROL, in that O'Brien doesn't fly the planes, and has to send men up in bad conditions (ceiling zero means the fog is so low and so high even the sea gulls are grounded) and he doesn't like it.
A highlight is when they're all trying to help a lost in the fog Stu Erwin land after his honing beam goes out, and he can't get their radio signal but they can hear him shouting in panic and rage, presuming everyone on the ground is off playing poker and they're all shouting into different phone lines all along the flight plan to various listening posts and police stations, and the girl in the room cries and shouts "Why don't you do something?" and they all bark at once "SHADDUP!!!!" We see a slight strain in Hawks not misogynist per se, but his Hawksian woman was still being formed, and while the girls are of varying degres of toughness here, they are shown to crack up in a crisis, throwing little tantrums. There's also some surprising sexual frankness: June Travis offers herself to Cagney for succor after he loses Stu Erwin, who took the doomed flight so Cagney could have a date with her in a shadowy prefiguring of Joe's death in the early section of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.
The ending is one of those bits where everyone's noble self-sacrifice has to constantly trump one another's, but it's almost beside the point. What counts is that here is that Hawks has found his thing, the zippy overlapping dialogue of a bunch of professional men united in a common cause, against a common foe, and the weather, and the (notably Irish blarney-free) velocity of the Pat and Jimmy chemistry at full manly throttle. The VHS I got is blurry.
BARBARY COAST (1935)
(available on a solid DVD from MGM)
It's a rarity for a Hawks film to follow the leading lady around. Usually it's the leading man, the hero. He may not start the film but as soon as he comes on we never leave his side. But here it's Miriam Hopkins as the first white woman in San Francisco, back in the gold rush boom town days, when a ship from New York had to travel all the way around South America and took the better part of a year to get there, only to find a city of unpaved mud roads so nasty they can suck you under like quicksand, a dense fog filled with scammers, pickpockets, and ruffians, and inside nothing but crooked roulette wheels, shady murdering bouncers, and that pint-sized unlucky-in-love big shot Eddie G. Robinson.
There's a few elements that lets you know Hawks isn't fully himself in this, one of the films he made for MGM; he was a hired gun of Goldwyn's, and delivered the goods on time, end of story. He's not particularly enamored with his leading man, Joel McCrea, is a foolish poet-type who loses his hard-earned sacks of gold in one turn of Hopkins' fixed roulette wheel, a "cheap price for such an education." This after they fell in love as strangers both seeking shelter from a rainstorm at an old deserted cabin, the oldest excuse in the book, as Edward G. Robinson knows, myeah. Notes Cinephile:
"There’s little sexual tension, chemistry, or even the vaguest hint of innuendo between the two leads, it would seem a sign attached to one of the gambling tables in Robinson’s casino which reads “No vulgarity allowed at this table” is a rule disappointingly applied to the rest of the film as well. It has little visual identity beyond Ray June’s atmospherically foggy night-time photography (which does some fine work with shadows towards the end) and little of the cynicism or edge which marked out other collaborations with screenwriter Ben Hecht, instead opting for flowery, pretentious dialogue many of the cast clearly struggle with."
Gambling is a hard trick to do right by in film and Hawks isn't a great one for making money cinematic. The idea of everyone having to lug around sacks of gold through throngs of thieves, leaving us to worry about how easily they could be robbed is as far from the Hawksian sense of groups solidarity as you can get. Saving it all is Walter Brennan as a shell of his future self, Old Atrocity, he alone seems to achieve some sort of noble 3-D savagery. His survival in this place, his being welcome even in his disheveled form in the glossy casino (he lures strangers off the docks over the roulette wheel, perhaps for a cut of their trimmings) makes him one of those rare figures (like C3PO or Dennis Hopper) who can wander back and forth between classes, enemy camps, nature and civilization, because he really fits in neither. Add some throw-away lines like "it's hard rowing when I'm so emotional" and it still adds up to a formulaic but well-detailed socio-historic romantic thriller that's no SAN FRANCISCO (1936), nor even, when all is said and done, a TIGER SHARK.
(Portugese DVD - Region 1)
William Faulkner co-wrote this one, a name-only remake to a 1926 Hawks silent. It's hard to imagine this was made a year after BARBARY COAST as it looks straight from 1930. Hope Lang prefigures the later Hawks heroines as a dreamy WW1 Parisian combat nurse with a beautiful black velvet choker-wrapped neck, bangs, pale skin, bangs, a sexy Red Cross on her cape, and a lower-registered speaking voice. She has the air of Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 Harper's Bazaar that won her a Hawks protege-ship. You can see it in Lang's face, that same petulant weariness, just determined to do her part and her empathy for the boys' suffering never so haughty as to preclude sex.
The plot to ROAD is an uneasy mixture of the auld love triangle - new officer Frederic March meets Lang when they take shelter together in a bombed out saloon. He plays some tunes, and puts his coat over her as the Huns bomb the street above. Next day he's stalking her, bothering her at the hospital while she tries to bandage the wounded, unaware she's the mistress of shaky drunk Warner Baxter, his new C.O. Once Baxter finds out, of course, it's suicide mission time for March, a bit like the situation in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY or Von Sternberg's MOROCCO, or any of a dozen other films (like FRIENDS AND LOVERS, reviewed a few posts ago). Adding to the trouble is Baxter's father showing up and being played by Lionel Barrymore, who wants to get into the young man's game to prove his worth. He ends up hogging screen time with his usual business before grenading his own team. March puts up with it all stoically, and there's no guess how it ends --he winds up in command, DAWN PATROL-style, winning by default, and indulging in the pills and booze regimen that made Baxter able to send brave men to their deaths.
A memorable segment of the film involves Germans digging underneath the allied trenches. The soldiers know they can't abandon the trench, or the Germans will march right in. So they have to stay... and wait, as the Germans scrape away below, knowing that as soon as the scraping stops the bombs are likely to off beneath them. That's where the true courage is tested, the painful, prolonged waiting... and smoking. And there's a rousing charge across no-man's land, as well as sneaky night time flank maneuvers! It's great in its way, but its way isn't full Hawks, there's still the love triangle, the ignominy of war, the sense of being pawns in the grip of a story teller with a theme and message, rather than being characters gripping a director for no reason other than instilling a sense of pride in being human.
See also, the 1932 Hawks film THE CROWD ROARS, which I capsuled earlier.