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Howard Hawks
(1896 - 1977) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, Also: producer, screenwriter /Birth Name: Howard Winchester Hawks /Born: May 30, 1896, Goshen, IN /Died: December 26, 1977, Palm Springs, CA /Education: Cornell (mechanical engineering)


Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American filmmakers, Hawks' career virtually spans the Hollywood studio era. In the summers of 1916 and 1917 Hawks had his first experiences with the movies, working in the props department of Famous Players-Lasky during his college vacations. After serving in the armed forces during WWI, Hawks worked as a race-car driver, aviator, and a designer in an aircraft factory&emdash;experiences that would later inform both his choice of subjects and his style as a director. He independently produced several films for director Allan Dwan and took a job with the script department of Famous Players-Lasky, where he worked, mostly uncredited, on the scripts of dozens of movies. (He also worked uncredited on the screenplays of all the films he directed.) Hawks wrote his first screenplay, TIGER LOVE, in 1924 and directed his first film, THE ROAD TO GLORY, in 1925.

Although he made eight films during the silent era, it was with the coming of sound that Hawks began to hit his stride. He used sound expressively, his characters frequently delivering their lines at an unnaturally rapid pace. Indeed, Hawks was one of the few Hollywood directors to employ overlapping sound; as a result, dialogue in many of his films is delivered with the rhythm of machine-gun fire. These staccato bursts of speech reveal a fascination with the American language (made explicit in BALL OF FIRE, 1941, with its conflict between Barbara Stanwyck's street slang and Gary Cooper's educated diction) and sustain the breakneck tempo of his comedies (perhaps best exemplified by Cary Grant's performance in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, 1940).

Hawks worked well with actors, preferring to let his camera dwell on them rather than to impose his presence through visual style. Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Ann Sheridan gave some of their best performances in Hawks comedies, and Lauren Bacall and Paula Prentiss established their careers under his direction. Cary Grant and John Wayne each enjoyed five of their best roles in Hawks films, with Wayne giving a great performance as the aging yet stubborn rancher Tom Dunson in RED RIVER (1948).

Hawks once defined a good director as "someone who doesn't annoy you." Consequently, his camerawork is generally more functional than florid. (The repeated motif of the cross in the early SCARFACE, 1932 (filmed 1931) is an example of the kind of editorial device that Hawks would soon abandon.) He preferred to position his camera at eye level, where it could best capture the crucial bits of physical business performed by his actors. In Hawks' movies, gestures&emdash;as in the way people roll, light and pass cigarettes&emdash;become important signifiers of character. According to Andrew Sarris, few other filmmakers have explored the implications of gesture as fully as Hawks. Similarly, with the exception of the labyrinthine whodunit THE BIG SLEEP (1946), the narrative structure of Hawks' films is relatively straightforward. It has often been remarked that in all of his features, not once is there a flashback.

Hawks worked in virtually every genre. He made gangster films (THE CRIMINAL CODE, 1931, SCARFACE, 1932), war films (THE DAWN PATROL, 1930, AIR FORCE, 1943), Westerns (RED RIVER, 1948, RIO BRAVO, 1959), films noirs (THE BIG SLEEP, 1946), musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, 1953), epics (LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, 1955) and science fiction films (THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), 1951, which he produced and, uncredited, partly directed). He is well known for both his sprawling action films (THE CROWD ROARS, 1932, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, 1939) and for his screwball comedies (BRINGING UP BABY, 1938, MONKEY BUSINESS, 1952), a genre which some claim begins with his TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934).

Across this generic range, Hawks consistently examined the nature and responsibilities of professionalism&emdash;defined as a cluster of values that includes honor, self-esteem and an unswerving devotion to getting a job done in the face of adversity. Hawks' view of such "masculine" professionalism is similar to the idea of "grace under pressure" explored in fiction by his close friend, Ernest Hemingway. Frequently in Hawks' films, a group of men are isolated from civilization, both physically and spiritually, and must fight against both nature and themselves to achieve their goal. In ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, the men fly mail planes in and out of the Andes; in AIR FORCE they work as a unit on a B-17 bomber; in RED RIVER the cowhands attempt to drive cattle along the Chisholm Trail; in THE THING the soldiers destroy a hostile alien in their isolated post at the North Pole. Removed from civilization, the group defines itself existentially, its purpose only to survive and to succeed. In most of these films conflict arises when a woman&emdash;embodying an emotional quality that threatens the stoic nature of Hawksian professionalism&emdash;intervenes; inevitably, she must be won over to the masculine point of view.

Hawks' movies would be of minimal interest if their vision were limited to the narrow notions of masculine professionalism offered in the action films. However, as several critics have observed, the moral thrust of the action films is inverted in the comedies, which offer a "feminine" counterweight to their celebration of masculine professionalism. As phrased in Robin Wood's influential study of Hawks, the "Self-Respect and Responsibility" of the action films is undermined by "The Lure of Irresponsibility" in the comedies. In these movies, the female characters are depicted as representing a joyous release and freedom from the constricting and dull responsibilities of professional life. Here, such values as warmth, openness and a sense of humor are celebrated. Perhaps the clearest expression of this alternative view is the end of BRINGING UP BABY, in which Katharine Hepburn's uninhibited, madcap nature causes the ossified world view of paleontologist Cary Grant&emdash;symbolized by his reconstructed dinosaur skeleton&emdash;to collapse.

This relationship between the comedies and the action films makes Hawks one of the most interesting of directors from the perspective of classical auteurism. The meaning of any of the films individually is enhanced by the knowledge of alternatives offered elsewhere in his work. It is no coincidence that in the first issue of Movie, the influential auteurist journal from Great Britain, dated May 1962, only Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were honored with the designation of "Great" directors. The significance of Hawks' films is indeed greater, more complex, than their individual meanings. Critical opinion does remain divided: for some, Hawks' films express a male adolescent vision of escape from relationships and responsibility that, as Leslie Fiedler and D.H. Lawrence have shown, is so pronounced in classic American fiction; for others, his work explores the cultural neurosis that gives rise to the excesses of machismo. While issues of gender, sexual difference and sexual politics continue to dominate cultural criticism, Hawks' work will remain central.

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