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Howard Hawks

May 30 marks the birthday of filmmaker Howard Hawks.  Born in Goshen, Indiana, in 1896, he is best known for directing westerns such as Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959), but he made more than 40 other films, including science fiction movies (The Thing, 1951), gangster movies (Scarface 1932), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday 1940), and detective movies (The Big Sleep 1946).

He was a friend of Ernest Hemingway, and he became known for shooting movies in the same clear and simple way that Hemingway wrote sentences.  He almost always shot scenes at eye level, because, he said, "That's the way a man sees it."  He never used camera tricks and he rarely even moved the camera.  When asked about his style as a filmmaker, he said, "I just aim ...at the actors."

Hawks was born into a wealthy Midwestern mercantile family.  His father was Frank W. Hawks and his mother, the former Helen Howard, was the daughter of one of Wisconsin's leading industrialists.  Having moved with his family to California at the age of 10, Hawks attended school at Pasadena and later studied at prep school Philips-Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.  At Cornell, he studied mechanical engineering.  During summer vacations, he worked at the Famous Players-Lasky studios in Hollywood. 

When World War One broke out, he served as a pilot with the Army Air Corps, gaining the rank of second lieutenant.  He worked for a short time in an aircraft factory before returning to Hollywood.

Hawks began his cinematic career as a props man with the Mary Pickford Company. Then he worked as an editor.  From editing, he moved to the script department.  His great advantage over other industry newcomers was his family's money.  He loaned cash to Jack Warner and financed several Associated Producers' films directed by Marshall Neilan, Allan Dawn, and Allen Holubar.  In 1922, Hawks wrote and directed two comedy shorts, and in 1923 he wrote the screenplay for Jack Conway's feature, Quicksands, as well as the screenplay, Tiger Love (1924).  His first film as a director and writer was The Road to Glory, marking the beginning of the most successful and versatile careers in American film history.

Hawks's best works are part of filmmaking history.  In Bringing Up Baby, starring Gary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, the director unleashes impeccable dialogue coupled with unimpeachable acting.  Grant's first comedic role proved him the equal of anyone working in Hollywood and a perfect match for Hepburn's zany antics.  Scarface (1932), with its newsreel quality, was modeled after the life of Al Capone and more brutal than any of its predecessors.  Howard Hughes, the producer, kept the film out of distribution, and it was only after his death in 1979 that the movie could be seen again.

The film combined the talents of producer Howard Hughes, scriptwriter Ben Hecht, cameraman Lee Garmes, and Hawks.  Paul Muni was the egocentric killer, and George Raft, the coin-flipping "Little Boy."  In his use of expressionistic sets and lightning, Hawks was influenced by German impressionistic film techniques gaining popularity at the time.

The frenetic dialogue and non-stop action of His Girl Friday (1940), a remake of Lewis Milestone's The Front Page, with the lead journalist role switched from male to female, is a classic screwball comedy.  It is a comedy to which all comedic directors aspire and one of Hollywood's finest classics.  Only Angels Have Wings (1939) depicted men who fly cargo planes over the Andes and presented a typical Howard Hawks' view of the world where men are men and women have to be as tough as their sexual counterparts. 

Hawks based the script on one of his own experiences as a flyer.  He had known a pilot who parachuted from a burning plane, leaving his co-pilot behind to die in the crash.  With Only Angels Have Wings, Gary Grant, who could combine in his role a strong physical presence with matchless comedic talents, become one of Hawk's favorite actors.

To Have and Have Not (1944) is one of the best film adaptations based on Hemingway's books.  It united Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and includes one of the most famous invitations in film history, when Marie Browning (Bacall) tells Harry Morgan (Bogart): "You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything.  Not a thing.  Oh, maybe just whistle.  You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?  Just put your lips together and blow."

The Big Sleep (1946), a Raymond Chandler Whodunnit starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, followed a contorted plot fairly closely until the book's last chapter.  Hawks combined realism with tough, sardonic dialogue, complex characters, and multiple layers of meaning.  He went into production with the temporary script, shot a lot of material ad lib (running an already long screenplay into far too much footage), and then turned to screenwriter Jules Furthman to cut the remaining un-shot portions of the film into a manageable length.  Faulkner, who had written the script with Leigh Brackett, was drinking heavily and anxious to return home to Mississippi.  He had told one of his friends: "Sometimes I think if I do one more treatment or screenplay, I'll lose whatever power I have as a writer." 

Despite its rambling and at times incoherent ending, the film remains today yet another Hawks classic.

Hawks maintained tight artistic control of his films and was known to walk off a set when the studio or its producers interfered.  Like many independent producers, he viewed himself as a hit-maker, creating films that pleased himself while entertaining the masses.  He couldn't consider himself a success unless his tastes were in synch with those of the public.  By carefully selecting his own projects and methodically reworking them on the set, Hawks slowly gravitated toward a position where he could be his own boss and call his own shots.

Hawks never received an Oscar for his work until he was awarded an honorary prize in 1975 for being a "giant of the American cinema whose pictures taken as a whole represent one of the most consistent, vivid, and varied bodies of work in world cinema."  It was an understatement.

Howard Hawks died in Palm Springs, California, on December 12, 1977.

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