Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood
Who the Devil Made It
Howard Hawks American Artist
“You looked good,” Humphrey Bogart says to Lauren Bacall toward the end of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). “Awful good.” He’s right, of course. She looks great throughout the film, even if her clothes and manner do turn suggestiveness into a form of overstatement. But that is not what he means. In spite of his phrasing, Bogart is not at this moment talking about Bacall’s looks in the expected sense. She has just distracted a killer’s attention so that Bogart can shoot the man instead of getting shot. She was able to think fast in spite of her fear, she seemed cool although she didn’t feel it. Looking good is a way of being good; in this context the only way. You keep your wits when most people would lose them, and you are seen to keep them; presence of mind is a kind of performance. Style is not just style here, but there is no efficacy without it.
When Bogart and Bacall first meet on screen, in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944), no one’s life is being threatened, but style already looks like a mode of action. Bogart is in his room in a Martinique hotel, talking to a friend. A woman’s voice calls from off screen: “Anybody got a match?” The voice belongs, we now see, to Bacall, slouching against the doorpost of the room. Bogart doesn’t speak, goes to his desk, rummages for a box of matches, tosses it to her across a distance of some twelve or thirteen feet. She catches it, of course, and if she didn’t the scene would be reshot until she did. It was reshot, or at least extensively rehearsed, according to Hawks’s biographer Todd McCarthy, since Bacall “was beside herself with nerves, trembling so much she couldn’t even catch the matchbox.” But that is not the way things look in the film, and the trick is in how Bacall takes the catch. She doesn’t stop leaning on the doorpost, she doesn’t get ready, or hold her arm out. She doesn’t really move, except to flick her hand like a paw, taking the matches overhand, as if she was simply picking them up out of the air. We could overread this beautifully relaxed scene; nothing easier. But it surely is astonishing how much these few seconds have told us about these people, and how much they already know about each other, how deep they already are into their relationship. The setup is then confirmed by a series of quick images: medium shot of Bogart; medium shot of Bacall; close-up of him; close-up of her; a shot of Bogart’s friend looking first at one of them, then the other. This is, among other things, how you tell stories in the movies—or rather how you allow the audience to feel that a story has already been told, that it knows the story it has stumbled into. Bogart’s not speaking, Bacall’s casual catch not only suggest the underplayed harmony of their affair, its ease beneath all the dramatic and other difficulties laid on it by the plot, but present them as a couple who know, from experience, the truth as well as the deception of appearances. Not everyone who looks good is good, but there are ways of looking good which cannot be faked. You have to be an exceptional actor to put this truth across, because deceptive appearances are the actor’s business, and even skillful performers, aiming for the relaxed look, usually look as if they are trying to relax. But you also need an exceptional director, one who can judge, as Hawks could better than anyone else, how little, in words or in actions, can be exactly enough.
Hawks was born in Goshen, Indiana, in 1896, and died in Los Angeles in 1977. He began in silent films, but welcomed sound. “I always wished we had sound,” he tells Peter Bogdanovich, in the long series of interviews, conducted in 1962, 1967, and 1972, which appear in Who the Devil Made It. But he remained faithful to silence in an interesting way, not because he was hostile to speech, but because he believed so fervently in the unsaid.
Hawks freely copied from other directors and writers, but made almost everything his own. He was an individualist but not a rebel, and McCarthy shrewdly identifies the peculiar kind of auteur Hawks was:
The secret to Hawks’s enduring success was that there was no difference between the manner of films he wanted to make and what the studios craved; he just wanted to make them on his own terms, without the interference of meddlesome producers and executives….
Except that the studios didn’t usually crave stuff as good as this. Hawks never won an Oscar, except the lifetime award in 1975, and was nominated only once, for Sergeant York. Yet, as McCarthy says, Hawks’s films have scarcely dated, and his versatility was amazing.
McCarthy rather oddly (and wrongly, I think) suggests Hawks was the only Hollywood director of 1930s comedies “whose fundamental instincts and personality were not comic.” But he then adds that he “made some comedies that can be ranked with the best made by anyone, whereas it’s impossible to imagine Lubitsch making The Big Sleep, Wilder directing Red River, Sturges tackling Sergeant York, McCarey or La Cava mastering the challenge of Scarface or Air Force. Without sending them up, of course.”
McCarthy thinks Hawks was “the sort of man for whom the term enigma was invented,” and doesn’t claim, in this first biography of the director, to have set the record entirely straight, only straighter. He recounts a story of Frank Capra’s about meeting Hawks on a busy set. “Everybody coming out was black and covered with smoke. But when Howard came out, he was absolutely untouched. His pants were pressed, his hair was in place, and he didn’t have a spot on him. I said, ‘My God, even the smoke won’t touch him.”’ A biographer can hardly get where smoke won’t go, but McCarthy does an excellent job of evoking the backgrounds to Hawks’s life: his privileged childhood in Indiana and Wisconsin, then in Pasadena, his compulsive gambling, his cars, his horses, his cronies, his wives, and above all the details of his movie contracts, the money he made and the money he lost.
McCarthy gives lucid and balanced accounts of all the films too, from The Road to Glory (1926) to Rio Lobo (1970), and only occasionally loses patience with Hawks’s boasting—less a failure of sympathy, I think, than the biographer’s weariness at having to track down and correct yet another tall tale. Hawks was a great fabulist, McCarthy says, always relating stories that showed he was smarter and tougher than everyone else, and “in which he told Hemingway, Faulkner, Cooper, Grant, Bogart, Wayne, Hepburn, Bacall, and Monroe what was best for them and told Mayer, Warner, Cohn, Goldwyn, Hughes, Wallis, and Zanuck where to get off.” But then he was smarter and tougher than most people.
It’s odd that Hawks should come across so assertively when he talks about his life, as he certainly does in his interviews in Peter Bogdanovich’s collection, since he was in his work so keen on understatement. He speaks repeatedly of the virtues of “underplaying” and “underacting,” but his most interesting word for the effect he is after is “quiet.” “It was very quiet,” he says of his film The Dawn Patrol (1930): “The thing to do is to go along quietly, then let loose the fireworks, and then drop back again.” “The average movie talks too much,” Hawks comments at another point. “You have to plant your scenes and then let the audience do a little work so they become part of it. Any script that reads well is no good.” And yet Hawks has directed movies with a lot of talk, some of the fastest talk heard in the cinema: Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940). His implication, I take it, is that you can talk a lot without talking too much, as long as there is work left for the audience to do, as long you keep some quietness among the noise. At one moment Hawks enacts his principle in the interview itself by not letting on how much he is not letting on. “There are a lot of things your characters don’t say,” Bogdanovich remarks. “There are a lot of things you don’t say.” Hawks’s answer is, “I guess.”
A good example of the relation of the said to the not said occurs near the beginning of His Girl Friday, where Cary Grant, as a newspaperman divorced from Rosalind Russell, a journalist, has lunch with Russell and her new fiancé, Ralph Bellamy, an insurance salesman. The swirling undercurrents of the conversation suggest quite clearly that journalism (and Grant) are exciting to Russell but she is trying to choose stability. Can this be done? Is there any occupiable ground between the life of news and the gloom of insurance? “Of course, we don’t help you much while you’re alive,” Bellamy says in an enthusiastic defense of his profession, “but afterwards, that’s what counts.” These people are talking all the time, but there is still plenty they are not saying, and this reflects both the brilliance of the script and Hawks’s use of the mobility of the film medium.
The high point of the conversation concerns the new couple’s project of living in Albany with Bellamy’s mother. On a shot of Russell’s head and shoulders in close-up, Grant’s voice says, “So you’re going to live with mother?” Bellamy’s voice says, “Well, just for the first year.” Russell remains impassive, above it all. The screen now shows Grant’s amiable, insincere face. He says. “Well, well, that will be nice. A home with mother. In Albany too.” Hawks cuts to Russell’s face again. Her elbows are on the table, her hands loosely clasped. As Grant speaks, she lifts her right palm but without separating her hands, a gesture of…what? Acceptance, weariness, acknowledgment that Grant has won a round? Or is she thumbing her nose at him, as McCarthy suggests? A small, temporary gesture anyway, since her face scarcely changes. She is very determined. Mother and Albany are not a happy thought, but they are not insuperable.
Even gestures can talk too much in Hawks’s strict terms. There is a moment in his Rio Bravo (1959) where Dean Martin, as the reformed drunk undergoing a relapse, decides not to have a drink after all, and pours a shot of liquor back into the bottle. A moment ago his hands were trembling uncontrollably, now they are perfectly steady. “Didn’t spill a drop,” Martin says with satisfaction. Bogdanovich remarks to Hawks that he supposes this is “the culminating moment for Martin,” and Robin Wood, in an essay reprinted in Howard Hawks American Artist, says this is “one of the great moments of the cinema.” Hawks responds “That’s what the dramatists would say, I guess. I don’t think so…. I think the best moment is when he faces down the heavies in the bar.” Hawks is not denying the interest of the moment, but he is preferring a public action to a private victory, and a well-made scene to a moral fable. Martin is good in both situations; but he really looks good only in the second.