“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.
Hawks’s quietness also involves the emotions. Asked about the harsh relations between a man and a woman in Scarface (1932), Hawks says, “Oh, well, I hate these things where one looks at the other and they both faint.” Bogart and Bacall, in the matchbox scene from To Have and Have Not, are not just not fainting; they are giving us a little lesson in how attractive the alternatives can be. Of the same movie Hawks recalls that the original script had Bacall as “a girl in a strange port whose purse is stolen.” Hawks thought this was “pretty mawkish,” and persuaded the writer, Jules Furthman, to turn things around: Bacall does the stealing.
How mean was Hawks? The question keeps coming up in McCarthy’s biography, and perhaps can’t be answered. But we can answer for the films, and we do know that Hawks didn’t think meanness was a good idea. In the last pages of his book McCarthy quotes an exchange between Max Bercutt, a Hollywood press agent, and Michael Powell, the English director. Bercutt says, “Hawks was a sour man, sour about himself and sour about other people.” Powell says, “I think he had a very deep understanding of people, what was inside people.” Bercutt persists, “He was a mean man, he didn’t like his wives and they didn’t like him….” Powell, half-capitulating, says, “I think you have to dislike people in order to direct great comedy.” Hawks’s view of comedy, casually but intelligently expressed to Bogdanovich, is precisely the reverse, and McCarthy’s own accounts of the experiences of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, and others working with Hawks in that genre tend to confirm Hawks’s view. “You can always make fun of other people’s seriousness,” Hawks says to Bogdanovich, but then the trick is not to be mean. “You can make fun of anybody and it amuses people if you don’t get mean about it.”
Disliking people, if you had a real talent for it, and one or two other talents as well, might make you a great director, but it wouldn’t make you into Howard Hawks. Rosalind Russell, in His Girl Friday, says to Cary Grant as Walter Burns, “Oh Walter, you’re wonderful in a loathsome sort of way,” and the line as written could mean all kinds of things. As spoken it’s a grand compliment, of the only kind Grant/ Burns could recognize, although it also includes a heroic resistance to his charm: he’s certainly wonderful, but she would find him loathsome if she could. Hawks dislikes mawkishness, and sees it almost everywhere. But he likes the style of his characters, the style he lends them and the style he allows them to find for themselves.
Peter Bogdanovich’s book is an exercise in nostalgia. It opens with an account of a conversation in Santa Monica in 1996. Warren Beatty, Henry Jaglom, and Bogdanovich are at a children’s birthday party, and Beatty says, “A lotta things don’t seem to count anymore,” followed by, “Everybody’s dead.” Bogdanovich says he knew exactly what Warren meant, “because I’d had the same thought repeatedly.” “Everybody” here is a movie director, and of the sixteen directors interviewed by Bogdanovich only three are still alive: Joseph H. Lewis, director of Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, Chuck Jones, creator of Bugs Bunny, and Sidney Lumet, director most recently of Night Falls on Manhattan.
It’s good to have these interviews, conducted over many years, from 1961 to 1995, with Bogdanovich sometimes going back to a director more than once; and a careful combing of the pages, along with a willingness to imagine what isn’t always said explicitly, allows you to learn quite a bit about the movies. But it’s a long haul between insights, and it’s revealing, but not cheering, that some of the best remarks here are Bogdanovich’s own on the subject of a director he never met: Ernst Lubitsch, who died in 1947 at the age of 55. Lubitsch had, we are told, “a miraculous ability to mock and celebrate both at once and to such perfection that it was never quite possible to tell where the satirizing ended and the glorification began.” “You can feel right from the start,” Bogdanovich says of the director’s attitude to the squawky Jeanette MacDonald, “that Lubitsch loves her not despite the fragility of her talent but because of it.” Fragility is itself a Lubitschean word; many would say MacDonald had scarcely any talent at all. In the same vein Bogdanovich says, “There are no ‘old’ movies really—only movies you have already seen and ones you haven’t.” This again is charming, because it often looks these days as if all movies are old movies, as if there were nothing else.
For the rest we have Fritz Lang on revenge (“Hatred is a lousy feeling”), George Cukor on the fact that stars always have a secret (“There’s always something about them that you don’t know that you’d like to know”), Hitchcock telling us yet again what a MacGuffin is (“a MacGuffin is something that the characters worry about but the audience does not“). Otto Preminger says he doesn’t get ulcers, he causes them, and Lumet says, “Good work is an accident,” echoing a line Bogdanovich quotes from Orson Welles, “You could almost say that a director is a man who presides over accidents.” Perhaps the best, richest moments are the ones that seem tiniest. Montgomery Clift tells Hitchcock that he doesn’t know whether he would look up in the situation where Hitchcock is instructing him to look up. Hitchcock says, “Well, imagine”; meaning “Where would we be if actors wrote their own scripts.” This is the voice of the vanished world Warren Beatty was talking about. And so is Hawks’s response to the idea that John Wayne’s wound in El Dorado is “a symbol of his age, of his getting older.” Hawks says, “He is getting older. Holy smoke.”
David Thomson, in his affectionate little book on The Big Sleep, says it has always seemed to him “the happiest of films,” but then he gets to worrying about the happiness it offers. He is convinced that The Big Sleep is “one of the most formally radical pictures ever made in Hollywood,” because it so recklessly abandons narrative coherence. The anecdotal lore surrounding the film, and a good deal of the critical writing about it, centers on the fact that no one could understand the plot—neither Hawks, nor William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who wrote the film, nor Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel the film was based on. Or more precisely, on the fact that they all said they couldn’t understand the plot. They were joking, but the joke glances at what Thomson calls “something very important.” It’s not that the plot couldn’t be fixed, or even that Hawks had come to realize, as he says to Bogdanovich, “that you don’t really have to have an explanation for things.” It’s that things in the movies are often better left unexplained, as long as you have a firm enough focus on what those things are in the first place. In The Big Sleep, they are murder, sex, danger, illness, small-time grifting, and a whole murky world of conspiracy and second-guessing where it is actually unlikely that anyone would get the whole picture. The confused story line mirrors the story world. When Bogart calls on his client in the opening scene of the movie, and sits sweating among the orchids while the old general, wrapped in warm clothes and blankets, continues to freeze, the image is like a prophecy of the movie’s contents and its manner. The old man can’t smoke or drink or sweat, but he can watch others do it; he presides over a domain where the direct and the ordinary have been outlawed, where all enjoyments are oblique.
Thomson says The Big Sleep “abandons story and genre as easily as one of its girls stepping out of her clothes.” He’s projecting a little here, since the women in the movie only step out of their reserve, coming on to Bogart as if he were the Adonis he doggedly is not. But then Thomson is on his way to making what seems to me his strangest claim. Because it abandons story, The Big Sleep “is a movie about being a movie, about movie-ness…. It’s a picture about its own process, the aim of making fun…. It is a dream about dreaming—maybe the best.” It’s hard to see why it couldn’t be about being a movie and be a great thriller, or be a great thriller because it was also about being a movie. But Thomson thinks The Big Sleep sets us on the road to Tarantino. “There’s a prospect of decadence in that, I think—the way in which, as early as 1946, film had intuited the great gulf separating it from life. And it’s part of the decadence that the Hawksian view of men and women is so headily adolescent. To say nothing of the loss in moral focus.” And this is why he worries about the film’s happiness:
And so I have to say, ruefully but with pleasure still, that The Big Sleep is both the most entertaining of films and a piece of shiny whimsy, untrue to life in so many important ways. After a hundred years of film, intelligent commentary seems to be left with that embarrassing conclusion.
It would take too long to unravel all the assumptions being made here—that film didn’t learn about its separation from life until 1946; that this separation is a promise of decadence rather than of liberation; that truth to life is available and desirable; that the words “film” and “life” have steady enough meanings for us to use them in this confident way; that intelligent commentary is exhausted with Thomson’s embarrassment. But Thomson’s language certainly takes us into the uneasy territory many people feel themselves to occupy when they start talking about Hawks.
Jim Hillier’s and Peter Wollen’s collection of essays, Howard Hawks American Artist, contains some useful essays on Hawks.* But at the uncertain heart of the book are a series of lively pieces about “the Hawksian woman,” easily related to a set of scattered worries in a number of the other pieces. Manny Farber thinks Hawks is one of the few Hollywood directors with an appeal “for any spectator who likes a bit of male truth in films.” Jean Douchet thinks that “Woman, in Hawks’s films, is what man is in the depths of his being,” and Robert Sklar argues that in finding a stray cow in Red River (1948), Montgomery Clift restores to John Wayne “the indispensable feminine.” Robin Wood says of “the Hawks woman” that “no one, presumably, will now wish to enroll her in the Feminist cause.” “Now” is 1981.
We are knee-deep in mythologies here, about women and about feminism, and it’s refreshing to read Molly Haskell’s lucid precision on this subject. “Hawks’s conception of woman, as a creature both equal and threatening to man, can be seen as adolescent and anthropomorphic, but never idealizing or domesticating.” Leigh Brackett, who worked on the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and three other Hawks films, says she suspects that “Hawks doesn’t like women in their negative aspect,” can’t like them until they become what he thinks men ought to be. But then she is quick to point out that plenty of women possess the supposedly masculine virtues of “bravery, strength, expertise, loyalty,” and she is too polite to say openly that many men don’t. Still, the question remains, and Brackett puts it well:
So why should he give his women a position of equality…often, indeed, dominance…in a genre that usually relegates them either to being decorative in the hero’s relaxed moments, or to looking doleful as the hero goes off about his business?
We don’t have to make Hawks a good guy to answer this question, but we do have to look at his films.
Can we define the women in them? Are they “mostly saloon singers of one kind or another,” as Naomi Wise says in an essay in the Hillier/Wollen collection? This is to make Lauren Bacall the fundamental Hawks heroine, the others merely variants. Hawks’s ex-wife Slim Keith says “there were many flavors” of the Hawks woman, and mentions Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. But “physically,” she says, “I think there were only two: Lauren Bacall and me.”
What this suggests is that at least three very different kinds of women are in question: the wonderfully scatty, the fast-talking efficient, and the wise-cracking slinky. They share certain features, of course, but there is surely an advantage in keeping them apart if we can. Their ideas of happiness are going to be different, for instance, and so are their needs and energies. It may ultimately be a conservative view of the relations between the sexes that makes sure these women always get their man, and find that man enough; and there is nothing to suggest that Hawks himself held anything other than such a conservative view. But the sheer turbulence that Hawks’s films manage to introduce into the idea of sexual difference has to be seen again to be believed.
He was not alone in this, in spite of what Leigh Brackett says. The whole genre of the comedy of remarriage, identified and discussed by Stanley Cavell, is devoted to this terrain, and involves other directors like Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, and Frank Capra. But no Hollywood comedy is sharper on the subject than Hawks’s His Girl Friday, and none takes us further into alternative models of sexual relation than Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby.
In reworking The Front Page as His Girl Friday, Hawks changed the sex of one of the leading characters, and added the notion of her recent divorce from the other lead. She wanted the divorce, because she couldn’t bear the absence of what she pictured as ordinary married life, endlessly sacrificed to the monstrous needs of a newspaper. We get a feeling for what’s comic but also hair-raising about the situation when Cary Grant says, “I intended to be with you on our honeymoon, Hildy, honest I did.” The trouble is that Hildy/Rosalind Russell loves the newspaper life as much as Burns/Grant does, and as much as she loves him—only he doesn’t have to choose between the paper and his heart. Early on in the movie Grant insists that Russell is a professional, the best there is. “You’re a newspaperman,” he says. That’s the problem, she says. “I want to be a woman.”
Hawks is not going to analyze this for us, and he may feel this is finally Russell’s problem alone. If she loves Grant and the life he represents, she’s going to have to give up being a woman. That this is what she does is what makes viewers from David Thomson to Molly Haskell wonder about the “adolescent” quality of Hawks’s imagination in this respect. His men get what they want in the end, and whatever sacrifices his women make are forgotten. But it’s important to see how lucidly Hawks sets out, even in this brief exchange, the terms of an ongoing, possibly interminable discussion.
Being a newspaperman is not a destiny, and not even a role. It’s a job, and there is no biological or even cultural qualification that means you will automatically be good at it, or that will automatically exclude you from it. Being a woman is not a destiny either, as Simone de Beauvoir would say, but it is a role—not less mythological than the job of newspaperman, but more saturated in cultural cliché. That’s why the racy Russell can even think of marrying the sleepy Ralph Bellamy. It’s not easy to choose between a role and a job, particularly when you’ve had the job, and the role is what you think you want. But the important thing, as always in Hawks, lies in the unsaid. There are live men and women who do these jobs and occupy these roles. Are the men “men” and the women “women”? This is just what the movie is asking us. It’s also asking us if we know what we are doing with these terms. All we can be sure of is that when Grant calls Russell a newspaperman he has simultaneously shown her the highest form of respect he knows and revealed the limits of his brilliant but cramped imagination. She may be a newspaperman, and not as much of a “woman” as she thinks—remember that home with mother in Albany—but she is a woman, not simply to be incorporated without residue into a male fantasy.
Even fans of Bringing Up Baby might concede that His Girl Friday is the finer, deeper comedy—although Hawks lists the first among his favorite films and not the second. His other favorites are Scarface, Red River, and Rio Bravo. But as screwball comedies go, Bringing Up Baby is the screwiest of them all, the most extreme in its abandonment of familiar conceptions of sanity. Cary Grant, in this film, is a demure scholar, engaged to be married to a sensible woman, and working on the reconstruction of a vast dinosaur skeleton. He meets Katharine Hepburn, as a dippy society girl, and his life cannot be the same again. The story involves a trip to the country, a dog, two leopards, a night in jail, and some amazing dialogue. “Don’t listen to her,” Grant says of Hepburn at one desperate moment, “she’s making it up out of the movies.” Hawks likes this kind of gag, even in grim situations. In The Big Sleep, the killer who is later distracted by Bacall’s looking so good says to a man he is threatening, “You want me to count three or something, like a movie?” And in His Girl Friday jokes of this sort get even more complicated. When Cary Grant refers to a fellow he is supposed to know he gives his own real name, Archie Leach. When Grant wants to describe the character played by Ralph Bellamy, he says he looks like that fellow in the pictures, what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy. This is a particularly intricate allusion, since Grant and Bellamy had played similar roles in a similar plot three years before in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937).
But even these jokes are not as dizzying as the pace of Bringing Up Baby, which offers Grant a rapid education in the ways of Hepburn’s world, a place where caution and logic give way to a kind of passionate scattiness, where “the abnormal is the norm,” as V.F. Perkins says in an essay in Howard Hawks American Artist, “and …the rational seems outrageous.” What’s touching, and persuasive, is the idea that such scattiness could be learned, and should be, and this is where Hawks gets himself into trouble in his interview with Bogdanovich.
“We start off,” Hawks says of Grant’s character, “with a complete caricature of the man and then reduce it to give him a feeling of normality because he certainly wouldn’t have had any fun going through life the other way, would he? You’ve got a rather happy ending. You have to almost overdo it a little in the beginning and then he becomes more normal as the picture goes along, just by his association with the girl.” The idea that hanging out with Katharine Hepburn, in this or any other movie, would make a man “more normal” is itself splendid, as is the implication that normality is fun, or that fun might be a norm. “Normal” here means getting out of the regular, solid life everyone else regards as normal.
Bogdanovich pounces on this. “Then in your view Hepburn is the normal one.” Hawks, however, smartly changes tracks. “I think the picture had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from that. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball and since that time I have learned my lesson and I don’t intend ever again to make everybody crazy…. I think it would have done better at the box office if there had been a few sane folks in it.” What Hawks is saying, however disconnectedly, is that Bringing Up Baby represents a world in which serious, respectable people are caricatures of themselves, and only the madcaps have any chance of happiness, or of knowing who they are. It is a world which too thoroughly revises or refutes ours, we can’t get there from here, and this is what “there were no normal people in it” means. “If the gardener had been normal,” Hawks says, “if the sheriff had been just a perplexed man from the country—but as it was they were all way off center.”
Hawks, at least in the interview, wanted more of a reminder of where the center was, and he is probably right about the reactions of many people to the film—it is too undilutedly scatty for them. But one could argue, as Perkins does, that this is “just the quality which makes it one of the screen’s greatest comedies.” This would be comedy as a radical utopia, a place where everyone you meet is a screwball. An exhausting climate, surely, but it couldn’t fail to be fun if you were a screwball yourself. Certainly there aren’t too many places in or out of the movies where you could make a man of Cary Grant by making him more like Katharine Hepburn.
November 20, 1997
It reprints an astonishing early (1953) piece on Hawks by Jacques Rivette, wonderfully alert to Hawks’s interest in “the comic misfortunes of the intelligence,” and to the fact that “comedy is never long absent from his most dramatic plots”; a very shrewd and funny review of Rio Bravo by Guillermo Cabrera Infante; a smart piece on Hawks’s comedies by V.F. Perkins; Stanley Cavell’s remarkable chapter on Bringing Up Baby, from his Pursuits of Happiness; an intelligent essay on the mythology of Hawks’s war films by Robert B. Ray; and ends with Laura Mulvey’s fine recent (1996) reassessment of the grounds for our interest in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. ↩