Howard Hawks: Hollywood hack or supreme cimematic artist?

Howard Hawks has been one of my favourite filmmakers ever since I first discovered what a director did. How could he not be when he made –  to cite my personal top-ten of his films (for today, anyway, and listed in the order they were made) – Scarface, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo, Hatari! and El Dorado? Yes, I realise that’s only nine. But which gem for the tenth? The Criminal Code? Twentieth Century? Bringing Up Baby? Ball of Fire? To Have and Have Not? The Thing from Another World? The Big Sky? Rio Lobo? You see my problem. Hawks made many great movies, in many genres. There are still more fine films I haven’t even mentioned.

With the recent, very welcome BluRay release by Indicator of two early Hawks talkies, I found myself asking a perhaps perfunctory but to me intriguing question: when did Howard Hawks the director (ie the individual credited with directing a film) become Howard Hawks the auteur (ie the person identified by critics and others as an artist with a readily identifiable creative signature)? All those interested in such a question will have their own answers, of course, but I for one, watching The Criminal Code and Twentieth Century again for the first time in decades, pondered this conceptual conundrum and arrived at a few thoughts. 

First, Hawks the auteur wasn’t at work in the silent era. Impressive as some of his early films are, Hawks needed sound fully to become his creative self; among the things rendering certain movies ‘Hawksian’ are his innovative, stimulating use of overlapping dialogue, and dialogue that is witty, combative, innuendo-laden or otherwise revealing or resonant. Talk matters in Hawks. Second, by the late 30s – first decade of the talkies – Hawks the auteur was most definitely around, and busy: no one would argue that Only Angels…, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are not ‘Hawksian’, simply because those films are among those widely deployed in defining what ‘Hawksian’ means.

Walter Huston and Phillips Holmes in The Criminal Code

Back to those recent releases. The Criminal Code and Twentieth Century are not just enormously entertaining; they also help us understand what is meant by ‘a Hawks movie’. The former, made in 1930 at the start of the sound era, is a prison movie based on a successful play; it’s engrossing, generously peppered with imaginative scenes, mostly well played, but also feels a little dated, mainly because of the delivery of its slightly stilted or mannered dialogue. Hardly a minute seems to pass without our hearing a nasal ‘Yeah?’ This was par for the course in early American talkies – particularly those focused on male characters responding to anyone questioning their authority or power – though Philip Kemp’s essay for the BluRay rightly mentions the ingeniously variable and eloquent use of the word by Walter Huston, in the lead as a prosecuting attorney-turned-prison governor. Still, the film was an early talkie, and while it’s considerably livelier and more inventive than most Hollywood output of the time (and boasts another memorably pleasing performance by Boris Karloff), it shows its age. Is it clearly by Hawks? There’s an early instance of overlapping dialogue and an occasional (if fairly generic) focus on codes of loyalty and honour that anticipates the ‘Hawksian’ movies of later years. And it’s extremely well made. But that’s it. 

Made four years later, Twentieth Century feels much more ‘Hawksian’, though it too is based on a play. About the tumultuous relationship between an exploitative theatrical impresario (John Barrymore) and an actress he ‘discovers’ (Carole Lombard), the film plays out as faintly hysterical but very enjoyable comedy. Though it doesn’t deal much with the themes customarily categorised as Hawksian (except, perhaps, the battle of the sexes), the movie does feel Hawksian in its tone; indeed, tone, like style, perhaps counts as much as thematic preoccupations in any consideration of authorship. Twentieth Century, compared to The Criminal Code, seems more fluid, relaxed,  spontaneous, almost improvised in places; in that regard it presages most of the films in my Hawksian top-nine. It also highlights the crucial role played by humour and irony in his best work: not one of his greatest films – even otherwise dark works like Only Angels…, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Red River – is without moments of comedy. And let’s not forget that His Girl Friday – a comedic masterpiece – concerns wrongful execution, political corruption, marital exploitation, etc. 

Hawks was at his best, and at his most Hawksian, when combining light and dark, serious and comic. Of the two recent releases, Twentieth Century feels the most characteristically Hawksian, most satisfying and most truthful, because it goes down that tricky mix-and-match path, which acknowledges that human behaviour is as likely to be as absurd and futile as heroic, as cruel and exploitative as ambitious and audacious. What makes Hawks special, finally, is perhaps that he takes serious subjects, and treats them lightly… never forgetting their fundamental seriousness. (Remember ‘Who’s Joe? and the ‘Peanuts…’ song in Only Angels… Utterly, wonderfully Hawks.)

Oh, yes; I was wondering when Hawks fully became an auteur and not just an officially credited director. I’m still unsure, but I’d venture it was between The Criminal Code and Twentieth Century. Not the 100-per-cent Howard so many of us came to know and love – he, I’d suggest, first fully revealed himself in that remarkable 1938-1940 triptych of Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday (how important to Hawks’ creative development, as it was later to Hitchcock, was the light-and-dark persona of Cary Grant!) – but perhaps it happened, promisingly and tellingly, in a midway point between The Criminal Code and Twentieth Century: in the dark and darkly funny 1932 film Scarface. Hawks’ first masterpiece, without a doubt. Yeah? (Let me know if you disagree.)

Paul Muni in Hawks’ Scarface (1932)

The Criminal Code and Twentieth Century are now available on BluRay on the Indicator label. The transfers and the extras are excellent.

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