17 June 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If... (Part Five)


Yes, you know you really like a director if you can create a top ten list of your favorite films he's directed. Previously I've proven to my own satisfaction that I really like Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wellman and John Ford. Next up is Howard Hawks.

What do the original Scarface, Red River and Bringing Up Baby have in common? For one thing they were all directed by Howard Hawks. Okay what else? They're all really terrific films. Anything else? Let's see you've got a gangster film starring Paul Muni, a western with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift and a quintessential screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. I'm stuck here, what else do they have in common?

Not a lot and there's the genius of Hawks. He could, as they say of versatile athletes, do it all. And he could do it all well. And I didn't even mention a War film like Sergeant York or a detective story like The Big Sleep, both also directed by Hawks.

To me Hawks is not auteur director in the classic sense. He maintained close relations with screenwriters and allowed his actors to, you should excuse the expression, do their own thing. He trusted the story (even if he had done some re-writes) and his actors. There is thus a certain effortlessness to his direction. The dialogue is natural, even as its amped up in the case of His Girl Friday. The characters are moral, save Muni in Scarface, and interesting. They are often in trying circumstances and Hawks let's situations play out and we get to watch.

While Hitchcock was so marvelous at letting the camera be part of the story telling process, Hawks chose to let the actors be the focus. He knew to let John Barrymore have a lot of space just as he allowed Bogie and Bacall to sizzle together. Hawks was much simpler a film maker than Hitch or Ford, but every bit their equal because he embraced the central story and its characters. No wonder he was able to successfully transcend genres.

Here are my ten favorite hawks films.

The Big Sleep (1946). Everyone is entitled to her or his opinion. However if in their opinion The Big Sleep is not at the very least a good film, it calls into question any other film-related opinions that person may offer. Have I made myself clear? Please see my post on this very topic from February. Suffice it to say that to opine that The Big Sleep is merely a great detective story is insufficient. It's one of the best films ever made. This is Humphrey Bogart at his very best. Based on Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name.

His Girl Friday (1940). I rhapsodized about this outstanding film recently last month and I invite you to read that post. The film is famous for the overlapping dialogue and the screwball antics of its co stars, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. But its a movie of surprising depth what with a story about an execution tucked neatly inside of it. Always funny, always entertaining. And didn't that one guy look a lot like Ralph Bellamy?

Twentieth Century (1934). The remarkable thing about this film is how well Carole Lombard, still just a kid at 24, held her own with the great John Barrymore. I'm telling ya folks, if you just want to sit back and enjoy some great acting, watch the two stars go at it. Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe a stage impresario who has created a star and lover in Lombard's Lily Garland. They break up, Garland makes good in Hollywood while Jaffe produces a series of flops. He must get her back. The fun takes place on a train line called the Twentieth Century. Fun it is. Great fun.

To Have and Have Not (1944). It's when Bogie met Bacall. You want to a talk about on and off screen chemistry. But there was a very different kind of chemistry between Bogie and Walter Brennan (ever been bit by a dead bee?) who played one of the great screen drunks of all time. Based loosely on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a screenplay co-written by William Faulkner (Hemingway and Faulkner, what Steinbeck was too busy to help out?). It's set in Martinique during World War II. There are those nasty pro Nazi French and the wonderful Free French (yaah!) and you know who Bogie as fishing boat captain Steve Morgan helps out. The action is quite secondary to the relationships and dialogue.

Red River (1948). It's only one of the ten best Westerns ever made. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift are the ultimate acting odd couple but they make for a wonderful pairing. Clift plays Wayne's adopted son and the two commence to quarreling on a cattle drive to the Red River. The men side with the kid and Wayne is cast off vowing revenge. Will they reconcile? It's a true Western epic with Bible style subplots.

Scarface (1932). Along with Public Enemy and Little Caesar this one of three films to popularize the gangster genre for talkie audiences. One of several films that Ben Hecht wrote or co-wrote for Hawks. Paul Muni stars as Tony Camonte a character not so loosely based on Al Capone. Muni is almost over the top as a gangster who reaches the top with predictable consequences. The gorgeous Ann Dvorak is Tony's ill fated sister. Much better than the overblown remake of 1983.

Bringing Up Baby (1938). Arguably the screwiest of the screwball comedies. Grant and Hepburn were never better together -- or separately for that matter. Grant is a palaeontologist and Hepburn the socialite who falls for him. Who's Baby? A leopard, of course. Plot points are not essential to enjoying this wacky and wonderful film. Guaranteed to chase away the blues. (And you say its from the same guy who directed Scarface? Golly.)

Ball of Fire (1941). If anyone wonders why I'm so very much in love with the Barbara Stanwyck of the 1930's and '40's, all they need do is watch this film. Whatta dish. Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O'Shea who needs a place to hide out so she doesn't have to testify against her gangster boyfriend. Lo and behold she ends up with eight professors who share a house while they write the definitive encyclopedia. Among the eggheads is Bertram Potts played by Gary Cooper. Love and comedy are the main courses of the rich meal that is Ball of Fire. See my post from last Summer for more.

Sergeant York (1941). The approximately true story of Alvin York who went from being a carouser to devout pacifist to a hero of the first World War. York was from the backwoods of Tennessee where he excelled in sharp shooting. This came in handy when he reluctantly agreed to tote and fire a rifle after being drafted into the army. He becomes a hero after capturing or killing seemingly half the German army. Gary Cooper was made for the part of York. Thanks in large part to Hawks' direction, what could have been just another super patriotic war picture has some meat to it. The lovely Joan Leslie and the ubiquitous Brennan are among the co stars.

Barbary Coast (1935). If nothing else I love the alternate title: Port of Wickedness. Every top ten list of favorite films has to have one that the author (that would be me in this case) laments is: "vastly underrated." You can guess which films qualifies for this list. How about this, Edward G. Robinson, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. Brian Donleavy, Harry Carey and Walter Brennan help fill out a winning cast. Not bad! The setting is the wild and wholly San Francisco of the 1800's. Robinson plays the owner of a gambling joint. Hopkins works for him but falls for a humble and honest prospector played by McCrea. Trouble develops and Donleavy, as the eponymously named Knuckles Jacoby, is on hand to dish some of it out.

Yes, it's true, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) did not make my top ten Hawks film list. Neither did Rio Bravo (1959) Why? Because there are ten other films of his I like better. I hope this doesn't cause a rift between us to develop.

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