Howard Hawks: His Movies to Watch

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Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy Wisconsin family on May 30, 1896. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and became an aviator during World War I. Later he became an employee of the aeronautical industry. Then he moved to Los Angeles where he met Douglas Fairbanks, a friend and partner of Charlie Chaplin with whom he created United Artists. Howard and Douglas share a passion for tennis and become friends. Fairbanks hires him as a property finder at Famous Player-Lasky. 

He happens to direct the first scene by accident, while he was on the set of The Little Princess with actress Mary Pickford, the wife of Douglas Fairbanks. The director falls ill and they ask him to shoot a scene. During the First World War he was hired by Paramount but success comes in the mid-twenties with the Fox contract. He will become one of the most famous directors in the field of the Hollywood of classic cinema. 

He is a man who loves risk and adventurous ventures. This propensity can be seen since his first films as The Road to Glory, in 1926, and in later aviation films as adventurers of the air, Only Angels have Wings, in 1939. Success came in 1932 with the gangster movie Scarface, of which ben De Palma shoots a famous remake in the 80s with Al Pacino. Later he made Noir and Western as To have and have not, from 1944, from a novel by Ernest Hemingway, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. 

Howard Hawks and the Western


One of Howard Hawks’ favorite genres is the western. He became well known for the five films he shot with John Wayne. One is a modern adventure movie and four are classic cowboy movies. The western titles are The Red River in 1948, Hawks’ first western experience, perhaps his most successful production in this genre. Rio Bravo, from 1959, a film that has the same mythical breath as John Ford’s cinema, in which the characters are characterized with great psychological truth. El Dorado from 1966, with one of the best songs in western cinema, is a kind of remake of Rio Bravo. Rio Lobo from 1970, set during the civil war, the last film of the director’s career. The great master of the Western. Sergio Leone has stated several times that he was inspired by the twilight atmospheres of his films.

Howard Hawks and comedy


But Howard Hawks is at his best in the comedy genre. From the silent film A girl in every port of 1928 to the Twentieth Century, of 1934, a dramatic comedy set in the world of theater and cinema. With the film Susanna instead invents a brilliant narrative rhythm that will become the predominant feature of her subsequent comedies: His Girl Friday, 1940, Balls of Fire, 1941; A song is Born of 1948; I was a mail War bride from 1949; Monkey business of 1952. Gentlemen prefer Blondes of 1953 and Mans favorite sport, of 1964. 

Howard Hawks seen by the directors of the Nouvelle Vague


Also Howard Hawks he is among those hard-working Hollywood directors revalued years later by the film critics of the Nouvelle Vague. The group of French directors and critics formed by Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard and others was the architect of the re-evaluation of classic American cinema especially in reference to directors such as Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. 

While making a completely different cinema, the theorists of the Cahiers du cinéma had an idea of ​​cinema that captured in the production of a filmmaker things that others did not see. Even if at the service of an industry like Hollywood, of the codes and genres of the System studio, some directors of the Hollywood industry like Howard Hawks have characteristics, an authorial style within the logic of genres, both on a thematic level. than in terms of writing and style. 

Howard Hawks, an author within the codes of the Studios

The films were therefore seen by the theorists of the Cahiers du Cinéma in their linguistic nature and in their internal logic of storytelling and staging. Jacques Rivette liked to underline in an out-of-the-box way that Howard Hawks’ cinema proposed a definite moral, with a skilful use of time and space, without using flashbacks or ellipses. Howard Hawks’ cinema is based on continuity and no character moves without the viewer being able to follow him without ambiguity. Nothing happens in the film that even the viewer cannot know. Each shot, explains Rivette, possesses the nature of a part of the body, perfect and natural, simple and profound at the same time. 

The rebellious directors of the Nouvelle Vague have always theorized extreme concepts and, in some cases, forcibly counter-current. In some way, even if they made an avant-garde cinema, it is thanks to their convinced re-evaluation of classic Hollywood cinema that the modern language of films has become centered on the traditional story by experimenting and risking less and less. But their analysis of the poetics of narrative and classical directors is not rebellion as an end in itself. 

Howard Hawks’ style


Howard Hawks crosses film genres in a span of 50 years, from the 20s to the 70s, and experiments his activity in all types of production: the gangster movie, the noir, the western, the comedy … time after time it takes possession of codes of all kinds and does so within the limits of the freedom granted by the Studios. His is a vast and complex work, in which his main themes and interests emerge: virile friendship and misogyny in Noir and Western, male and female identity in comedy. 

Howard Hawks’ style is simple and focuses on storytelling, without stylistic trappings in stories that describe American society and custom. A dry direction that tells the essential. The shots last as long as necessary and the cuts and passages from one scene to another are always well hidden, the rules of continuity are strictly respected. In some cases, however, this narrative simplicity produces extraordinary results as in Susanna, of 1938.

Howard Hawks’ comedy is part of the so-called sophisticated comedy. Ironic and allusive films on the relationship between man and woman that reveal social, cultural and sexual taboo, tics and conformism. The language is light fast and fluid and the movies are extremely enjoyable. The sophisticated American comedy of the 1930s and 1940s is characterized by high bourgeois or aristocratic characters and is set in luxurious locations. Susanna’s dialogue is brilliant and the film is full of action and dynamism. The sophisticated comedy genre refers not only to the characters and settings, but also to the cinematic and narrative style that has a more complex construction of the story. The scenes are often allusive. 



Cult movie from which De Palma drew the remake of the 80s with Al Pacino, a modern version that has become much better known than the original. Scarface tells the obsessive quest for power of the underworld boss Tony Camonte and his path of self-destruction after the murder of his best friend due to jealousy towards his sister Cesca. Set in Chicago, the final scene, unlike De Palma’s version, depicts the onslaught of police, and not rival drug gangs, at Tony’s home. The scarred man dies killed by a firefight together with his sister as in the remake. The film was made in 1930 but repeated censorship delayed its release in cinemas until 1932.

Bringing Up Baby


A film made with a great screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wild, with close and allusive dialogue. A story full of misunderstandings and catastrophes that follow one another at a dizzying pace. Susanna represents one of the pinnacles of Howard Hawks’ poetics and becomes the prototype of sophisticated comedy for subsequent films. Howard Hawks is able to invent particularly successful visual and verbal gags, and the film will become an invited model several times up to a real remake entitled What’s up Doc ?, from 1972, by Peter Bogdanovich.

The story of the goofy paleontologist David Huxley played by Gary Grant and punctuated by a frenetic and overwhelming montage, while the character is overwhelmed by the love of the dazed and irresistible heiress of Susan Vance, Katherine Hepburn. But behind the light appearance of the sophisticated comedy Howard Hawks play with philosophical themes of Kantian matrix, focusing on the theme of pure and aimless happiness: life has no meaning or a mission to accomplish except that of lightness and being. happy. 

The conflict is between the intellectual who lives prisoner of the gray and asexual dimension of his mind without real vitality, in the company of “puppets” like the brontosaurus he studies and his frigid girlfriend, and the vivacity of the adorable and spoiled Susan bearer of chaos and disorder in a rigidly ordered universe, in the company of his leopard. This conflict between mental graying and vitality, rigor and chaos, repression and expression can be read on several levels. While Howard Hawks always chooses men for his westerns and action films, the focus of his comedies is always and only women. Man is irreparably fascinated by woman, who brings an uncontrollable emotional side to his life, along with chaos. 

In Susanna there are two women and they are symbols of the antithesis between coldness and warmth, duty and pleasure. The conflict widens in the two animals possessed by women, the brontosaurus and the leopard, and up to the narrative evolution. From the life of the city, from the limits of culture we pass to the countryside and the fusion with nature, in a recovery of existence as a source of pleasure for its own sake. The leopard is released and returns to the wild as the brontosaurus collapses and is destroyed. The dialogues are written in an exemplary manner with great refinement. The secondary plots are full of allusions and double meanings that lend themselves to various interpretations. Physical gags also remain ambiguous and allusive. 

His Girl Friday


An adaptation of a popular theatrical comedy, His girl friday, is a film starring two cynical journalists who have aroused a lot of irony in the world of American journalism. Walter Barnes, played by Cary Grant, is the editor of a major newspaper and wants to win back his ex-wife, who is getting married again. He assigns her an investigation and then does everything to make his life difficult, but he ends up getting himself into trouble. The title is inspired by the character of the servant from the novel Robinson Crusoe, a way of saying to define a type of woman who is a kind of handyman servant.

The Outlaw


1943 western film with particularly successful scenes with Jane Russell. In this case, Howard Hawks is co-director. Doc arrives in town to look for the horse they stole from him and meets an old friend of his Sheriff Pat Garrett. As he discovers that his horse has been kidnapped by Billy the Kid, with whom he is befriending, he helps the criminal escape from Sheriff Pat and then puts him in the care of his woman. However, the two end up falling in love.

The Big Sleep


The most famous noir starring the private investigator Philip Marlowe. Based on a famous novel by the great writer Raymond Chandler released a few years earlier, it is a 1946 production starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. the investigation revolves around a mysterious racket of extortion, crime and blackmail. Initially it seems like just an easy case of gambling debt but the situation progressively gets complicated. 

Monkey Business


Funny comedy with the interpretation of a chimpanzee has remained in the imagination of American cinema. Filmed in 1952 with Cary Grant playing chemist Barnaby Vulton. He Invent a very effective elixir of youth but which ends up in the wrong hands. After a series of misadventures the elixir is taken by other characters, including his secretary, played by Marilyn Monroe, who slowly regress to the infantile stage.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes


Is a film adaptation of a 1949 musical starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. The two women are two friendly showgirls. One is engaged to a very rich man and wants to make her social ascent through marriage. The second one is looking for a handsome and athletic type. A trip to France will unleash an endless series of accidents and misunderstandings.

Man’s Favorite Sport


One of his most successful Hawks comedies, made in 1964 with actor Rock Hudson. Roger works in the fishing industry and sells sporting goods in a shop when his boss offers him to participate in a fishing competition. But Roger is totally inexperienced and collects superficial skills by talking to his clients. He will find himself in a series of irresistible misadventures.

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