Archive for the ‘Directed by Howard Hawks’ Category

Red River

08 Jan

Red River — directed by Howard Hawks. Western. On a 1,000 miles cattle drive a domineering boss conflicts with his rebellious son. 133 minutes Black and White 1948.

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A journey story, and like all journey stories (picaresque stories, road movies), the overriding suspense is how the journey will end, the parenthesis of the beginning and that end filled only with episodes. Actual drama between characters never has the force of this interest. So this movie is like Hawks’ Air Force, which has only one small drama, that of John Garfield’s change of heart– a change which leaves no more conviction to the character than that of Montgomery Clift finally taking on John Wayne. When he does so, Hawks’ camera closes up again and again on Clift’s facial beauty, which is considerable at this stage of his life, but scarcely has to do with anything. Hawks even has Joanne Dru even make love to that face. The film is made overlong not just by her presence in it but the presence of her character in it, which is called upon to say and do preposterous things and to crash the ending. She recites her lines monotonously, in imitation, I suppose, of Dorothy Mcguire, and she is all Hollywooded up in hair, makeup and costume. But she was a last minute replacement, poor woman, and the entire section of which she was a part should never have been shot. The film should have ended with the meeting of the antagonist Wayne and the protagonist Clift in a finale in which Walter Brennan deals Wayne the coup de grace. But Hawks rewrote the story every day as he shot it, and he got to dislike John Ireland pretty quickly. Ireland plays a defiant gunslinger named Cherry, but Ireland did not take his work as an actor seriously and also took up with Joanne Dru whom Hawks fancied. So Hawks more and more diminished Ireland’s role, and more and more built up Brennan’s role as comic relief, thus diluting its power, which is the power of telling the truth. He is the one who should teach Wayne his lesson at the end. The fistfight between Wayne and Clift is ridiculous. Clift is flaccid as a fighter and only five ten next to Wayne’s six four and beefy. No one goes up against John Wayne; it’s not just a question of roles or treatment or story; it’s a fact of nature. But the movie has fallen on evil days long before this. All the campsites of the cattle drive are shot on sound stages at The Goldwyn Studios, so they lack conviction, as do the frequent process shots. Once Hawks finished a film he walked away from it, even to its editing. He’d hired Dimitri Tiomkin for the score but Tiomkin offers vulgar triumphals intermixed with pone, which is quite disconsonnant with the down and dirty cowboy life shown us. The films’ interest lies in Hawks’ simple camera, one step above still photography, and his abilities with actors to make scenes happen and to train them up to their tasks, with the result that Clift is completely convincing on a horse. Once Red River was done, Clift went back to his New York actor friends and, knowing it was the last time he could dine anonymously, said, “Tomorrow I’m going to be a star. Let’s celebrate before it’s too late.” And he was right. What’s good about the movie is the location work with the huge herd of cattle on the drive, all of which did take place in Texas, and which gives the show its fascinating unpredictability. The cowboys are costumed and hatted distinctively (Hawks gave Clift Gary Cooper’s hat). Wayne, at 38, is given grey hair to play a man of 55, and when John Ford sees Red River he says, “My God, the son of a gun can act,” and Wayne is no longer teeter-tottering in B Westerns but solidly becomes the great star his presence and craft and well-justified popularity deserved.



Air Force

07 Jan

Air Force — directed by Howard Hawks.  World War II Story. With many adventures, a B-17 heavy bomber makes its way from California starting on 6 December 1941 to Hawaii, on to Wake, on to Manila, on to Australia, with no sleep for the crew. 2 hours and 2 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Terrific! One of the earliest and one of the best WWII films, it demonstrates Hawks’ ability to create living scenes among actors. Here they are filmed in very close quarters, but the characters, their relations with one another and their environment in the fuselage of the bomber carry the film. Our overall interest is, will the plane end up safely? In the story there are many characters with personality interest but only one character with dramatic interest, and that is John Garfield, who plays a disaffected gunner. Will he come around is the question. Or will he be killed beforehand. On hand for all of this are a bunch of very good young male actors full of pep and ideas: Gig Young and Arthur Kennedy and Garfield and John Ridgeley and Charles Drake and James Brown. Abetted by a remarkable old hand, the one-time Western star, Harry Carey, as the sarge in charge. He is just grand. As is George Tobias as a comic engineer. The movie would be dreadful in the hands of any other director, and it often was, as imitators of its melting pot WWII War story crowded the screen after it. Part of its satisfaction derives from its being filmed by the great James Wong Howe who performs miracles of presentation. The air fights were not filmed by him or directed by Hawks, but they are superbly exciting and startling, and the destruction of the Japanese fleet heading towards Australia is a masterpiece of content and editing, and rightly won the Oscar that year for it. Hawks and Howe capture the sweaty tight tube of a great bomber, afloat like a submarine in another element into which there is virtually no escape. And it captures how the men of that day got along with one another to achieve a common and very worthwhile purpose for those men, for the fighting forces, for the home front, and for the allies: the defeat of the Axis powers.


Come And Get It

06 Jan

Come And Get It — directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler. Romantic Drama. A proto-lumber-tycoon deserts a girl and twenty years later falls for her daughter. 96 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * *

When Sam Goldwyn recuperated from his operation and saw the footage Hawks had shot of Edna Ferber’s novel he hit the bedpan, which flew into the fan, and Hawks walked out. So Wyler filmed the last quarter of it, and you can’t really tell, because the great Gregg Toland was filming it, and he controlled the art of the thing. What Goldwyn didn’t like was that the first of the dual female roles had been turned from a mousy barkeep to an impudent chanteuse with a mind of her own, a Hawks type, and Goldwyn had given Ferber promises. The girl is played beautifully in her first major role by Frances Farmer. She’s a cross between Maria Schell and Jessica Lang (who later played her in the movie Frances), and she is very good indeed. She’s a glorious milkmaid, as both the mother and the daughter. As the mother she ends up with Walter Brennan, an actor of great imagination, in the first of his three Oscar winning roles. As the daughter she ends up with Joel McCrea, who, as always, is excellent in the comic scenes. The one she does not end up with is Edward Arnold who has the lead, in what would have been Hawks’ King Lear. But Arnold does not have the latitude for a role this size, and his performance illustrates the weakness of perpetual determination as an acting method. He has his guns and he sticks to them; the problem is that they are guns. He plays out the role, but we never sympathize with his folly, as we should if we are asked to witness it. (Hawks originally wanted Spencer Tracy, who might have been marvelous.) Remarkable and famous scenes in this picture make it worth seeing and studying. Robert Rosson who was Hawks’ frequent second unit director went to Canada, Wisconsin, and Idaho and took the amazing logging sequences with which the picture begins. And there is a spectacular branagan in a saloon with round steel table trays being skimmed into mirrors and clientele. And, of course, Toland’s camera work is a study in itself.



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

28 Dec

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — Directed by Howard Hawks. Musical Two showgirl broads abroad find love and money and fine songs to sing about them. 91 minutes Color 1953.

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A perfume is suddenly in the room and one cannot think clearly of anything else. That perfume is Marilyn Monroe. Translated to cinematic terms this means you can’t take your eyes off her. Whenever she is on camera she draws focus. She is not trying to steal scenes. But there is a level of vulnerability available to her in the character she always played that is riveting. One goes goo-goo-eyed, just like the men in the movie do. The men are Charles Coburn who had acted with her before in Monkey Business, also directed by Hawks, and who is lovely here, and Tommy Noonan in a badly conceived role, playing an infantile millionaire poodling after her. Lorelei Lee certainly deserved a grown man as her vis a vis. But Hawks was not interested in Monroe’s sexuality. He liked scaloppini dames like Lauren Bacall and Ella Raines, women who were forward, the seducers not the seduced, that is he liked women who chased men, not women whom men chased, like MM. Hawks directed this movie in his usual plain camera style, but he directed none of the musical numbers except for Bye Bye Baby. He also had a terrible time with Monroe, as did everyone else, and he had no idea how to talk to her while they were making it. He could not understand how this little chippie bit player from Monkey Business could have become this big star. But Hawks had directed Jane Russell in The Outlaw, liked her, and knew her to be a woman of common sense. And Jane Russell had made herself a pal to Monroe; they both were childless; they both had famous athlete husbands; they both were disrespected sex bombs; they both sang real well. So Hawks talked to Jane when he wanted to convey something to Marilyn and Jane talked to Marilyn, and thus the movie got made. The songs are wonderful. The costumes are wonderful. Sydney Guilaroff did Marilyn’s hair in a loose pageboy for the Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend number, which really pays off. Howard Hughes had Jane Russell under contract, but released her on the understanding that she would be given plenty to do, and she does it superbly and partners Monroe well. Russell had a remittance agreement with Hughes that if she stayed under contract to him, he would support her for the rest of her life, and he did. However, he was stingy in renting her out, so she made few movies, and she thus never thoroughly developed her craft. Monroe on the other hand is in full swing here, in her first huge role. She brings to the part exactly what Carol Channing brought to it, when I saw her do it at the Ziegfeld on Broadway, which is the intelligence of a young woman who is so ignorant she knows everything. Monroe glows with this ignorance. She even knows so little she even thinks she has to make her diction extravagant to cloak it: “Thanks ever so.”  And like Channing she brings to Lorelie Lee a vocal style that is legato, which is to say, slow of speech, as opposed to the gum snapping fast come-back type blonde, and is also unearthly. In Channing the voice is freakish. In Monroe it is a heavenly candy store. Monroe, like Garbo, made up her character in the shower. Out on the street, talking to her, she did not wear the sexual garment which she never doffs here. But the fact was that she had made it up, she had made it up not out of whole cloth but out of something real in her, something extremely painful and no older than twelve. It became her destiny. The utilitarian vulnerability combined with her dishy looks, figure, and voice released in her the instinct to know how to play a woman who didn’t know anything. But it also gave her the invitation to be taken advantage of. And to use every means at her disposal to counter the dismembering fear that gave her.



The Big Sleep

22 Dec

The Big Sleep — Directed by Howard Hawks. Private Eye Drama. A very rich family hires a private eye to keep them out of trouble and it lands him in plenty of trouble. 114 minutes Black and White 1944/46.

* * * *

I found this irritating this time round. When it first came out, I found it glossy and opaque. It still is those things, but this time I got tired of the revamp of the B&B sizzle from To Have And Have Not. The story is a rabbit chase of red herrings – bunnies and fish, yes – and you don’t know which ones you’re supposed to pay attention to. Is it the herrings of the plot, which is a series of rooms opening into one another that you traipse though wondering why you are there? Or is it the series of bunnies in side-rooms, in which Bacall slinks to and from Bogart in a negligee of lies? Of course, in films like this, everyone is lying, including the rooms. I found the B & B relationship a put up job: they never have a conversation; what they have is repartee. So, strictly speaking, there are no real people here. Moreover the film is deficient in its supporting players, none of whom have the interest of those from To Have And Have Not (to which this was a follow-up), with the single except of Elisha Cook Junior, who never fails, but appears in but one scene, and Dorothy Malone, gorgeous at age 19 making her film debut. Her one scene is a case in point of what happens throughout this picture. In the morning, Hawks would rewrite a scene to be shot, set it in the afternoon, and begin shooting at 4 PM. What he was doing was setting the story aside and developing “interesting scenes,” such as the bookshop one with Malone, which is amusing, and for which there is no real excuse. Made in 1944/45, the film was not released until 1946, and then reshot in order to enhance Bacall’s role in the proceedings, so we are given a bunch of scenes with her that place her in close allure with Bogart, while the story itself dawdles among the extras. This makes the whole thing even more hard to follow. Not that you’re supposed to follow it; all you’re supposed to do is follow not-following it, which makes you feel like some dumb kid dragged along by the collar. Bogart brings the same character to us that he brought us in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and To Have And Have Not. Practice has made him perfect with this personage. He is not a very good actor, in some ways, and you can see it in the ear- rubbing Hawks assigned him to. It never works. It’s never motivated. It’s just an add-on. But at what he does, nobody does better, a calm, sensitive, smart, rueful, dogged, smart-mouth, with core-deep masculinity and a wrecked liver. His humor, especially, engages suddenly and rather lovingly, at the spectacle of human folly. In many ways he is an entirely responsive actor, good at badminton, aka stichomythia, and gifted with a monotone that cuts through steel. Louise Brooks accused him of having sacrificed his talent by becoming enamored of the movement of his own lips. Interesting, huh? I can’t say, but no one could have executed this material so well, so stringently, and with such unassailable dignity as Humphrey Bogart.


To Have and Have Not

20 Dec

To Have And Have Not — Directed by Howard Hawks. Drama. A man shifts loyalties from none to two. 100 minutes Black and White 1944.

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Like a gold panther she moves slowly and deliberately through every scene, as though to move quickly would tip her hand. The humor that lies behind her calculation keeps her from being witchy, and Hawks presents her with the Walk-Around-Me scene which makes her sure she will not be possessive. But she will be loyal, and her becoming that is her arc here. Hawks or his wife Slim or the studio brought Bacall from modeling in New York and made of this girl with the unusually suggestive  good looks a star. When Hawks met her he told her to go off into a room for two weeks and practice lowering her voice, which she did. She came back a contralto. She was completely come-hither throughout and always keyed up. She  has a knowing eye and moves slowly at all times toward or away from her prey, much the same thing either way. She was something new in sexual effrontery. She was a teenager. It’s difficult to judge her skills as an actress here because she is so effective in everything she is confined to do. Like a very dangerous cat she is handled carefully. In just the same way it is difficult to judge Bogart, because here he is in a part well within his intense but narrow range, sardonic but truly humorous, taciturn, slow to anger, but terrifying when he does, and eyes gleaming with fear. When in danger he evinces perfect groundedness, a quick draw with a wisecrack,  and a superhuman aplomb. He’s perfect for the part. He performed many parts in film for which he was not particularly suited, especially after The War, but this is not one of them. The picture is a redaction of a Hemingway novel, via one of Hawks’ favorite screenwriters, William Faulkner. Bogart plays the owner of a for-rent fishing boat in Martinique, which is Vichy French during The War, and his character is established long before Bacall appears on the screen, in his relations with his drunken crewmember played by Walter Brennan, whom Hawks had used years before in Barbary Coast and would use often again. Brennan is brilliant in the execution of an imaginative parcel of tics and gimps, and is so screwy that we see that Bogart’s snideness does not exclude loyalty and courage in defense of Brennan and in defense of … loyalty and courage. It is not hard to follow the small story that ensues, although at times it is quite swallowed up by fascinating side-scenes between B & B. It is not about nostalgia as Casablanca is, but it resembles Casablanca in that it all takes place in a café; it involves the rescue of important anti-Nazi patriots, boasts, in Hoagy Carmichael, a seductive singer pianist, and even has the fine expatriate French actor Marcel Dalio, plus Bogey. A masterpiece of editing, beautifully lit and filmed by Sydney Hickox, for some reason it is impossible to not watch it. For, after all, what is this thing? Does one really care about any of these people and their ambitions? No. So why is it so engrossing? It is unanswerable. Its hold is a mystery. But what that means is that it hasn’t dated. Enjoy it once again.



Man’s Favorite Sport

25 Nov

Man’s Favorite Sport — Directed by Howard Hawks. Romantic Comedy. A world-renowned expert on angling has never fished until goaded into a competition by a PR lady. 120 minutes Color 1964.

* * *

Paula Prentiss! – Wow!  I had never seen her before, because at the time she was always in the sort of movies I avoided – but she is clearly one of the greatest light comediennes in film. What a gift! She’s bright, quick on the uptake, pretty, has a nifty figure. Her voice is low and well-placed, just like Hawks liked, and with lots of variety in the intonation, and she even has a Southern accent. (I got some catching up to do.) She plays a part perfectly suited to Katharine Hepburn thirty years prior, the usual Hawks comic lead, a fast-talking intruder into the life of a duller mate, and she is superb in it. And so, fellow citizens, we now wrench our fascinated gaze from her towards the Wonder Bread of Rock Hudson. Now, to give him his due, the movie is unevenly written, and Paula Prentiss seems to have all the lines, and the man does his manful honest best. But it is a part perfectly suited to Cary Grant thirty years before, and Rock Hudson does not have a funny bone in his body. When you consider Rock Hudson comedies, you will notice that the leading role is bifurcated, the other half of it being played by someone who is funny, namely Tony Randall. Cary Grant never needed a Tony Randall to be funny. Fred Astaire was usually given Edward Everett Horton, and James Garner was given no one, for it is this actor that this role cries out for. Hudson had a beautiful speaking voice, is tall, dark, and handsome in a not very interesting way, and acted in a very well worked out one-dimension. And so all he can do is be put-upon by the person of the infuriating Prentiss, rather than by the female exasperator in her. The film is padded with physical comedy which I am not sure even Cary Grant could have rendered droll, but Hudson, who is not like Grant an acrobat, nonetheless does them all thoroughgoingly, ya gotta give him credit. Cary Grant and James Garner are exactly the same physical type of leading man as Hudson, and both are master light comedians. Why are they that and Hudson not? It’s gift of god, as everyone knows who sees this picture and watches only Prentiss while Hudson and she are on the screen together.



Twentieth Century

06 Nov

Twentieth Century — Directed by Howard Hawks. Slapstick Screwball Comedy. A theatre director divo spellbinds an actress until she can take no more. 91 minutes Black and White 1934.

* * *

Certain qualities can make an actor popular and even lovable, without their ever being a good actor. Such certainly was the case with Gary Cooper, and such was also the case with Carole Lombard. She was pretty, she had a good figure, and she was spirited, but it is only the last of these qualities which cinched her stardom. Watching her playing Lily Garland, the “discovery” of the manic Broadway Director Oscar Jaffe (based on Jed Harris and others), the most obvious defect of her technique is vocal. Even in repose, she always seems to be screaming, always in her upper passagio. She was Howard Hawks’ first discovery as the Hawksian woman who could stand up to men and compete in their world. He would find it later in Ann Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, and Lauren Bacall – but all of them had low, well-placed voices, and if they had not he would send them into a back room for a couple of weeks and train them to replace them with lower ones, but  Hawks hadn’t gotten around to it yet with Lombard. As it is, Lombard’s inability to modulate her voice and her spirit ends up being almost as annoying as John Barrymore’s inability to modulate his own performance into making at least a few local stops into reality. (Carole Lombard’s recently divorced husband, William, Powell, would have been better in the part.) For is Barrymore a ham playing a ham, or is he an actor playing a ham, or is he an actor who has become a ham playing a ham? If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. Barrymore also had one of those badly placed voices, a high grating tenor. And the film is such a mélange of frenzy in the dog-and-cat fight of its episodes, that it becomes monotonous in its yowling and in its pace that breaks the neck of any audience. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht wrote it from a hit play of their own, and there are lots of funny lines. Most them are delivered by Roscoe Karns as the drunken press agent. (These were the days when alcoholism was considered droll.) And the movie is worth seeing just to witness the wit style of the era of which Macarthur and Hecht were the masters. But the film as whole I found trying. It feels labored and forced. It demonstrates a complete failure of directorial tone. The famed cameraman Joe August shot it, and I think not well, especially in the theatre scenes, all of which were taken first in the shoot. As per Hawks films, there are almost no close-ups, so that when Lombard appears in one it’s a stylistic shock. If you want to see if Barrymore could act, don’t listen to his Hamlet, see Don Juan or see William Wyler’s Counselor At Law of the year before. And if you want Lombard at her best, see her in the last film she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not Be. Twentieth Century started her off in Screwball Comedy. It was not a successful film at the time. It still isn’t.



Rio Bravo

31 Oct

Rio Bravo — Directed and Produced by Howard Hawks. Western. A sheriff, a teen-aged gunslinger, a drunken deputy, and a crippled coot hold out for justice while keeping the land baron’s brother captive. 241 minutes Color 1959.

* * * *

People often confuse an actor with the role he plays, and this was never more plainly illustrated than in the case of John Wayne. Because everyone could play cowboys and Indians when they were kids, they assumed John Wayne didn’t have to be a very good actor to do it too. Besides, they learned it from him. He pretty much all the time played a cowboy and never got killed and was the hero. And so everyone who liked him got caught up with those constant features of his roles. He shed the light of the role he played. He mesmerized males. Which means he was beyond examination. Which means he was beyond criticism. He was larger than life which means he was a God. But if you look at Wayne in this, or probably any picture after Red River, you can see what a good actor he was. How he listens to the other characters, how he restrains himself, how he gives over scenes to other actors. In this one he has some particularly effective scenes with Angie Dickinson, who is no relation to Emily Dickinson, and who plays an itinerant gambling lady of indeterminate virtue. Watch how he responds to her, how baffled he is, yet how well timed with his lines. Watch to see how well the scene plays, not because of her skill, although she is the aggressor, but because of his.  She herself was not well established in her craft as yet. And so she tends to perfume her part, although it is written as though it were written for Lauren Bacall, that is, for the sort of slim deep-voiced actress Hawks liked who could play sexual insolence without turning a hair. Another actor we take for granted is Walter Brennan. Hawks made many films with him. “With or without?’ he asked Hawks when he first turned up for work. “With or without what?” said Hawks. “My teeth,” said Brennan. This performance is without and it is a shack, one of  many he  erected in his long and beautiful career. Brennan is the only actor to win three supporting role Oscars, and those roles are well worth examination. What he brings here is Life! Ricky Nelson cannot do likewise because he is seventeen; he has not gelled as a male yet; he is not yet a thing. And Dean Martin cannot do it either, because he is inherently not an actor at all. He is a darling man, of course, but he only comes alive half asleep on a bunk singing a little song, comes alive because he is most natural when singing. The difference between a comic and a humorist was never so well illustrated as in Martin and Lewis. Lewis is a comic; Martin a humorist, but this shows only once in a moment when he laughs with delight at the foolishness of Brennan. But he is likable enough, and so is the picture, though it is tolerably long. For 2 1/2 hours it dawdles from episode to episode, each one taking place indoors, and each one either at the saloon, the hotel, or the jail. Wayne must carry it all. But look at him. Sex feet four, long of torso, pigeon toed, and toting a presence that no actor of the present day can even come close to.





Rio Lobo

29 Oct

Rio Lobo — Directed by Howard Hawks. Western. In tracking down a Civil War traitor, a man rescues the water rights from an evil land baron. 114 minutes Color 1970.

* * * * *

In Hollywood screenplays, big male movie stars never die. Instead they go on to make another film exactly like the one before, such as El Dorado and Rio Lobo – except there is a noticeable decline in the supporting players. Here we have an avenger quartet as before, except John Wayne no longer has Robert Mitchum or Dean Martin as his chums, nor does he have, as the boy, Ricky Nelson or James Caan. And once again Hawks has failed to manufacture an insolently sexy leading lady out of a newcomer. I guess there was to be only one Lauren Bacall. Here he breaks up that character into several parts and they all crumble. Ann Sheridan, Claire Trevor to the rescue! But no. Every piece of casting a subtraction, with the exception of Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brenan role, who is better than ever. The established lack of threat to these big male stars routinizes these films, and no matter how much sweat they break  you know there is no danger to them. So there is no real story tension, and there is no real tension in the playing either. John Wayne is a grand master actor at this point. At 64 he is playing the part of a 30 year old. He is so aged in the wood you have to set aside the tropes of the Western medium as a sort of high kabuki rigmarole, a ritual in itself designed not to induce terror or sympathy, but rather a formal gesture meant to reveal the style and the humor and the humanity and the wisdom of the grand master himself, and these three films surely do that. Whatever Wayne’s politics were at the time, they have detached from him, and he stands clear and plain now like a cowboy in a Remington, a work of art after all. With the voice of a corral gate opening, the slit eyes of country-man, a face like an old saddlebag, and the rueful humor of a hand who has survived age itself, Wayne stands forth as one of the great entertainers, closer in tone to Will Rogers than to Randolph Scott. In this film he lands all his wise cracks, and also each punch. Indeed, over and over again, it takes only one Wayne punch to the jaw of a villain to deconstruct him forever. Down they go never to rise. These triumphs are feasted with swigs of whisky, as the next plot – I won’t call it twist – but 45 degree angle arrives. Wayne’s audience at this stage of his career is seeing a nostalgia. Much like the raving middle-aged fans of a pop singer who is no longer exciting, they palimpsest the performance before them with the 23 year old in white deerskin in The Big Trail of 1931 and the Ringo Kid of Stagecoach of 1939. Those beautiful young men have never aged and neither therefore has the audience. Wayne’s performance here is relaxed to the point of irony, as he sees the joke in his doing all this one more time. Indeed, certain scenes of this film he himself directed, since Hawks himself lay back in his hammock. Wayne still drives every scene with stalwart magnificence, a feat he accomplishes it would seems without lifting a finger – and there are some good scenes here for him – the return of the young man’s body to his parents’ farm, for one.  But Hawks did not lay back in the direction of the extraordinary opening sequence of the picture, which involved the witty and complex and never-before seen robbery of a runaway caboose. If not a runaway one, Rio Lobo is itself a caboose, for it was the last film the famed director  – His Gal Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Red River, To Have and To Have Not, Twentieth Century, The Big Sleep – ever made.






El Dorado

29 Oct

El Dorado – Directed and  Produced by Howard Hawks. Western. A quartet of gunfighters duels with the hired guns of a land baron out to rob a farmer’s water rights.  126 minutes Color 1967.

* * *

Hawks made four westerns with John Wayne, of which this is the third; it is also the next to last film Hawks made, and it copy-cats, embarrassingly, the two that surround it. The movie dawdles along rather existentially from episode to episode like a local that stops at every cow, but this provides part of its entertainment value. It might have been better directed by George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), but the real problem with the picture is in the casting. The film is a by-blow of Rio Bravo, the first film of the last three, and we have Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part and Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin part. Hunnicutt does an honorable job but he cannot supply the deficiency of the brilliant Brennan, and Robert Mitchum as the drunken sheriff is a dead loss in the Martin role. Mitchum can’t act and never could, really. His self-possession is a pose. And he does not have a funny bone in his body, at least as an actor. Dean Martin was a warm and richly humorous man and along with Walter Brennan brought the natural humanity necessary to make Rio Bravo work to make it one of the classic maverick westerns. Here, however, we have the same set-up as Rio Bravo, with James Caan, a Hawks’ discovery, filling in the foursome for Ricky Nelson. Caan with his broad square shoulders looks terrific in his costumes, and you believe he can throw knives – thwack– like that – and handle cards at a gambler’s table. He’s just fine. He’s young and lush and virginal and a good mosquito to pester big man John Wayne. Wayne is just marvelous in the picture. He carefully listens to the other actors and his responses are always on the money. He has a habit of subtly shifting and swaying, which keeps him or a scene from going static. And he has a rich and humane humor. And what a presence! Of course, he never could kiss a woman worth a hoot, but the women in Hawks’ films at this time are pallid or perfunctory. Hawks’ sets were relaxed and cooperative, which gives his films a permissiveness which sometimes lapses into slumber. With the help of the entire crew, Hawks tended to rewrite his scripts every day, so, while he worked best with huge stars, they also had to be, like John Wayne, quick studies. Hawks had made Wayne a serious actor in Red River (John Ford never knew Wayne could act at all until then), so Wayne would accept Hawks’ hiring him with no script at all, as in Hatari; Wayne sat around and played chess. Leigh Brackett again contorted herself to write the screenplay, and Arthur Rosson, of Hawks’ silent film days, filmed it richly. The costumes by Edith Head encourage a willing suspension of belief, however, and the music would be ideal for a Peter Sellers’ comedy – but then, the film is an entertainment pure and simple, closer to a slowmotion Roadrunner cartoon than not, and satisfying on that level, if that level satisfies you. The value is the value of a superstar with all the merit in display that made him one.






18 Oct

Scarface — Directed by Howard Hawks. Gangland Drama. A homicidal punk rises through the ranks to a gilded gutter. 93 minutes Black and White 1931.

* * * *

The rhythm of screen acting is not yet implanted in Paul Muni, here in practically his first film, until a reel or so elapses. Hawks cast virtual unknowns, Ann Dvorak, Boris Karloff, and George Raft whose first film this also almost was. And Muni was an actor from the Yiddish theater in New York and remained a big Broadway star. Because I never liked him in film I never went to see him on the stage. I should have. (I remember having coffee with Billie Dee Williams when he was understudying and him telling me how kind and helpful Muni was to him.) Muni is never believable as Italian-American, and there are times when you feel he thinks he is slumming, but there are other times when his willingness to expose the character supersedes any cavil one may harbor about his technique, which is the surface technique serviceable for the stage. Muni went on to play many “disguise” roles in film, an actor like Olivier, but he’s not my sort of an actor. The film is beautifully shot by Lee Garmes and edited by Edward Curtiss and Lewis Milestone (Hawks was never interested in editing his own films). The picture is A Gangster Is Born about a hood who takes over from his boss, here played by Osgood Perkins, who is more at home in front of the camera than Muni, and who resembles his more famous son, Anthony Perkins, in his mein and something about the eyes. Beautiful Karen Morley is sensational as the kept woman; Ann Dvorak (one of the few female actors Hawks used more than once) is excellent as the incested sister, and George Raft plays the manikin he played forever after. The minor actors tend to be stagey. But the best parts of the film are the automobile scenes in cars of the period, which seem flimsy and rattletrap and all the more vulnerable. These sequences were shot by L. William O’Connell and directed by Richard Rosson (who did the same for many of Hawks’ pictures) and are the most exciting of their kind ever filmed. Those were days when they used real bullets in movies, so the shoot-em-ups are startling. (One man was actually killed by them.) Sometimes there’s a certain clunkiness about Hawks’ direction, but this may be a function of early sound, for all the scenes are beautifully lit. This one of the Ur-Gangster pictures; Robinson’s and Cagney’s were first appearing at this moment. The film had huge problems with the New York Censors and The Film Review Board, but Howard Hughes finally said To hell with it; I won’t release in New York, and opening it where there were no censors, and was a big hit. It still is.




10 Oct

Hatari – Directed by Howard Hawks. Wild Animal Action Adventure. A company of animal collectors snares big game in Africa. 156 minutes Color 1962.

* * * *

Howard Hawks had no signature visual style, even when he used the same photographer. Nor was he much of a director of actors. His films are plainly shot in simple setups. What he had was a freewheeling attitude about scripts which in the morning he would make up among the actors or who ever passed through the shooting, and then film it later in the day. This openness and casualness produced a big permission for actors, so sometimes wonderful performances arrived. John Wayne’s, for instance. He is an actor who often chooses to “come from strength”, but here he pretty much lets that slide, and what comes to the fore is his wisdom, forgiveness, and rueful wit. He does not have any other actors in the picture who are on his level of artistry or humor, save Red Buttons, which is a shame, because that and their variety of foreign languages slows things down to the level of competence, which is a local train not a superchief; John Wayne is a superchief. However, what results here is a very amiable party indeed, casual, agreeable, and fun. This is not a movie you intently watch; it is a movie you hang out with. The story line is flimsy and contrived, and it all takes place indoors on Paramount sound stages, and looks it, as do the actors slathered in thick tan pancake. The story involves, if that is the right word, a couple of unconvincing romances, one of them between Wayne and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli who is of all things called Dallas, the name Claire Trevor had in Stagecoach. (One must cover one’s eyes when John Wayne kisses anybody.) But, in the long and beautiful African scenes, Elsa Martinelli has such a terrific rapport with wild animals that I took her to be a professional trainer. She is remarkable with three baby elephants, and seems to harbor a leopard as a watchdog. The episode with the monkey tree is fascinating – evidently all the actors did the animal work in the picture – and wildebeest and rhinos and cheetahs and ostriches are caught in long and very exciting sequences. The chasing down and capturing of the wild animals feels authentic and was the raison d’etre for the film. These are interspersed with drunk scenes, which are not funny (at what moment in history did drunk scenes in Hollywood cease to be funny) and with sophomoric hijinks, which are not funny either. Hatari means danger in Swahili and the relaxed and genial nature of the story with its foolish excesses is just a necessary relaxation from the real and intense excitement of the hunts. Henry Mancini has written a brilliant score.





Ball Of FIre

09 Oct

Ball Of Fire – Directed by Howard Hawks. Screwball Comedy. A virginal professor meets up with a tootsie chanteuse. 111 minutes Black and White 1941,

* * * *

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote this version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, with Dana Andrews as The Wicked Stepmother, Gary Cooper as Snow White, and Barbara Stanwyck as the ball of fire that wakes him from his sexual sleep. Because it is inauthentic, Cooper’s naïve style dates badly, and the film dates too. This is most noticeable when compared to Hawks’ intolerable A Song Is Born made only seven years later with the exact same script, set, setups, cameraman (Gregg Toland), and even Miss Totten.  Why? World War II had intervened and America was naïve no longer. Yet of the two versions, this is the more swallowable. First of all, Gary Cooper is a prettier object of romance than Danny Kaye, and second of all Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a shame Stanwyck did not make more comedies. The War may have killed that too. She had spunk, a strong breezy style, and a rich sense of humor that fit perfectly into the works of Capra, Sturges, and Hawks. Here she is a bunch of fun as the tart, sexually insolent singer on the lam in a refuge of encyclopeaists. These seven dwarfs are played in the lost manner of the time by the great S. Z. Sakall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Leonid Kinsky, and others. The brilliant Dan Duryea is on hand as a henchman as is the sparky Elisha Cook Jr as a waiter. Hawks had a ten-year run of huge hits – Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sargent York, Air Force, To Have And To Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, I Was A Male War Bride, The Thing – and this was one of them. It is the most forced of all his comedies, and like all of them it is an owl and the pussycat story, of a person heading toward the cliff of convention being rescued against his will by a ruthless eccentric. A fundamental human sexual predicament, that is to say, one that is still recognizable despite, or perhaps even more recognizable because of our modern sexual liberation.





A Song Is Born

08 Oct

A Song Is Born – Directed by Howard Hawks. A musical academic researching jazz falls foul of manipulative nightclub singer. 117 minutes Color 1948.

* *

You will have the memorable chance to hear Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnett, Louis Bellson, and Louis Armstrong jam together in a picture which you will find impossible to remember otherwise. Goldwyn paid Hawks a quarter of a million to direct it and it cost well over two million and it resembles a high school varsity show. Hawks jammed it between Red River and I Was A Male War Bride, and to film it we have the man who filmed Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland no less, but the picture is nothing other than a series of gaudy setups, which is what Goldwyn liked for his Danny Kaye series. Production stopped every day so Hawks could listen to the boys play, and so Kaye could go to his psychiatrist, which is perhaps why in this picture, except for a few facial gesticulations, he is not funny once. His voice is placed just under his nasal passages and is perpetually plaintive. Of course, Danny Kaye was not an actor at all, but an entertainer, a zany in the line of The Marx Brothers, Jonathan Winters, and Robin Williams, He was separated from his wife at the time this was made, and she, Sylvia Fine, wrote all his riffs. The writing seems astoundingly dull, although by Brackett and Wilder, although it didn’t when it fueled  Hawks’ Ball of Fire of which this is a remake..  But the War had intervened, and that changed everything. This sort of naive hokum was passé. It’s a lazy film, using the exact same script, set, setups, cameraman, and even Mary Field, excellent as Miss Totten once again. One can only talk around this movie; it defies criticism. Except perhaps to say that Steve Cochran and Virginia Mayo, neither of whom Hawks wanted, do just fine in it. Hawks made Mayo go to a warehouse and yell to lower her voice, which didn’t work, but she is dressed up and hair-doed as a Hawks woman, and she gives us a dame of fine sexual insolence such as we have come to rely on from Hawks. She watched Stanwyck’s performance in the earlier film over and over, but she does just fine on her own; it’s one of her best screen performances. A cast of brilliant supporting players, Felix Bressart and F. Hugh Herbert among others, founder when they are acting, and the musicians founder when they are not playing, but when they are you will hear Lionel Hampton do duets with Armstrong and with the redoubtable Goodman, and for a moment things almost seem worthwhile. For a short time, it was the number one box office draw in the nation. The Death Valley of the 50s was about to begin.





Monkey Business

08 Mar

Monkey Business  — Directed by Howard Hawke — Low Comedy. A college chemistry professor invents the soda fountain of youth, and the wrong people start to drink it.  97 minutes Black and White 1952

* * *

If I had to choose films to be stranded on a desert island with, I would say, Gimme pictures with Edward G. Robinson or Charles Coburn in them. Both men were stout, both were brilliant, and both smoked cigars at birth. Robinson played the heavier roles usually, Coburn the lighter. Hearken to Coburn’s delivery of the line regarding Marilyn Monroe’s secretarial skills: “Anyone can type.” He was to salivate over her again in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was not a fancy director, and he was best at male/female contention, as in I Was a Male War Bride, To Have and To Have Not, Bringing Up Baby. So here. The opening sequence is the best in the film, a gentle contention between the expert Ginger Rogers and the expert Cary Grant. The film would have been better had this level been sustained, but it falls into crude slapstick. I love crude slapstick, but it’s got to work better than here. Giving Cary Grant a gaudy sports coat and a crew cut is not funny in itself. He just looks terrific in them in a different way. Ginger Rogers as a three-year-old brat is quite cunning.Rogers was quite good at mad impersonations (and to see her in a brilliant performance of them in a brilliant film, see Roxy Hart). Monroe is good in all her scenes, but, although she is starred, her part is only as big as it could be. The monkey, though! Ah, the monkey is worth the price of admission. Never have I seen so clever and risible a monkey in my life!


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