Lesser known than many of his Golden Age contemporaries, Howard Hawks was a genre pioneer and maverick. His legacy is one of exceptional versatility and range; however, Hawks didn’t simply work across many genres – comedy, western, noir, drama, romance, adventure, musical, and science-fiction are all present within his oeuvre – he was perhaps Hollywood’s most unsuspected rebel. As much as he belongs to the Classic era, Hawks’s work challenges its very expectations.
The director reveled in genre work because of the great utility its easily recognizable forms and archetypes afforded him. Using the familiar elements ingrained by years of Hollywood tradition to his advantage, Hawks sought to subvert those narratives, thus presenting powerful commentaries on gender, greater American culture, and long-proliferated myths.
In this light, Hawks’s career shows not only great width but significant depth in his exploration of genre cinema. That he accomplishes this and still retains his own unique sensibilities is a testament to his true independence from the traditions of the day.
Working within a broad range of genres, Howard Hawks’s iconoclastic work during the Golden Age of Hollywood proves him to be an essential auteur and mythologist in deconstructing and confronting American identity.
1. Scarface (1932)
Within only a couple of years since the technology took over the film industry, Hawks had already made his fourth sound film. So early in his career, Scarface would already become one of Hawks’s masterworks, and it would serve to establish the director’s proclivity for examining power-relationships, hierarchies, and male-dominated social structures. The film also showcases Hawks’s range of tonal acuity and his tremendous ability to construct entire scenes out of dialogue.
Scarface belongs to a special group of gangster films, those made prior to the Hays Code, which would censor depictions of violence, profanity, references to the drug trade, etc. for years. In the window between the development of sound film technology and the implementation of the Hays Code, Hawks made one of the meanest crime films yet, with a degree of realism which would not be seen again for decades.
Through the use of title cards at the beginning of the film, Scarface presents itself as an indictment of gang rule in America and the government’s apparent indifference toward it. Although this can be read as a concession made by the filmmakers to appease censors, it does allow for the grisly representation of the film’s subject-matter in the service of Hawks’s greater ambitions.
The film is not so much a story about rising criminality, betrayal, and ruthless corruption as it is a deconstruction of gangster mythology. Through the rise and fall of Tony Camonte’s takeover, Hawks delineates the failure of myth to sustain the character’s sense of impregnability, an essential function of its being. This preoccupation with mythology – which pervades Hawks’s work – also implicates a third party in the censure of gang warfare: the public.
In a key scene, a reporter suggests a story about Camonte on the basis of public interest, calling him a “colorful character”; the police chief denounces the public’s romanticization of such figures, implying that, by comparison, the “old Western bad men” had some virtue to their mythification.
Despite – or perhaps in the spirit of – his ideological mission, Hawks engenders a strange sympathy for Camonte. The full spectrum of tonality in Scarface portrays the titular figure as sometimes childlike in his ambition, almost likable. The conflict between the serious and the comedic evokes a greater underlying menace, of course, but it also lends a humanity to the character.
This is most compelling at the end of the film when Camonte experiences a complete psychological regression at the realization of his singularity. Beyond sustaining a narrative arc, Hawks’s handiness with tone proves his power to arouse in his audience the same romance that he criticizes and deconstructs.
Even at this early entry in his career, Hawks asserts his mastery of genre and craft. Scarface offers a glimpse of the attention to structure and form that is at the core of the director’s prolific work.
2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Widely considered as Hawks’s definitive masterpiece, Bringing Up Baby is an essential screwball comedy. The film stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as a temperate paleontologist and a whimsical, disaster-prone woman, respectively. After a chance encounter, Hepburn’s Susan Vance becomes enamored with Grant’s David Huxley, and her infatuation with the repressed scientist becomes the source of the film’s tension.
The story follows the couple’s misadventures as Susan attempts to prevent David’s marriage, which is scheduled to take place the day after they meet. Despite the absurdity of this situation, Hawks mobilizes the comedic and romantic genre elements to draw out the subtlest expressions of gender conflict and sexual anxiety.
Here, Hawks repurposes archetypes and forms perhaps more effectively than ever. When in the first scene David’s fiancee Alice exclaims, “I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work,” she not only parodies the two-dimensional subservience of female gender roles, but at the same time goes on to emasculate David by categorically denying his preconceptions of family life.
One nearly expects the superficial notion, but Hawks’s craftiness in the second is more essential. The working of such complexities is concealed by the characters’ hysterics, but they nonetheless provide a compelling view of film’s pervading issues.
At a certain point, the film becomes less about the stress of David’s work and impending marriage than his unremitting anxieties about nonconformity, which naturally foils Susan. Through their many accidents and antics, David continually blames her for his misfortunes, but she is also his tireless champion, guiding him through each arising problem with humor and excitement.
The true source of tension is palpable; David’s repression is thoroughly scrutinized by Susan, but rather than emasculate him she deconstructs him in a different way, ultimately catalyzing his sense of identity. Put simply, she is exactly what he needs.
In keeping with the good nature of the screwball comedy, Hawks refrains from moralism as David’s fiancee exists only as a sketch, a caricature of his own two-dimensionality. Consequently, Alice is the one who calls off the marriage, effectively relieving David of his inhibitions. Thus, Hawks is able to fully examine issues of gender conflict and sexual anxiety without dramatic interference. It is a preeminent example of his genre-bending expertise that he deliberately utilizes forms in such a way to affect a desired tone.
Bringing Up Baby can be read as a proto-feminist film: a man, circumscribed and repressed by social norms, is first undone and then completed by a woman who exceeds his expectations of femininity. Despite being one of his earliest works, the film confirms Hawks’s genius in scrutinizing genre elements to make astute criticisms within text that isn’t inherently dramatic.
3. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
As one of Hawks’s more straightforward works, Only Angels Have Wings establishes the director’s ability to present a narrative without undercutting it for any subversive commentary. Fittingly, the film deals frankly with codes of masculinity and inhibitions to personal fulfillment, significant to this is the emergence of fatalistic male attitudes, which will continue to rise in Hawks’s work throughout the 40s. Also, as seen consistently throughout Hawks’s work, the film pays some attention to the dynamics of male-female relationships and gender incompatibilities.
At the center of its avaiation-drama plot is the romance between Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter, manager of a small airline, and a piano-entertainer, Bonnie Lee, played by Jean Arthur. Bonnie is irresistibly drawn toward Geoff but immediately encounters his reticence and senses that his attitude must be the result of a past loss.
The main plot of the film is naturally Hawksian: tough men doing a tough job and all of the politics of their relationships. The dynamics of this world become clear from early on; as the two characters who are presented first each attempt to win over Bonnie for the night, Geoff steps in and undermines the both of them, situating himself as the alpha.
Similarly, while the small airline is owned by “Dutchy” Van Ruyter, he’s nearly always seen grumbling behind the bar, and continually reminded by Geoff of who really runs the show. These incidents are rather comical and good-humored, though, and it’s understood that the men look up to Geoff.
The real issues of masculinity only emerge with the arrival of a new pilot, who turns out being a man with whom Geoff and his men have a strong, personal grudge. However, given the opportunity to fly under the most dangerous conditions, this man finds redemption in a poignantly symbolic act. This, in turn, provides a compelling subversion of the pre-established codes of masculinity and hierachy.
It’s worth noting that while the film begins with Bonnie’s arrival to the fictional South American town of Barranca, her presence itself doesn’t precede any dramatic contention. Rather, Bonnie signifies the perspective of the uninitiated objective-observer that will ultimately redeem Geoff’s fatalistic attitude. When one of the pilots dies in a botched landing, Bonnie is appalled at how the men carry on just the same, but Geoff reconciles the loss with the inherent danger of the job.
As they come from such unapproachable points of view, the relationship between the two develops slowly, in brief encounters throughout the principal drama of the film. Geoff’s restraint is nearly visible in moments where Bonnie pries about the relationship that left him so hardened, and while he acknowledges its effect on him, he vows that he “would never ask a woman for anything.”
Geoff’s fatalistic attitude thus stems from his disillusionment of an ideal, a love in a woman who won’t worry about him and keep him on the ground, so to speak. And as much as Geoff fears the loss of his freedom to commitment, Bonnie desires his initiative in the way of asking her to stay.
The ending of the film presents a decidedly more optimistic outlook than it begins with, but it is complicated by certain unresolved – or insufficeintly examined – gender issues. While Geoff’s fatalism is undoubtedly assuaged by Bonnie’s insistence, his cavalier attitude and her willingness to please are somewhat dated. Notwithstanding, the film greatly succeeds in presenting Hawks’s new ideas and directions for his future work.
Despite its early chronology, Only Angels Have Wings represents a critical moment in the director’s career. Here, he establishes a connection between his early films and the more cynical tones that emerge in his later work, while maintaining a thematic consistency that solidifies Hawks’s rank as auteur.
4. His Girl Friday (1940)
Hawks’s third film in a row starring Cary Grant sees the director returning to the screwball comedy of Bringing Up Baby. Only this time, Grant plays a comedic role altogether different from his anxious David Huxley; the conniving, exploitative newspaper editor Walter Burns is the epitome of self-assurance, and his cunning is rivaled by none other than his ex-wife Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell.
The genre itself sees significant development in this next comedy: overlapping, fast-paced dialogue, multiple conversations at once, sexually suggestive word play, volleys of insults and ridicule, a hectic pace sustained through ridiculous twists and turns – all at work to present a perverse view of romance and wry commentary on gender conflict.
At the center of His Girl Friday are the emerging concerns of women conflicted between domesticity and careerism. Hawks frames these issues within a narrative about a calculating newspaper editor who schemes to win back his ex-wife and star reporter, just as she bids farewell to him and the business the day before she plans to marry a dull insurance man.
For all of Hawks’s iconoclasm, the set-up is a little conventional: Walter warns Hildy that domestic life won’t satisfy her, and eventually she’ll have to return to her work. However, this only establishes familiar gender roles so that they can be subverted.
Hildy’s eventual consent to this inevitability is not the affirmation of male dominance, as Hawks assures that the true essence of her decision is independent. In this reading, the reunion of Walter and Hildy is not indicative of a cyclical issue, but a side effect of the screwball-comedy realization that her work truly fulfills her.
Without a doubt, the path to this realization is rife with sexual antagonism. At first, Walter’s smug, pompous attitude presents him as a rather dominating figure, trying to subjugate Hildy for the sake of his own egotism. But Hildy consistently denies Walter any influence over her, and thusly reduces him to his jealousy and thinly veiled regret. The more Hildy asserts her autonomy, the more undone Walter becomes.
However, Hawks prevents this from ever descending into scathing animosity, rather it becomes the driving power of the film’s tension and hilarity. Walter orchestrates to undermine Hildy’s desires, and she finds ways to manipulate and spite him in return. Through their frustrations with each other, Walter comes to truly appreciate Hildy, and she realizes that Walter – despite his antics – empowers her.
In effect, Hawks realizes the solution to gender conflict through mutual understanding, while acknowledging the superficial incompatibilities of men and women with humor and brevity.
There is a supplementary reading of the film, parallel to its commentary on gender and women’s conflicts. Walter and Hildy’s romance is set amid an atmosphere of crooked politicians and an irresponsible media. While these facets of society are lensed through comedy and farce, they present the kind of sociological study at work in some of Hawks’s later films.
The unscrupulous, vote-seeking mayor and sheriff are at the center of the sociopolitical subplot. In their manipulation of the everyman, there is a certain contempt for those who supposedly represent the principles of society. Here, Hawks draws a contrast between his playfully deceitful battle of the sexes and the corruption of elected officials.
As Walter tells Hildy that the issue is quite literally “a matter of life and death” as his own means of persuasion, we later see the questionable figures acting out of self-interest in a completely different context. In effect, the sociopolitical atmosphere of the film lends a gravity as well as a sense of humor to the various personal motivations throughout.
His Girl Friday is one of Hawks’s most developed films in terms of his work within a particular genre. Through its maturation, the screwball comedy is elevated to a level of self-awareness indicative of more substantial, complicated commentaries.
5. Sergeant York (1941)
Hawks’s biographical film of the highly-decorated World War I solider Alvin York is arguably one of his greatest works. Like Scarface, Sergeant York uses its earnest premise to accomplish more than it at first supposes. Without utilizing any genre invention, the film does its work as war propaganda.
However, beneath the narrative of a man’s redemption through god and through serving his country is a critical examination. The film pays its dues to those who have risked their lives in defense of our country, but its vision of a patriotic machine is far from aggrandizing. The story of Alvin York is elevated to mythological status, thus transforming the individual into an ideal, which attributes to it symbolic import, criticism, and here specifically, a model for aspiration.
In keeping with the adventure of a mythological hero, York is presented as a drunk who eventually finds god and the path to redemption and fulfillment. However, the outbreak of World War I upsets his plans for the future when his request for exemption and subsequent appeals are denied. In a narrative sense, York has already experienced a sufficient character arc by the end of the first half of the film. York is still merely human, though; it is his experience within the army that is his ultimate challenge, and that which serves as the basis for his mythic quality.
The protagonist’s initial “conscientious objection” is what makes him the ideal hero. This allows the army, that entity, to effectively facilitate his transformation. Recognizing his natural abilities, the army manipulates York’s faith for their own gain. And York becomes a hero due to his willingness to recognize god’s work in the service of his country.
This conceit is of course one of the oldest American mythologies. York does retain the essential convictions of his faith, though. Effectively, he is still the same man as he was before he went into the army, maintaining his humanity all the while. York’s feelings about his actions even seem to inspire a small revelation within a superior officer. Thus, the film is not to be misconstrued as being subversive of patriotism, but rather examining a patriotic structure which potentially conflicts with one’s personal ideals.
Sergeant York does not make incendiary suggestions, or otherwise radically betray its idealistic intentions. As seen throughout his work, Hawks’s uses this biographical mythology to remind his audience of their structures and agency.