Was Howard Hawks the greatest director of the Hollywood studio era? You’ll get plenty of pushback from devotees of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra, and Orson Welles, among many others. But the case can be made that no other filmmaker put his personal stamp on so many movies in so many genres for so many studios as Hawks. And he did it without ever thinking of himself as an artist or of what he made as art.
He was, though, and it is, as can be confirmed by a drop into the “The Complete Howard Hawks,” a series unspooling at the Harvard Film Archive from June 14 through August 30. Simmering in a summer of Hawks is proof alone of the auteur theory, not because he consciously put his sensibilities and values into his movies but because he was simply unable to do otherwise.
Look at “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939, June 14 and 16), “Red River” (1948, Aug. 4 and 11), or “The Big Sleep” (1946, June 29 and 30). They’re more than arguably the finest adventure film, western, and detective mystery of the entire studio era. They are wise, witty, fully felt essays on the pleasures and limits of professionalism — of getting the job done as the only possible response to a chaotic universe.
The chaos sometimes wins, of course — actually the chaos always wins. Hawks knew that and generally found it hilarious. His dramas valorize taking care of business while the comedies laugh at the impossibility of ever getting it right. Against the three movies above, you could set “Bringing Up Baby” (1938, June 15 and 16), “Twentieth Century” (1934, June 28), and “Monkey Business” (1952, Aug. 30), each a demonstration of best laid plans coming gloriously apart.
Gender — Hawks’s view of the battle of the sexes — has an interesting part to play in all this. As a rule, his men have jobs to carry out and any fussing just gets in the way. His women, by contrast, are the wild cards, the free spirits, the upsetters of apple carts. One of his few musicals, the wonderful “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, June 15 and 23), isn’t just Marilyn Monroe’s finest 90 minutes on film but a comic paean to women as wised-up masters of the universe in a world of delusional man-boys. Katharine Hepburn basically is the chaos principle in “Bringing Up Baby,” reducing proper paleontologist Cary Grant to rubble. Same with Barbara Stanwyck as gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea among the fuddy-duddy academics of “Ball of Fire” (1942, June 28). Mr. Orthodoxy, meet Ms. Catastrophe.
The one genre Hawks never tried on — at least after his apprenticeship in silent and early sound films — was the standard romance. Men and women falling in love didn’t really interest him. Men and women driving each other crazy on the way to falling in love, on the other hand . . . “His Girl Friday” (1940, June 24 and Aug. 30), possibly the fastest comedy of all time, gender switches Hawks’s usual mode of operation, with reporter Rosalind Russell driven happily around the bend by ex-husband editor Cary Grant, a gleefully cruel Puck of the Metro desk. And when the director met a young Lauren Bacall, he told Humphrey Bogart that he’d found a girl who could be as insolent on-screen as the star. The upshot was “To Have and Have Not” (1944, July 6 and 19), the deathless “You know how to whistle” exchange, and a legendary Hollywood marriage.
The HFA series offers a chance to sample everything Hawks could do and to appreciate his unique career-long independence in an industry of studio contracts and front-office oversight. The gangster film: “Scarface” (1932, June 29 and July 7). The war film: “Air Force” (1943, July 14 and 21). Science fiction: “The Thing From Another World” (1951, July 13 and 21), nominally directed by Christian Nyby but producer Hawks’s handprints are everywhere on it. The series allows deep dives into the early work, including rare silent films like “Fig Leaves” (1926, July 29), with its “Flintstones”-like opening sequences (complete with papier-mache dinosaurs), or “A Girl in Every Port” (1928, July 8), a buddy-bonding comedy featuring a saucy Louise Brooks as the first Hawksian woman to hit the screen.
And it allows viewers to bask in the relaxed, autumnal mastery of Hawks’s final period. “Rio Bravo” (1959, July 26 and Aug. 10), “Hatari!” (1962, July 5 and 7), and “El Dorado” (1967, July 28 and Aug. 2) all feature marvelous motley of men and women around the central figure of John Wayne as the last of the Hawks professionals, getting the job done but taking his sweet time about it. These are loose-jointed, discursively funny affairs, and in their humor, wisdom, and serenity, they are close to late-inning Shakespeare.
Hawks would have pooh-poohed that notion, of course, as he did any attempt to find greater meaning in his films or, God forbid, art. Until his death in 1977 at 81, he insisted he was merely an entertainer. And Hollywood agreed, nominating him for a directing Oscar only once, for “Sergeant York” (1941, Aug. 12) before finally giving him an honorary statuette in 1974.
Today, 11 of Hawks’s movies are listed in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, making him with old friend and rival John Ford the most represented filmmakers on it. And there is no question that his movies are not only among the most consistently enjoyable of the studio era but are imbued with a consistent, evolving, and profound sensibility about the way the world does and doesn’t work. It’s very likely Howard Hawks knew he was an artist, but he had the good sense not to tell anyone. Feel free to keep his secret as you revel in the work.
The Hawks Canon:
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)
“His Girl Friday” (1940)
“The Big Sleep” (1946)
“Red River” (1948)
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
“Rio Bravo” (1959)
Just About as Good
“Twentieth Century” (1934)
“Sergeant York” (1941)
“Ball of Fire” (1942)
“To Have and Have Not” (1944)
“The Thing From Another World” (1951)
“El Dorado” (1967)
“The Criminal Code” (1931)
“The Crowd Roars” (1932)
“Come and Get It” (1936)
“I Was a Male War Bride” (1949)
“Monkey Business” (1952)
“Man’s Favorite Sport?” (1964)