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Top Movie Directors-Howard Hawks

Updated on August 24, 2013

Great Directors - Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks - Beginnings

Howard Hawks was born in Goshen, Indiana in 1896.

He was a contemporary and long-time friend of John Ford who admired this great director's work greatly believing that Hawks and not he deserved the Best Film Oscar in 1941 for Sergeant York (Hawks and Orson Welles were both overlooked in favour of Ford).

Hawks is something of an enigma in the history of motion pictures.

A quick look through the list of movies he directed will show some incredibly popular movies; really good movies which were widely watched and most of which made good profits at the cinema at a time (1930s, 40s and 50s) when Hollywood movie studios were an industry; a money making machine.

I could start with Hawks silent career but in this hub, I prefer to look at some of his double-header movies - those films where the leading actor was teamed up with an equally interesting co-star. In Hawks movies, this was usually a 'smart talking broad'. Film Critic Naomi Wise coined the term 'Hawksian Woman' to describe this archetype and although Hawks was certainly no feminist he admitted that women he met like this were great 'in life and on screen'.

So here's to smart-talking broads and the great director who brought them to the screen so wonderfully, Howard Hawks.

Great Director - Howard Hawks
Great Director - Howard Hawks
John Barrymore, one of Hollywood's best actors, criminally underused in comedies and romatic movies.
John Barrymore, one of Hollywood's best actors, criminally underused in comedies and romatic movies.
Beautiful, sexy, funny Carole Lombard
Beautiful, sexy, funny Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard - Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

Henry Hawks was a director completely at home with a comedic script and moreover he trusted his actors. He believed that they could transform the words on the page and make people laugh.

Comedy is terribly hard to get exactly right but in the hands of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, Hawks has his comedy delivered perfectly.

Lombard has long been considered one of the finest comedy actresses of her generation.

Her comic timing is second to none and we can only guess at how her many talents might have developed had tragedy not intervened.

Barrymore is an actor who can turn his hand to anything and comedy is delivered with equal aplomb as any of his Shakespearean tragic performances.

Twentieth Century is a real screwball comedy which Hawks paces so wonderfully that the end will come all too soon but you will have laughed throughout the movie.

The script is from 2 accomplished playwrights, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur (with Charles Mulholland) who had success with the play of the same name on Broadway.

The script is perfect for the two main characters but has some good supporting roles which come to the fore when they are all trapped on the train, 'Twentieth Century'.

It may not have aged well - humour and what we all find funny has moved on but in its day - a triumph!

Hepburn, up close and personal with Baby
Hepburn, up close and personal with Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby is a strange movie; it has 2 amazing stars in the leading roles, a leopard as a co-star.

The scripts goes back and forth between gentle chat and rapid-fire argument.

The settings are all over the place. It has screwball comedy written all over it and was released when those types of comedies were very popular and guess what? It was a flop!

Hawks later suggested the fault lay with him in making it too screwball - of making ALL the characters a bit too screwy.

He felt, on reflection, that screwball comedies worked better when some of the characters were completely 'straight' characters - this gave a different pace to the scenes.

Bringing Up Baby has a lot of rapid-fire dialogue and as always, Hawks doesn't give the viewer time to laugh before the next gag is delivered - "if they missed it, they'll catch it the next time." was his response to someone complaining that because people were laughing so much they missed the next line.

At the time it was released Katharine Hepburn was going through a real low point in box office terms and punters were staying away in droves.

But you can't keep a good Hawks film down and Bringing Up Baby is an amazingly popular 30's movie now. In fact, it is often held up as one of the best screwball comedies ever.

Indeed, when one thinks of a later screwball comedy, 'What's Up Doc' starring Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Steisand, there are quiet a few similarities.

Bringing Up Baby star Katharine Hepburn was quite at home with Nissa, the leopard who played Baby but Cary Grant used a double in most of his scenes with her.

Poster for Howard Hawk's His Girl Friday
Poster for Howard Hawk's His Girl Friday
Great comic actress, Rosalind Russell
Great comic actress, Rosalind Russell

His Girl Friday (1940)

Rosalind Russell is superb in this movie. She plays Hildy on the way to leaving journalism for marriage. Her choice of husband is a bit of a strange one, considering she is such a high-flyer but as usual with Hawks, we don't spend too long poking holes in his movies; everything will be resolved by the end.

Once again Hawks turns to a play by Hecht and McArthur, The Front Page but swaps over the gender of the main character and this works really well because Rosalind Russell is more than able to hold her own with Cary Grant (again).

The dialogue is amazing in this movie - enough words to fill a 3 hour movie squeezed into 92 minutes, it has pace, laughs, sarcasm, irony and satire and as always Hawks has characters interrupting one another, talking over one another, Russell's skirts sweeping past her desk, swinging chairs, movement, movement, movement.

It was a huge hit at the box office, no holds barred ensemble cinema.

Poster for Howard Hawk's To Have And Have Not
Poster for Howard Hawk's To Have And Have Not
Bogie Gets His Gal
Bogie Gets His Gal
Lauren Bacall: By Myself
Lauren Bacall: By Myself

Lauren Bacall's biography - an amazing look back at her life with Bogie and in the movies.


To Have And Have Not (1944)

"You know how to whistle don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and...blow."

To Have And Have Not was an Ernest Hemingway book for which Howard Hughes had bought the film rights. Howard Hawks bought them from him and decided to direct the movie himself but not before telling Hemingway that the book was not very good.

Hemingway, to his credit accepted the criticism and worked alongside Hawks to change the storyline so that it fitted better with the time in which it was made.

The original setting of Cuba was changed to the island of Martinique, under Vichy rule and so created a wartime backstory which Hawks could exploit in this action-adventure movie.

William Faulkner and Jules Furthman worked on the Hemingway rework and transformed the original story. To Have And Have Not was also given a Casablanca flavour; we have Hoagy Carmichael at the piano this time, the same local bar but this time the guy gets the girl.

Lauren Bacall is a perfect partner for Humphrey Bogart in this movie because it is obvious from the first scene in which they appear that they have chemistry (part-way through the movie it had turned into a full blown affair against Hawks wishes).

It is Bacall's first role. Hawk's wife had seen a photograph of Lauren Bacall on the front cover of Harper's Bazaar and suggested her for his movie.

He took an enormous chance but it certainly paid off. The original dialogue for Bacall was originally limited but greatly extended when it was clear the on-screen chemistry gave the movie a sexy edge. It also made Bacall a star.

Her character's nickname, Slim, was Hawk's wife's name - his way of saying thanks. By all accounts Slim Hawks was actually quite like Slim on screen; he pinched some of his wife's mannerisms for the movie and it worked well.

Bogart is, as always, at home in his role, more or less a reprise of Casablanca's Rick.

To Have And Have Not underlined Hawk's talents as a director of adventure movies. This one has a wartime timeframe and an excellent script and score. Critics were wondering when Howard Hawks would put a foot wrong. He could do it all!

Howard Hawk's  I Was A Male War Bride
Howard Hawk's I Was A Male War Bride
Ann Sheridan
Ann Sheridan

I Was A Male War Bride (1949)

I almost chose The Big Sleep for my final movie but I have chosen one of my favourite Hawks movies instead.

I Was A Male War Bride may have one of the thinnest plots in movie history - it is basically man v bureacracy but it works because Cary Grant is really, really good in it!

Ann Sheridan works well as his romantic interest, mainly because in general she plays it straight. Grant is then allowed to shine in his role of drag queen (not quite!) forced into the submissive 'bride' role because the army has rules for men which don't translate when it is a foreign male marrying a female soldier.

Howard Hawks shines again with a rapid-fire script, Cary Grant is at his best when he is thoroughly disgruntled - fed up with being treated like a woman!

Henri Rochard, a French soldier is sent to work with Catherine Gates as they try to foil a German espionage ring. Initially, they dislike one another but it true Hawks' style and many sparkling pieces of dialogue later, guy falls for girl and it's then all systems go when Catherine is recalled to the USA and Henri can find no rule in the book allowing a man to follow a female soldier back to her homeland (but lots to allow a woman to follow a male soldier to his).

The plot sees Henri jump through every hoop to try to be with Catherine. Grant is at his most comedic when he is at his most undignified and his performance is a complete success and could well explain why Hawks chose him as a leading man on 5 separate occasions.

In this movie, Howard Hawks makes a comedy with a wartime sub-plot work with exactly the same technique and flair as in his other movies.

Howard Hawks - Great Director, Good At Every Genre

He directs comedies with the same care and attention as war movies, adventure movies and crime thrillers. He was certainly no one-trick pony.

If you paid him to be your director - he gave it his all.

It is to the disgrace on the American Academy that this great director was never honoured with an Oscar win until his win in 1974, a sort of lifetime achievement award, almost an afterthought for a career which was incredibly successful.

His movies still shine today as examples of all that was great and good in movie direction - great dialogue, great score, lighting, sets and most of all, an artlessness about everything.

His own take on what made a good movie, "Two good scenes and no bad ones."

When asked to define a good director he is supposed to have said, "Someone who doesn't annoy you."

He was a self-deprecating man, at home with himself and his way of doing things.

He started his career during the silent era and honed his skills there before directing for talkies. From the start he showed skills as a director or ANY kind of movie and that can't be said for many directors.

He is well-known, not for one of his movies, but for all of them.

Many thanks for reading.

Other Top Director Hubs You Might Enjoy....

Other Movie Related Hubs You Might Enjoy....

Sydney Pollack

Sidney Lumet

David Lean

John Ford


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    • profile image

      Tyler 6 years ago

      Very nicely done, I enjoyed reading this very much.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      HawksFan, thanks for your kind comment. Seems like Red River is popular with a lot of people on HubPages.

    • profile image

      HawksFan 6 years ago

      It is good to see fellow Howard Hawks fans on this website. I have been a big fan of his for years. I love his westerns which Red River, Rio Bravo and El Dorado being my favorites. I enjoyed reading your comments on many of his great movies.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      AlabamaGirl86-thanks for your comment. I saw Carole Lombard in a few movies when I was a little girl for the same reason as you - my dad was a fan of hers. She is great to watch even now, great timing and very funny, so tragic that she died so young.

    • AlabamaGirl86 profile image

      AlabamaGirl86 6 years ago

      Excellent job. I found your writing to be very informative and interesting. Thanks for all this information as Howard Hawks was my dad's favorite director and he made me watch these movies many times. 20th Century was his favorite so I was glad to see you mention. My dad always said that 20th century was the first screwball comedy.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Epi, thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment! Take care.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago's great to see all of the film buffs here or I would've mentioned their names - lol - and yes such a world class job here of research and valued information - and thank you for your insight and passion

      lake erie time ontario canada 11:39am (I am a film buff too)

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Rob, thanks for your kind comments. That's an interesting little tidbit about The Thing From Another World and something I never came across in my research. Interestingly, a lot of Hawks scripts have 'uncredited' writers, I suspect he liked to tinker with dialogue!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Jools; Hawks is another of the greats. My favorite of his is "the Big Sleep" but I think "Red River" was also one of his best. Popular belief is that Hawks was the real director of "the Thing from Another World" although he worked uncredited due to a technicality that prevented him from officially being listed as director.


    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Flora, I'm beginning to regret not including The Big Sleep!

      Bringing Up Baby with an ape might have been interesting but maybe there'd be more chance of a monkey stealing the show? - might be interesting against two big egos like Hepburn and Grant. I love his comedies and I love it that he wrote strong parts for women in all of his movies.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Cogerson, Thanks for your comments. I think what is very interesting about Hawks is that he was, initially, an independent film maker and I think this made him someone used to picking and choosing his projects - this may well account for his being able to direct pretty much anything. I have favoured his double-handers here but I could have happily done a hub with a smattering of westerns, thrillers, adventure films, etc, etc. He was very versatile.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, So many good movies to choose from left me in quite a quandary. I was within a whisker of picking The Big Sleep but I went with another comedy. I still wonder why his movies weren't more celebrated; audiences certainly liked them!

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I enjoy all these films you mention. Like Steve, I would have to have The Big Sleep among my favourites. I would have it instead of Only Angels have Wings, because I have to be in the right mood to watch it, and I can always enjoy The Big Sleep. My favourites of Hawkes is his mystery/suspense films. If there wasn't a cat in Bringing Up Baby, and instead was another animal, like an ape, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much. I still have not seen Ball of Fire. Of the ones you don't mention, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is my favourite and I have been trying to fing Trent's Last Case. TCM doesn't own the rights in Canada.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Another great hub...I have been thinking about doing a Howard Hawks myself...but after reading your excellent hub I think I will wait awhile. I think Hawks is one of the greatest directors we have ever had.....I have so many favorites many of which you write about in this hub. Others not in the hub that I really enjoy would be El Dorado and Red River....voted up and awesome...job well done.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Mrs. Random: Well, where are your clothes?

      David: I've lost my clothes!

      Mrs. Random: But why are you wearing *these* clothes?

      David: Because I just went gay all of a sudden!

      An enjoyable read, Jools. No Oscar win for Hawks? Wow.

      Lots of favourites here, I would have included The Big Sleep over Male War Bride. But it's your hub your faves. :)

      His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby I watch every year, I know people who hate them but not me I love screwball comedies.

      It is unusual to read about Hawks without any westerns getting a mention. Two of the greatest westerns were directed by Howard Hawks, Red River and Rio Bravo, huge faves of mine, and I have a soft spot for El Dorado too. Still, it's all down to preference.

      Voted Up and Interesting.