"Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man" showcases the director's crowd-pleasing career
FILM The most famous and honored Hollywood directors have always been easily identifiable by style, genre, emotional tenor, or all the above. There's Hitchcock with his wryly misanthropic suspense, and John Ford's outdoor archetypes of masculinity. Even Steven Spielberg, who's made just about every kind of narrative, has a telltale penchant for sweep and sentimentality running through everything from Jaws (1975) to The Adventures of Tintin (2011).
But the director probably responsible for more popularly embraced classics than any other during the industry's golden age remains less familiar by name than many inferior talents, and his was the classic case of a lifetime achievement Oscar offered as thinly veiled apology for being ignored by the Academy over a long, conspicuous career haul. Howard Hawks could be said to bring all this upon himself: while far from modest, he was never much interested in self-promotion, or publicity in general. Nor did his films provide the obvious auteur identification points of a recognizable visual style, or consistent interest in particular genres or story elements.
They're immaculately crafted, with some thematic similarities one can poke an analytic stick at after extended scrutiny. Yet as much as Hawks fought for creative freedom, often exasperating studio executives with his stubborn independence, he had few pretensions (or tolerance) toward art, pretty much measuring his movies' value by their box-office performance. As has been noted elsewhere, that wasn't because he was a bottom-line-focused hack, but because for decades his personal taste really did seem precisely in synch with the majority public's.
The Pacific Film Archive's "Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man" offers plenty of opportunity to weigh that discriminating yet popular appeal via a retrospective that's thorough if not quite exhaustive. It reaches from his earliest extant feature (1926 comedy Fig Leaves) to his penultimate ('67 John Wayne horse opera El Dorado).
Between, there's an almost staggering array of gems, more than any one life's work should encompass: the seminal gangster flick (1932's Scarface); deathless screwball classics Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and Ball of Fire (1941); war epics (1930's The Dawn Patrol, 1941's Sergeant York); Western totems Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959); setting the standard for cinematic sexual cool via the invention of Bogart and Bacall (1944's To Have and Have Not, 1945's The Big Sleep). Hawks wasn't particularly attracted to musicals or sci-fi. Yet he made one of the all-time most enduring titles in each category, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951, with "official" directing credit going to Christian Nyby).
Hawks came from Gentile gentry, which lent him an air of entitlement he didn't mind using to intimidate the largely Jewish, working-class backgrounded studio chiefs he infuriated by running way over budget and schedule. The motion picture business was an odd, borderline-disreputable choice for his like just post-World War I. Yet its wooliness (not to mention the never-ending wellspring of pretty girls) struck his fancy, and he worked in numerous capacities before getting to direct a first feature in 1923.
Later he'd dismiss his silent-era films as apprenticeship, though the few that survive have their points — 1928's A Girl in Every Port introduces an ongoing motif of jokily tough-loving male camaraderie and finds a quintessential Hawksian woman in coltish flapper legend Louise Brooks, while the same year's hunk of "Arab sheik" exotica Fazil has some unusually vivid (for Hawks) depictions of sexual desire.