"Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man" showcases the director's crowd-pleasing career
With sound, however, Hawks was immediately in his element: snappy patter and hardboiled realism (or something like) were more to his liking than the pictorial emotionalism of the silent screen, even if as a director he remained close-lipped toward cast and crew to a "sphinx-like" degree. (The many superficially contradictory comments about his on-set demeanor gleaned from collaborators in Todd McCarthy's definitive biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood reveal a technique that liberated some and frustrated others.)
Scarface, which prompted his first of many censorship battles, came out as the gangster vogue was considered kaput. Yet it was a sensation, and remains the only such film from that era still shockingly violent, sexual, and modern. It's arguable that the Hawksian template wasn't fully formed until 1939's Only Angels Have Wings. Its loose, episodic script suited his essential disinterest in narrative (which would become a problem in the 1960s), allowing all the greater focus on a tight group of wisecracking, poker-faced men in daily peril (as mail-delivering pilots in the remotest tropics), while Jean Arthur's dogged pursuit of a seemingly disinterested Cary Grant posited women as an infrequently worthy adversary-companion on rare occasions invited into the boys' club. (In the screwball comedies, however, berserk woman often simply torments man into submission.)
Allergic to mush stuff, Hawks liked slim, sporty, husky-voiced women — ones an ever-decreasing fraction of his age as time passed, both on and off screen. (Though Gentlemen made her, he professed zero understanding of bodacious Marilyn Monroe's appeal.) Yet as with his three marriages, he seldom stuck with one for long, almost never casting leading ladies twice while working recurrently with Grant, Wayne, Gary Cooper, and numerous behind-the-camera personnel.
After a long, nearly unbroken string of hits, his touch began slipping in the mid-1950s; like many old-school Hollywood greats, he seemed quite out of synch with the times a decade later. By then Hollywood was probably relieved to be rid of a filmmaker who'd always used his success as leverage in getting maximum paydays (though as a compulsive gambler he was forever in debt), as well as against studio interference. He avoided long-term contracts whenever possible, acting like an independent agent long before seismic industry changes essentially dismantled the contract system for everyone. His politics were conservative, but seldom flexed — he had little use for politicking unless it helped him get more freedom (and money).
Hawks could be arrogant personally, yet was nothing if not unpretentious about his art, at one late point insisting "I never made a 'statement.' Our job is to make entertainment." An unproduced screenplay from his twilight years describes central characters in terms one imagines he'd readily apply to himself: "Tough, resourceful, cheerfully ruthless but always within limits, deeply loyal to a friend but never sentimental, equally needing women, adventure, and a spice of danger to make life worth living."
"HOWARD HAWKS: THE MEASURE OF MAN"
Jan. 13-April 17, $5.50-$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2757 Bancroft, Berk.