By Peter Bogdanovich | Peter Bogdanovich November 10, 2012 at 1:12PM
Again, here are the next ten cards on Howard Hawks films that I saw 1952-1970. He remains one of my five favorite directors, and he is, as Orson Welles said, perhaps “the most talented American picturemaker.” Certainly the most versatile, having done every genre to perfection: drama, comedy, gangster, detective, foreign intrigue, western, war, even the musical.
BARBARY COAST (1935; d: Howard Hawks).
1962: Very good- (Fascinating, darkly atmospheric, romantic Hawks melodrama about a woman on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the gambler-king who loves her and the poetic young adventurer she loves. Slightly hokey in writing, but superbly directed, photographed.)
Added 1966: (Miriam Hopkins is not good and her scenes with [Joel] McCrea are Goldwyn-Hecht-MacArthur phony-poetic at its worst. However, the pace of the film is so relentlessly vigorous, the scoring so effective, the atmosphere and mood so rousing and authentic that it remains quite distinctive; [Walter] Brennan, [Edward G.] Robinson are excellent; though not a personal Hawks movie, it bears his unmistakable mark.)
BALL OF FIRE (1941; d: Howard Hawks).
1962: Very good* (Slightly restrained, a bit too “tasteful” Goldwyn-produced Hawks comedy about a group of scholarly encyclopedia writers and one’s pursuit of the meanings of slang which leads him into romance and underworld intrigue with a nightclub boogie-woogie singer. Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and the rest of the cast fall in easily with the Hawks style, but the picture doesn’t have the darkly frenetic quality of his other comedies and thus is not as effective or funny.)
Well, now in 2012, I would rate this Exceptional; it is not the same in tempo or tone as other Hawks comedies like Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, or His Girl Friday, but that shouldn’t be held against it: this is a different kind of comedy, a different kind of story, requiring a different approach. Hawks used to refer to it as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There is this feeling of whimsy unlike any other Hawks comedy, and a genuine warmth that none of the other Hawks comedies have. Gary Cooper has never been more charming or appealing as a shy language professor. And Barbara Stanwyck is pure dynamite as Sugarpuss O’Shea; one of her greatest performances, and that’s saying a lot, because she was rarely less than brilliant. Plus the “seven dwarfs”: an international cast of sublime character actors including Oscar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn; plus the ideal cheap hood Dan Duryea, and bad boy Dana Andrews. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Thomas Monroe.
RED DUST (1932; d: Victor Fleming; writer, uncredited: Howard Hawks).
1962: Fair (Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor in an often amusing, bawdy, if rather dated, triangle sex-melodrama set on a rubber plantation in India. Remade by John Ford as “Mogambo,” the picture’s best moments are those involving Gable and Harlow; Fleming’s work is less than interesting.)
2012: I guess it’s a little better than that, but the John Ford version is brilliant, with Ava Gardner at her best, and an older, more appealing Clark Gable.
CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937; d: Victor Fleming; writer, uncredited: Howard Hawks).
1963: Good* (Exceedingly likeable, touching, outrageously tear-jerking, but nonetheless effective version of Kipling’s novel about the spoiled young millionaire’s son who spends a season with a fishing boat and grows up; beautifully acted by Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas. Impersonally directed, but one of those lavish MGM productions that is continually appealing and somehow strangely vital and exciting.)
2012: Actually, I saw this recently, and it really works: it is Fleming’s most personal film, and the acting is absolutely terrific, especially young Freddie Bartholomew and Spencer Tracy. The finish is genuinely very moving.
MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? (1964; d: Howard Hawks).
1963: (Not yet completed [an early cut], this is already a typically Hawksian farce about a fishing expert who’s never been fishing, and what happens when he is forced to compete in a tournament; filled with hilarious situations, freshness.)
Added 1964: Very good (A delightful picture, in the tradition of “Bringing Up Baby” and “I Was a Male War Bride”; most distinctively Hawksian.)
Added 1966: (Paula Prentiss is passable, but Rock Hudson just can not pull off the lines that were meant for [Cary] Grant, and here is where the picture suffers badly; it is directed and designed and written perfectly, but Hawks’ actors just do not have the personality or talent required.)
2012: In fact, Paula Prentiss is awfully good, but Rock just doesn’t cut it, though he has his moments. The film is nonetheless very relaxed, deadpan, and sure of itself, which gives it an attractiveness and charm.
1963: Exceptional* (Certainly the best gangster film ever made --- the fastest, darkest, most murderous, exciting and brilliantly conceived --- the rise and fall of Tony Camonte and his subtly incestuous love for his sister; strikingly, vigorously, personally told by Hawks. On any level, a complex, deeply intelligent, memorable, thrilling experience.)
Added 1966: (Among Hawks’ masterpieces --- incredibly sophisticated for its time as well as for today --- free of moralizing and filled with violence. Really a great movie.)
Added 1969: (Perhaps the most expressively photographed of any Hawks film, with great tracking shots, brilliant performances, complex emotional relationships; by any standards, a great movie.)
UNDERWORLD (1927; d: Josef von Sternberg; writer, uncredited: Howard Hawks).
1964: Excellent- (Among the first and certainly the most influential gangster film: an exciting, exceptionally well directed and played story of an outlaw, his girl, and an intellectual, but alcoholic, lawyer who comes between them. Sternberg’s handling and personality far surpasses the genre, however, and we see from the conception of Evelyn Brent’s character that Sternberg had created Dietrich long before he met her.)
RED LINE 7000 (1965; d: Howard Hawks).
1965: Excellent (A story of three girls and their love affairs with a trio of race drivers, directed and written in true Hawks style, understated, simple, honest. The cast of unknowns is uneven, but most of them are competent, and one or two, like James Caan and Marianna Hill, are outstanding. As usual, the danger of their occupation is clear, but their reasons for courting death are unexplained, taken for granted, and the girls understand this and they never question. The film has a contemporaneous feel in its colors, dancing, sets, but the mood and the temperament and personality is as old as Hawks.)
Added 1969: (A much more disturbing film than it appeared to be initially; it is probably Hawks’ biggest failure on an audience level, but this is probably because the actors are generally unlikeable. The construction and planning of the story is excellent, and his camera-placement and editing is as impeccable as ever; but there is something unpleasant and uncomfortable about the movie, unmistakably Hawksian though it is.)
INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY (1939; d: Lloyd Bacon; director, uncredited: Howard Hawks).
1965: Fair- (Hawks’ “The Crowd Roars” with different actors, very slightly altered script, some of his racing footage and none of his personality; it is interesting for that reason only, as proof of film as an individual’s art, not collective creation. On its own, the picture is not unlikable --- Pat O’Brien, John Payne, Frank McHugh, Ann Sheridan are personable --- and the story, though in itself hackneyed by now, holds one’s attention much of the time.)
EL DORADO (1967; d: Howard Hawks).
1966: Exceptional* (Hawks’ best film since “Rio Bravo,” to which it is a companion piece: a magnificent western about a crippled gunfighter, a drunken sheriff, and the gang they dispose of. Extremely funny, touching, typically understated Hawksian relationships: personal, brilliantly directed and acted and written. Among his finest pictures.)
Added 1967: (Like everything that’s great, this only improves with repeated viewings; Mitchum has never been better, and Hawks’ company is always a delight.)
Added 1969: (The “professional courtesy” theme and the concept taken from Poe’s poem --- “Ride, boldly, ride” --- give the movie an entirely different feel than “Rio Bravo”. It is in some ways a darker look at Hawksian survival and, at the same time, a lighter picture in terms of male friendship than “Rio Bravo.” It is also deeply beautiful, and continuously entertaining and personal.)
2012: No, it’s not really as good as Rio Bravo, but I have a particular fondness for this movie because I had the privilege of watching Hawks shoot it for a week of night work in Old Tucson, Arizona (an elaborate western-town set, the same place Rio Bravo was filmed). For more on Hawks, check out our long interview and the introduction I did for the Hawks chapter in my Who the Devil Made It (1997; now available as an e-book).