By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 30, 2012 at 10:56AM
We love a chamelonic director here at The Playlist, and Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? "To Have And Have Not" and "Sergeant York," the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death). Science-fiction? The much ripped-off "The Thing From Another World." Gangster movies? "Scarface," which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride.
The filmmaker famously said that the secret to a good movie was "three great scenes and no bad ones," and he hit that target many times. The director was born 116 years ago today, on May 30th, 1896, and to commemmorate the occasion, we've picked out five films that we consider to be the very finest that he ever made. We could have gone on and on, so we're sure you'll disagree -- let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
"Bringing Up Baby" (1938)
Boy meets girl. Girl stalks boy in order to get him to look after her leopard. Girl falls in love with boy who's about to get married. Girl's dog steals dinosaur bone. Leopard runs away. Boy and girl sent to prison. Boy ends up in a dress. Boy falls in love with girl. Not exactly a Garry Marshall movie, as far as romantic comedies go, but so much the better. Howard Hawks' 1938 film neatly followed the template established by "It Happened One Night" in setting up a boy and a girl -- in this case soon-to-be-wed paleontologist David (Cary Grant) and prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl heiress Susan (Katharine Hepburn) -- to bicker and flirt across a series of adventures before falling in love at the end. But the formula was never quite as perfect as it was here, in part because Hawks retained what's so often absent in romantic comedies today. Simply, "Bringing Up Baby" is one of the funniest films ever made, riding the outstanding chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, each arguably giving the performance of their careers, through a series of uproarious set pieces. But as funny as the film is, Grant and Hepburn's courtship feels genuinely hard won, and you don't question the way that Grant's defenses gradually come down. It's also unusually subversive, especially for the era -- Grant is increasingly feminized, even to the point of ending up in a dress ("Because I just went gay all of a sudden!"), while Hepburn was always one of the more masculine starlets, and it's her that's doing the pursuing. The film was something of a failure at the box office, and Hawks was released from his contract at RKO as a a result, but history is firmly on his side on this one.
"Only Angels Have Wings" (1939)
Significantly overshadowed by some of his other films of the era, these days at least, "Only Angels Have Wings" might be one of Hawks' very finest pictures. It's a big, broad melodrama set among the men of a tiny, struggling mail air service in South America, who take risky flights over the Andes daily. As it opens, the men, including Geoff (Cary Grant) and his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell) are callously talking about the death of a colleague, but we soon discover it's the only way they can cope with a job that means that every flight could be their last. Things are heightened with a group of new arrivals. There's Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a singer who takes a shine to Geoff, and than there's Bat (Richard Barthelmess), along with his wife Judy (a breakthrough role for Rita Hayworth). Bat's loathed by the others after he bailed on a crashing plane, leaving Kid's brother to die, but Geoff needs pilots, and hires him, putting him only on the most dangerous routes. It's a heady dramatic mix, but Hawks gives the interplay between Arthur and Grant real spark and complexity, and when the hyper-masculine fronts of the actors slip -- from Bat's redemption, to Geoff breaking down at the death of his friend -- it's genuinely moving. The flight sequences still thrill 73 years on (it was one of the nominees for the very first Special Effects Oscars, although was beaten by "The Rains Came") and the performances across the board are terrific. A lost classic that more than deserves to have its reputation boosted, "Only Angels Have Wings" is well worth seeking out.