Saturday, January 24, 2009

Early Hawks: Some Final Thoughts

For the past two weeks, I have been watching and writing about the early films of one of my favorite directors from the classical Hollywood era, Howard Hawks. I've been joined in this endeavor by some fine company, and I want first and foremost to extend a big thank you to everyone who has contributed their own essays and comments on these often overlooked films. I've really enjoyed reading what everyone has to say, and interacting with some of my favorite bloggers, along with some blogs that I got to check out for the first time. I hope anyone reading along has enjoyed all this as much as I have.

Yes, the period in Hawks' career that I have, somewhat arbitrarily, decided to call "early" contains at least two critically acclaimed masterpieces — Scarface and Twentieth Century, both of which I'd seen before and didn't have a chance to revisit this month — but the majority of the films Hawks made prior to his famed Grant/Hepburn screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby are seldom seen, seldom talked about, nearly forgotten by all but the most devout Hawks admirers. This was why I wanted to explore these films, to shed light on them and start a conversation about them. I reasoned that among these films, most of which are not even available on DVD, must be the origins, the first stirrings, of the great director I was familiar with from his 40s and 50s masterworks. I was, in fact, more right than I could have expected.

Hawks' films from the early 30s, along with his 1928 silent film A Girl in Every Port (the only one of his silents I was able to locate), are a treasure trove of insight into Hawks as an auteur. Based on the evidence of the marvelous silent Girl, some of Hawks' signature concerns were in place from very early on, albeit in rough form: male bonding between professionals in a dangerous job, affectionate loyalty between best friends, extreme stoicism and restraint in the face of potentially overwhelming emotions, and a direct, straightforward aesthetic perfectly suited to communicating the iconic ideas and stripped-down emotional palettes of the Hawksian world. This world is of course a fantasy world, an imaginative reconstruction of the real world, redesigned to resemble the director's ideal.

One can also see in these films the development of the typical Hawksian femme, the strong, independent-minded woman who is eager to compete on equal ground with the men in every way. She is not always fully developed in Hawks' early work. Louise Brooks' amoral gold-digger in A Girl in Every Port might be strong and independent, but she's also the most obviously misogynist caricature Hawks would ever craft, and her fate in the film reflects this: she's ultimately cast aside in favor of the male friendship that forms the film's true romantic story. Hawks' next two films, The Dawn Patrol and The Criminal Code, would feature, respectively, no women at all and a female character so weak as to be inconsequential. On the other hand, Ann Dvorak in both Scarface and The Crowd Roars would — perhaps because she was also Hawks' mistress at the time — display an attitude of raw, unfettered sexuality and assertiveness, more early traces of the Hawksian woman struggling to break free. Zita Johann in Tiger Shark is too sweet and retiring, much like June Lang in The Road to Glory a few years later; Johann turns in a fine, sensitive performance while Lang is mostly a model-pretty hunk of marble for Hawks to sculpt with light and shadows, but neither could be described as a Hawksian woman. On the other hand, one can see traces in Joan Crawford (Today We Live) and Miriam Hopkins (Barbary Coast) of the qualities Hawks so admired in women, though neither film is good enough or fully Hawksian enough to allow these qualities free reign.

These are early indications of the Hawks heroine coming into being, but there are more fully developed incarnations of the type in Ceiling Zero (June Travis' wisecracking aviatrix), Twentieth Century (the unstoppable hamminess of Carole Lombard going toe to toe with equally hammy John Barrymore), and the first half of Come and Get It (Frances Farmer's tough, brawling barmaid, a performance developed by the actress after Hawks encouraged her to observe real-life prostitutes and waitresses). In these early films, Hawks still sometimes seems to be struggling to find a way to incorporate women into his male-centric worldview, and though many of these films do have interesting women characters, none are quite as strong or as fully realized as the women who fleshed out the template in later years: Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall.

I didn't mean to dwell so long on this aspect of these films, though gender and sexuality in Hawks is an endlessly fascinating subject: perhaps because he places such a strong emphasis on both ritualized gestures and coded, punny language, few directors' oeuvres are so susceptible to psychosexual "deep readings" of the relationships between men and women. More importantly, however, Hawks' best films are fun, vibrant, and potent. Hawks always considered himself an entertainer rather than an artist, and his films, whatever other artistic virtues they may possess, are seldom less than a good time. As it turns out, this is as true of Hawks' little seen early films as it is of his later work. These films are artfully made, fascinating for their glimpse into Hawks' early development, and frequently exciting, funny and raggedly entertaining. At their best — Twentieth Century and Scarface, of course, but also Tiger Shark, Ceiling Zero, The Dawn Patrol and A Girl in Every Port — they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hawks' later, much more widely seen work.

Once again, I want to thank everyone for reading along as I've explored Hawks' early years, and I want to especially thank those bloggers who have joined me in exploring some of these films. Over the next few weeks, Hawks will remain a fixture at this blog; as a postscript to the blog-a-thon, I'll be watching and reviewing later Hawks films every once in a while, both revisiting favorites and catching up on some I've missed. The early Hawks blog-a-thon is now finished, but I certainly hope that the broader discussion of Hawks is not.


Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Terrific job, to you and your contributors. I'm so disappointed I couldn't participate. Alas, the bills-paying day-job just couldn't be busier these past two weeks. I still have entries to catch up on. But if one of the purposes of the blog-a-thon was inspire people to seek out early Hawks, well, mission accomplished. Nice job.

Anonymous said...

Ed - This was a fantastic idea that was even better in its realization. I haven't had a lot of time to comment on your reviews and those of the other bloggers, but I've been running around the Net reading and enjoying everything. Thanks to everyone, and especially you, Ed, for making this blogathon educational, entertaining, and lively.