Like his friendly rival John Ford, Howard Hawks (1896–1977) began work as a Hollywood property man (in Hawks’s case, while still attending school). He received a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell, and his films reflect both the precision this implies and the erudition of a college boy. (Ford, by contrast, spent about two minutes in college.) After a stint in the Army Air Corps and a job designing airplanes, Hawks wound up directing his first film at the Fox studio—where Ford was also under contract—in 1926.
The late scholar Gerald Mast wrote, “Hawks was perhaps the greatest director of American genre films.” As Mast points out, Hawks’s works were often among the best in each genre he essayed. He tackled gangster films (Scarface), film noir (The Big Sleep), screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), science fiction/horror (The Thing), and war films (Sergeant York). With regard to Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo, El Dorado), he was Ford’s only genuine competitor. And, of course, he had a genuine affection for airplanes (The Dawn Patrol, Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings, Air Force). Then there was what amounted to his own genre, films that we could label inimitably Hawksian (A Girl in Every Port, Tiger Shark, To Have and Have Not, Hatari!). (Would you believe that I once recommended to a young, little-known filmmaker that he see Tiger Shark before making his next movie? His name was Steven Spielberg, but I don’t know whatever happened to him.) The important point is that through all these films—and many more—there run threads of Hawks’s personality, obsessions, and worldview. He was an authentic auteur.
Richard Barthelmess was easily the most accomplished actor among the silent screen heartthrobs (Doug Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Rudolf Valentino, George O’Brien, Charles Farrell, etc.). His performances for D. W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms, Way Down East) and Henry King (Tol’able David) were outstanding, and he was nominated for the first acting Oscar in 1928, losing to Emil Jannings (although he should have lost to Chaplin). He provided Hawks with just the exact level of intensity he needed for The Dawn Patrol, giving a very different performance from the laid-back Errol Flynn in Edmund Goulding’s 1938 remake (which we showed recently in our David Niven retrospective). Opportunities for Barthelmess began to disappear by the mid-1930s, as his boyishness faded, but Hawks gave him one last great supporting role in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), in which he held his own opposite Cary Grant and Thomas Mitchell.
An aviation cycle had grown out of William Wellman’s Oscar-winning silent Wings, released the same year as Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Entries in the genre came from Frank Capra and John Ford, and Hawks made The Dawn Patrol, even though two of his brothers had been killed in a crash eight months before the film was released. The film reflects a clear fatalism, an attitude of professional men following their responsibility and calling in spite of reality and danger. As the distinguished film historian John Belton has suggested, “Each character becomes trapped between the inevitability of his situation…and his own personal feelings…(T)hey give themselves willingly over to their mission and resolve their tensions through cathartic action.” This established a standard for Paul Muni (Scarface), Edward G. Robinson (Tiger Shark), James Cagney (The Crowd Roars), Cary Grant (Only Angels Have Wings), Gary Cooper (Sergeant York), Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not), John Wayne (Rio Bravo), and so many others.
It should be pointed out that, although The Dawn Patrol doesn’t show it, the Hawksian women (Louise Brooks, Ann Dvorak, Carol Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, and Angie Dickinson) are typically just as strong, independent, and well defined as their male counterparts.
These lists of some of the movies’ greatest names provide eloquent testimony to Hawks’s mastery of the medium and of the Hollywood studio system. Through a host of genres, the director managed to make his films a testament to his genius and personal vision. Howard Hawks will return soon—and often—in this series.