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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hawks Out Of France

Aspiring autuerists often choose Howard Hawks for beginner courses. Any nincompoop can pick up common threads among this director’s output. They could teach him in elementary schools, but there’s nothing simple-minded about wonders Hawks wrought over five decades making more great movies than virtually any of his golden age rivals. I’ve seen HH saluted web-side by any number of up-and-coming cineastes just beginning to discover his greatness. Hawks is funny and modern and unflappably cool. Young directors today who know their business undoubtedly wish they could be Howard Hawks. Most of his work is available on DVD. Land Of The Pharaohs came out recently, and more than one thoughtful on-line review called it a great rediscovered fifties epic, perhaps the best of them. What then of Hawks stragglers yet to see daylight on video shelves? Again the French brethren come to the rescue on behalf of Yank directors, as they have previously for Minnelli, Fuller, and others. Ceiling Zero and The Road To Glory are two Hawks obscurities largely unseen of late. Ceiling Zero is locked out of the US due to literary rights. It has been MIA on TCM and nowhere on DVD horizons. The Road To Glory has surfaced on Fox’s Movie Channel, but how many subscribers have access to that? Both features were once syndication stalwarts. Region 2 now offers them. I got mine from Amazon France. Ceiling Zero goes by the name Brumes. They call The Road To Glory Les Chemins De La Glorie

Hawks could always find humor in tension. His action shows are generally funnier than his outright comedies. He worked ideally with actors who understood his lightness of touch with adventure yarns and could invest proceedings with fun aspects of personas that audiences liked best. Hawks had a way of bringing out the most in personalities like Bogart, Grant, Cagney, Cooper --- all unplugged when they teamed with him. You wish there had been ten of this man so he could work with all of them more of the time. James Cagney was intuitive enough to understand gags Hawks put over in Ceiling Zero. Their breezy pacing and hopped-up dialogue anticipates The Thing. Pity these two never worked together again, though you can close your eyes during much of Torrid Zone and imagine that’s Hawks beside the camera, so thoroughly was his style and format co-opted by Warners for this and Cagney vehicles to follow. Hawks invented the whole action formula for talkies. Ceiling Zero is early among its application, but this is no mere rough draft (Zero was in fact a reboot of John Ford’s Air Mail, only with more tempo and laughs). Everything is in place and percolating. There’s attitude, danger, sex comedy, sacrifice ---  elements that lesser directors borrowed and bungled in efforts to be like Hawks. Before directors got auteur status, his was the name you saw in trailers. Hawks was always The Man Who Gave You …, and what he gave were the happiest movie-going memories patrons had --- the brand name for a certain kind of dynamic entertainment set apart from disappointment we invariably got when others turned a hand toward Hawks’ kind of movie. Lo the times I’ve watched flaccid shows, albeit with great stars, and thought --- if only Hawks had directed this. The King and Four Queens, The Left Hand Of God, Thunder Bay, Task Force, Legend Of The Lost, so many more. Think how each would have been transformed if only he’d been there. Here’s food for speculation --- Hawks nearly directed Casino Royale in 1966. Howard Hawks and James Bond. That might have given UA and Connery a run for their money.

Women were always better looking in Howard Hawks movies. He had a seasoned eye for what’s timeless in beauty. Hawks women never went out of style. Even ones he used in the thirties hold up today (or the twenties --- think Louise Brooks). None of that dated Helen Twelvetrees stuff for Hawks. June Travis in Ceiling Zero would turn heads at any twenty-first century Happy Hour. So would June Lang in The Road To Glory. What of these actresses when they worked with other directors? Very little excitement came from either. Travis did mostly "B’s" and Lang was corseted in Fox period pieces. Hawks was known as a starmaker and discoveries fared well as long as they stuck with him. Lauren Bacall startles in To Have and Have Not. So what happened later, even continuing with Bogart? Heat generated for Hawks evaporated with Dark Passage and Key Largo. Angie Dickinson was another, floundering for nearly a decade in Warner’s talent pool after Hawks showcased her in Rio Bravo. It took another veteran with Hawksian panache, Don Siegel, to begin bailing her out with The Killers, while a fickle Hawks showed no interest in working with Dickinson again, despite entreaties from the actress. Even small part femmes score mightily passing before Hawks’ camera. That cute taxi driver in The Big Sleep looks transplanted from 2007, or 1992, or 1966, whenever. Not for a moment has current fashion dictated she look anything less than stellar. Styles and standards change. Hawks opted for simplicity and freshness of features that never wear out. Big female names doing Hawks movies are less effective, at least in appearance, than unknowns or beginners he could freely mold. For this director, adventures in courtship were the essence of man-woman relations. Marriage ends the fun. You watch Cagney sparring with June Travis in Ceiling Zero, then cut to staid Pat O’Brien playing board games at home with the wife. Henpecked Stu Erwin has to flame out in his aeroplane to get clear of nagging Isabel Jewell. Domesticity amounts to suffocation, if not a death sentence, for Hawks people, both the men and women. That seems to have been the director’s lot offscreen as well. Never a dutiful husband, even with trophy wives such as one that inspired the Bacall image, Hawks sought adventure in ongoing dalliance with women who no doubt reminded him of characters he put on the screen. None of them could live up to that ideal, of course. What woman could? Hawks dealt in fantasy figures as surely as Hugh Hefner would with Playboy and its out-of-reach centerfolds, another reason this director might have been ideally suited to direct James Bond.

Trench warfare and grimy uniforms are best left to directors like Lewis Milestone and King Vidor. We like Howard Hawks best in cleaner surroundings, where heroism addresses itself to rickety planes and gestures of individual enterprise are carried out for the team’s benefit. Hopeless battle waged in cramped quarters squeeze out what’s best in Hawks, one reason why The Road To Glory seems unlikely to win a place among his admirer’s favorites. 1930’s The Dawn Patrol gave warning of the stifling effect this overly serious material would have on a freewheeling artist like Hawks. His characters need room to breathe, move about, convey insolence where rules are concerned. Stakes are too high in The Road To Glory as well, consequences of rebel postures too grave. Attitudes toward WWI subjects were largely shaped by the stunning success of Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Glories of airborne dogfights celebrated in Wings and Hell’s Angels would sour with hopeless depictions of trench ordeals emphasizing the futility of not just this war, but all conflicts. Grim parables to follow like The Eagle and The Hawk, The Last Flight, and Hawks’ aforementioned The Dawn Patrol gave vent to a lost generation’s philosophy that WWI was itself nothing less than murderous fraud. The Road To Glory was built around footage from a French production Fox had purchased several years before. Les croix de bois (Wooden Crosses) was a critical and popular sensation on the continent, adjudged too harsh to cut commercial mustard here, so Fox took alternative route of pillaging its strongest story elements and battlefield action. Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland (shown together above on the set with camera operator Bert Shipman) were charged with matching everything up. Their result was much the old Hollywood bag of tricks (Les croix de bois remains barely seen in this country) with triangle love contests and at times woeful comedy relief, courtesy Zanuck jester, Gregory Ratoff. Scenes dynamic in the French film (Germans planting mines under trenches) remain so for Hawks' incarnation. He makes the most of (few) humorous interludes, and there is June Lang, torrid despite non-existent performing skills. Stars Fredric March and Warner Baxter are too rigid to thrive in a Hawksian universe, reason enough he’d not use them again. Plagiarism suits were drawn like flies to the completed feature. Seems everyone thought he’d written the same story. Indeed, variations on the theme had been told ad nauseam by 1936. Within a few years, such indictments of war would be driven off screens to make way for preparedness themes leading up to US entry into WWII. Ironically, it would be Hawks himself who’d deliver up the biggest smash among these --- Sergeant York.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howard Hawks nearly directed Casino Royale, eh? Hmmm. Well, something tells me he was well out of that overdressed salad; certainly, of the six men who replaced him (with and without credit), none has ever been known to boast of that title on his resume. Still, the thought of a Bond Girl as a Hawks quote another of Howard's movies, the mind boggles.

Say, John, maybe you or one of your erudite readers can clear up a mystery that has confounded me and my uncle for most of the past half-century. [Cue harp music and misty flashback dissolve.] I'm a callow preadolescent visiting my uncle and aunt in Menlo Park, CA. I enjoy going to movies and love hearing my uncle talk about them, but my serious buffery has yet to blossom.

One night during my visit a movie is coming on local TV. My uncle, finishing up some household chore, can't sit down to watch it just yet, so he asks me to keep an eye on the credits and remember the name of the director. The credits go by, dissolving one to the next, superimposed over a bustling urban cityscape of skyscrapers, el-trains and taxicabs (New York, no doubt; where else?). Finally, my patience is rewarded, as the screen reads: "Directed by Howard Hawks." It is the first time I have ever seen or heard the name, which I dutifully report to my uncle when he finally shows up and settles into his chair.

[Dissolve back to present.] Neither my uncle nor I have the foggiest idea of what that movie might have been. I have no other recollection besides the cityscape and Hawks's name, while my uncle (who can remember the exact date he saw Ebb Tide at the age of seven, where he sat, and how many people were in the theater) has no memory of that night at all. What was that movie? Any guesses?

1:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

June Lang, torrid despite non-existent performing skills

Indeed. She is perhaps among the woodenest yet incredibly HOT actresses every to "grace" the silver screen. Her S/M style outfits in ROAD TO GLORY really need to be seen to believed.

I do count this movie as one of my favorites -- certainly among my favorite films of Hawks (whom I love, generally). The best scenes in the film are those which depict the strange relationship between Coleman's character and his father, played by the immortal Barrymore, who has enlisted as a private in Coleman's regiment. Truly strange. Barrymore's infamous line, "Can I blow my bugle now?" has become a favorite one to quote amongst my clique of film-worshipping freaks.

If nothing else, this movie comprises what must be regarded as one of the most shockingly explicit climaxes in the history of movies. The phrase "you could see it coming" was never more apt.

I'm definitely looking forward to watching CEILING ZERO (and Ford's AIR MAIL as well). But thanks for giving this movie (and June Lang, again) the Greenbriar treatment.

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for Hawks directing Casino Royale, he left the project around 1962 actually. Seems he saw an advance print of Dr. No and felt that he "couldn't compete" though I would think the fact that he was an old friend of Broccoli (as was Cary Grant) was a more likely reason.

Interesting you also mentioned Gregory Ratoff as he was the one who first tried to make a Bond movie when he bought Casino Royale in 1955 with future Wild Wild West creator Michael Garrison. Apparently he wanted to turn James Bond into a woman(!!!!!) and cast Susan Hayward. He later tried to cast Peter Finch but he died before anything could happen.

Casino Royale was also Ben Hecht's last assignment apparently.

Check out these links:

3:36 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

The "Greenbriar" treatment, I think you've coined a useful phrase Chris. I second that. First World War films are a favourite of mine and it's been a treat as usual to read your take on some overlooked examples of the genre.

Thanks as usual!

7:01 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Still, the thought of a Bond Girl as a Hawks quote another of Howard's movies, the mind boggles."

Not such an improbable link. I'd put The Big Sleep up there with Kiss Me Deadly among the movies that influenced the Bond series' tone.

By the way, how ironic that you have to go to France to get The Road to Glory, but the French have to come to America to get the once-rare Raymond Bernard film (Wooden Crosses) that it uses stock footage from...

6:03 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

I saw "Rio Bravo" this weekend for the 150th time and still was bowled over by the luminous beauty of Angie Dikinson and the sparkling dialogue. Jules Furthman makes cowboys talk like New York socialites from the 1930's and still sound great.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have loved every Hawks film I've ever seen, and they all get better with each viewing. I remember seeing Bacall for the first time when I picked up The Big Sleep... I thought she was perfectly beautiful, and as you said modern enough to turn men's heads today. I went out to find her other films, only to be dissapointed time and time again (except by To Have and Have Not) that the glow that made her so special seemed to have dissapeared. Under more than capable directors like Sirk, and Huston she was a wilted flower compared to the majesty of her work with Hawks. This was perhaps the first step in my appreciation for Hawks' talent as a filmmaker.

It's always been the women in his films that have fascinated me above all else. The Hawksian woman is strong, funny, and smart while still being feminine. He treated his women with the same respect, and "rules" as he did his men, although he no doubt held them slightly higher than the male roles. He was fascinated by gender, and one of his favourite ideas to explore was the differences between them.

While it isn't my favourite of his films, I always loved how Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe interracted with each other in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In many ways his vision of the modern woman was far more in tune with modern "ideals" of feminism and gender equality than the way film and television portray them in this day and age. While the ethics of Gentlemen can be argued (although, I personally think it's a feminist piece of work, examining women's power and powerlessness in society and relationships), what I love most about it is the friendship between Monroe and Russell's characters. It seems to me whenever I see a popular film that in some way features women in search of men, marriage and relationships all other women are the enemy, even friends. Even when competing against each other, they remain close and represent a small minority of films that portray a strong and important female friendship.

I'm happy I still have many more Hawks films to see, because I have no doubt they will be a joy. Up next for me is probably Hatari! or Scarface... I can't believe I've avoided that one for so long!

2:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Yesterday I noticed that "Ceiling Zero" is one of the movies I taped off TNT eons ago. I'll have to take another look when I burn it to DVD next week.

7:59 AM  

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