Turn to your classic movie channel on any given night and chances are you'll see a Howard Hawks movie. His work runs the gamut from comedy to melodrama to westerns to film noir, and he directed the biggest names in Hollywood at one time or another. While he might not have the reputation of a John Ford, an Alfred Hitchcock, or a C. B. DeMille, his style is unmistakable.
Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief film critic and Emmy award-winning writer for a documentary on Preston Sturges, has done a commendable job of compiling this massive biography on one of the maestros of cinema. Although he obviously admires the director, he makes no efforts to hide Hawks's many faults: his gambling, his infidelities, his sometimes slothful work habits. One comes away with the feeling that Hawks was one of the biggest prevaricators in America.
Hawks began his film career almost as a whim. Born to privilege, he was mediocre student, a somewhat spoiled young man, used to getting what he wanted. Like many Hollywood figures, Hawks had a pre-and post-World War Two phase. He was remarkably productive before the war, but afterwards, there was a noticeable drop-off in the quality of his pictures. McCarthy depicts the director as a man who wanted to call the shots, whether it was for a movie or with the numerous women with whom he became involved.
Hawks had a particular style in his films: the story often revolved around the bonding between men. In his early films, the women would usually have a role that threatened that bond. In the case of a larger group of men, such as in The Dawn Patrol and The Road to Glory, there were self-sacrificing characters who often took on suicidal situations for the sake of the greater good. In later pictures, Hawks's actresses, many of whom he had dalliances with (he was married several times and was never quite able to be faithful to any of his wives), took on stronger roles (e.g., Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire).
His pictures covered just about every genre, and he found success in most of them: Silent Film (The Road to Glory, A Girl in Every Port, The Air Circus), Western (Red River, Rio Lobo, El Dorado), Adventure (The Dawn Patrol), Gangster (Scarface), Romantic Comedy (Bringing Up Baby, The Front Page, I Was a Male War Bride), Noir (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), biopic ( Sergeant York), Musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, A Song is Born), even Science Fiction (The Thing From Another World). Along the way were numerous false starts and uncredited performances (Hawks worked for a time as director on Howard Hughes's The Outlaw).
He worked with some of the greatest stars in filmdom. Among his favorites were Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart. He collaborated with some of the greatest writers of our time, including Faulkner and Hemingway. And he was forever battling the front office, running behind schedule and over budget with hardly a care.
As can be expected, views on the director vary from "A genius and a pleasure to work with," to "A S.O.B. and difficult." Conversely, Hawks had his pets and his prima donnas. Along with getting a wonderful sense of the man, McCarthy shows the reader the ins and outs of the Hollywood system: the powerful studio bosses, who watched the bottom line as much, if not more, than the finished product and the control they had over the stars under contract.
If actors are considered America's royalty, Hawks was definitely a high-ranking member of the Court. McCarthy's biography, warts and all, is most worthy of such an icon.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on November 1, 2000