Howard Hawks: The Comedies
Part two of our little tribute to Howard Hawks today, this one focusing on his comedies. In this area, I find Hawks downright anomalous. I don’t know of anything comparable among film directors. Hawks’ comedies are considered the gold standard — they are among the funniest, most solidly made comedies EVER. Yet, he made comparatively few of them relative to his body of work. What’s strange is this…makers of excellent comedies are normally specialists who JUST make comedies. There are some journeyman directors who work across many genres, but can you think of any who are THIS good at comedy on top of all their other sorts of movies? It’s awe-inspiring. One grasps for insight. I had a couple of thoughts.
One is that Hawks is the consummate formal craftsman. In this connection it is interesting to me that he majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell, and loved to tinker with cars and planes and machines of all sorts. Does this combination of skills remind you of any other director of comedies? Yes, Buster Keaton is correct. Actually, now that I think of it Frank Capra majored in chemical engineering — seems like a similar kind of mind. These guys are like, “Okay, I’m going to make a comedy, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And so I am going to build a perfect comedy machine. Just try and find a flaw in it.”
The other thought I had is that Hawks had this rare combination of wealth and education and rough and tumble experience. He’d seen a good bit of theatre. He devoured novels. But he wasn’t a snob, he liked to get his hands dirty and rub elbows with people. In this he reminds me a bit of Preston Sturges. By the way, all four of these guys: Hawks, Keaton, Capra and Sturges served in World War One.
At any rate, these are external details. Whatever the circumstances, Hawks was able to make funny movies: generally very fast paced, intricate, and crazy as all get out, hence the name generally given to them “screwball comedies.”
Most people regard Twentieth Century (1934) as Hawks’ first comedy, but the truth is that he done some comedy work in the silent era. He produced some one reel shorts starring Monty Banks around 1919 for Warner Brothers (and claimed to have directed 3 or 4 of them). And he had directed the feature length silent comedy Fig Leaves in 1926, featuring George O’Brien, Olive Borden, Phyllis Haver, and Heinie Conklin. This experience can’t have been irrelevant. Still it was nearly a decade before he tried comedy again.
Twentieth Century (1934)
Hawks’ adaptation of the Ben Hecht/ Charles MacArthur Broadway hit about a scheming Broadway producer (John Barrymore) trying to get his former protege (Carole Lombard) back into the fold to star once more in a play and restore his flagging fortunes. The title refers to the name of the cross country train on which he tries every trick in the book to win her back and get her to sign a contract. This film is among my favorite one or two Hawks’ comedies. It is one of the few times that the full scope of Barrymore’s genius is captured on film during the talking era. Barrymore is absolutely breath-taking, sidesplitting. It is a master class in comedy to watch his single minded pursuit of what he wants. Lombard is more the “straight man” in this plot. But that’s okay, if we want to see her be screwy, there’s My Man Godfrey.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
I’m not as over-the-top enamored of this this one as every one else seems to be — and maybe that’s why. It may be that it’s so clearly the prototype for Peter Bogdanovich’s What Up, Doc? and I grew up on the latter film and much prefer it. When I finally went back to the “source” many years later, I felt disappointed. Like any Hawks film, including his comedies, it is exceptionally well made. It just doesn’t top my list. I dunno…I don’t really buy Katherine Hepburn as crazy and loopy and spontaneous as she is here. I much prefer her in something like Alice Adams where she goes too far in being obnoxious and is thus vulnerable. Likewise, I’m not sure that glamorous, polished Cary Grant is the best casting as the bewildered paleontologist she tortures. Harold Lloyd would have been perfect! In fact, Grant seems to be doing Lloyd here, right down to the glasses. But of course in 1938, Lloyd was busy playing a similar character in Professor Beware.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Again, not one of my favorite Hawks comedies, or one of my favorite screwball comedies, and again probably because everyone else thinks it’s the cat’s pajamas. Once again, Hawks is making a film from a Hecht-MacArthur play script (originally called The Front Page). It had first been made into a film in 1931. In the original version the two reporters were two dudes, having an antagonistic bromance (which is ironically, Hawks’ speciality). Yet here one of the characters has been switched to a female (Rosalind Russell); the other is Cary Grant, and so there is also an element of sexual tension. Russell’s character is one of the first examples of a strong, independent professional woman in a Hollywood film, and so the film is often talked about in that light. But I’ve never cared much for Russell, who plows through her lines and her blocking like a steamroller. I never have the impression the behavior is organic, arising from human impulses. It feels much more like an actor hitting her blocking really fast.
Ball of Fire (1941)
THIS, however is probably my third favorite Hawks comedy, after Twentieth Century and Monkey Business. It’s written by Billy Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett. That’s already a magical and interesting combination of ingredients, but then throw on Gary Cooper in full Frank Capra mode (with a character which recalls Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe) and Barbara Stanwyck in a part that builds on the one she’d played in Sturges’s The Lady Eve and anticipates the one she would play in Lady of Burlesque.
The scenario is a sort of updated reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stanwyck is the titular Ball of Fire, a burlesque/ night club performer named Sugarpuss who needs a place to lay low to avoid a police interrogation. Fortunately, she is approached by lexicographer Gary Cooper who is investigating modern slang — and she is full of it, to a hilarious baroque degree. Cooper and his six bachelor cohorts work full time in a secluded house on a grant funded project to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. (The very idea of printed encyclopedias seems positively medieval nowadays.) Stanwyck decides to stay with the gents for a few days to avoid the authorities, but since one of them is Gary Cooper (and the other ones are sexless, aging character actors like Cuddles Sakall, Henry Travers and Oskar Omalka), sparks soon begin to fly.
Intellectual nerd Cooper has no idea he’s any different from the Ewoks around him. But Stanwyck soon sets his engines revving. This won’t sit any too well with her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) or his henchman Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea). Now THAT is a good cast and they really toe the mark. (Add to it, the inevitable Charles Lane as a numbers crunching accountant for the foundation who is eager to pull their funding) and this is a dream screwball cast.
Much like certain other Hawks films like The Thing from Another World and Rio Bravo, this one is oddly stagebound, claustrophobic and talkie, but not enough to be a deal-breaker — not with this script and this cast.
I was a Male War Bride (1949)
I found this one exceedingly strange…it’s sort of a hybrid mix of a Hawksian war film and a screwball comedy. The pace is much slower. It feels stodgier than the films of the 30s. The premise is that Cary Grant is a foreign national who has married a female American soldier (Ann Sheridan) and wants to come to the states with her. Through some screwy regulation, BRIDES of American servicemen can return to America with their husbands. But no one ever thought of making a provision for the husbands of lady soldiers. So the only way for him to get out is to be a “bride”. Have you ever seen The Big Lift (the 1948 film about the Berlin airlift with Montgomery Clift)? That’s what the setting of this movie is like. It’s not a laugh riot but it is interesting.
Monkey Business (1952)
This is my favorite Hawks comedy now, with the possible exception of Twentieth Century. Cary Grant plays a scientist who invents an elixir of youth, and accidentally drinks some through the intercession of a mischievous lab chimp. At various times so does his wife (Ginger Rogers), so that at alternating intervals the mature couple start acting like extremely wild 20 year olds — hypersexual, irresponsible hellions. The one scene pictured above, where the normally near-sighted Grant takes Marilyn Monroe on a terrifying ride in a sports car is priceless. Another aspect I like about this picture it deals with the age of its two stars (Grant and Rogers) realistically; it’s even a little self-referential. The older Grant has a vulnerability that helps comedy (see Charade). I feel like his character in this film also influenced Ryan O’Neal’s in What’s Up Doc? as well.
Hawks also made a couple of musical comedies, but I think as a genre they’re sufficiently different to merit separate treatment…somewhere, sometime. And it’s been a long day and I’ve done a ton of blogging….
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc