A master director who got his start in silent pictures, Howard Hawks directed numerous classics and became recognized as one of the greats from the studio era. His movies featured rapid-fire dialogue and superb performances from his leading actors, while his exceptional talents transcended the confines of genre, as Hawks directed screwball comedies, gangster films, Westerns, film noir and even musicals. Here are nine classic movies directed by Howard Hawks.
After becoming a commercial success during the silent era, Hawks was compelled to prove himself anew with the advent of talkies. He collaborated for the first time with legendary screenwriter, Ben Hecht, on 1932’s Scarface, which helped popularize the gangster film. Produced by mogul Howard Hughes, the film starred Paul Muni as an Al Capone-like mobster who wages war to take over Chicago’s rackets. Hawks and Hughes battled the studios throughout production over the film’s portrayal of violence and its racy storyline, leading Hughes to release two versions: one censored and the other as originally intended. Definitely one of Hawks most influential films, as evidenced by Brian De Palma’s more blood-soaked remake 50 years later.
Having found success with the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, Hawks returned to the genre with the classic Bringing Up Baby, which starred Katherine Hepburn as a free-spirited heiress who turns the life of a stuffy museum paleontologist (Cary Grant) upside down. Grant loses a valuable dinosaur bone to Hepburn’s dog, which leads to a series of increasingly hilarious mishaps while the mismatched couple falls in love. This definitive screwball comedy features exquisite comic performances from the two leads and marked the first of five pictures Hawks made with Grant.
Cary Grant was at his cheerfully nonchalant best in Hawks rapid-fire adaptation of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur Broadway hit, The Font Page, playing a conniving newspaper publisher who desperately tries to lure back his star reporter (Rosalind Russell), who also happens to be his estranged ex-wife. In order to entice her to return, he pretends to be happy about her pending marriage to a dull insurance man (Ralph Bellamy) while dangling an irresistible story in front of her nose. His Girl Friday was a fast-paced film with snappy dialogue, twisting plot turns and a palpable amount of sexual tension between Grant and Russell.
Hawks earned his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director for his World War I biopic, Sergeant York, which starred Gary Cooper as a hell-raising farmer from Tennessee who turns to God after being struck by lightening and vows never to get angry at anyone again. So when war rears its ugly head in 1917, he declares himself a conscientious objector despite being drafted, only to be forced to fight on the frontlines, where he becomes a national hero and Medal of Honor winner for his heroics on the battlefield. Written by John Huston, Sergeant York featured a superb performance by Cooper and became the biggest box office hit of the year.
With this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, Hawks collaborated for the first of two times with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In fact, Hawks’ wife, Slim Keith, first saw Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and called the stunning model to his attention. Hawks immediately sought the 19 year old out and signed her to play the cunning pickpocket, Marie, who attracts the amorous attention of Bogart’s owner-operator of a charter boat, who is compelled to help smuggle a French underground leader out of Martinique. Not only was Hawks’ wartime romance Bacall’s auspicious film debut, but it also marked the first onscreen pairing of Classic Hollywood’s most famous couple.
Capitalizing on the bursting chemistry between Bogie and Bacall, Hawks teamed the two up again for his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s labyrinth noir The Big Sleep. Bogart played cynical private eye Philip Marlowe to Bacall’s seemingly straight-laced Vivian, eldest daughter of Marlowe’s wealthy employer, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Marlowe is hired by Sternwood to unearth a blackmailer, which pulls him into a web of murder and romance with Vivian. His highly entertaining and beautifully acted film noir became the quintessential Bogie-Bacall film, though its nearly incomprehensible plot confused both audiences and filmmakers alike. Still, The Big Sleep remains must-see viewing, if only for the steaming chemistry between its two stars.
Hawks collaborated for the first time with icon John Wayne and helped turn newcomer Montgomery Clift into a star with this sprawling Western centered around a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. Conflict arises when a growing feud develops between Wayne’s brooding frontiersman battles his adopted son (Clift) over how to manage the drive, which comes undone when Wayne relentlessly pushes both men and beast to the breaking point. Red River was a big hit for Hawks and remained one of the best Westerns he ever made, confirming that he was a master filmmaker in just about any genre he chose.
Hawks steered second-billed Marilyn Monroe to superstardom in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a big, brash, colorful musical that showcased the starlet in one of her most iconic screen moments. Jane Russell starred as a sharp-witted showgirl who embarks on a boat trip to Paris, where her gold-digging best friend (Monroe) plans to marry a millionaire (Tommy Noonan), while taking advantage of a duplicitous diamond merchant (Charles Coburn). The sexually tinged romantic comedy – superficial as it may be at times – was another critical and commercial hit for Hawks, but was best remembered for Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a pink taffeta dress while being fawned over by a cadre of men in tuxedos.
In response to 1952’s High Noon, which was an allegorical indictment of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Hawks directed John Wayne as John Chance, a stubborn sheriff forced to contend with a corrupt rancher (John Russell) determined to free his no-good brother (Claude Akins) from the town jail. Aided only by an alcoholic ex-deputy (Dean Martin), a wet-behind-the-ears gunslinger and a toothless old deputy (Walter Brennan), Chance must hold out for six days while waiting for the U.S. Marshals to arrive. Though similar in plot to High Noon, Rio Bravo was the complete antithesis in tone, and became the writer-actor duo’s best work together.