Howard Hawks, born on May 30, 1896, left an indelible mark on classic Hollywood as a director, producer, and screenwriter. Often hailed as “the greatest American director you might not know” by critic Leonard Maltin, Hawks earned praise from Roger Ebert as one of the premier directors in crafting pure cinematic experiences across diverse genres. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for “Sergeant York” in 1941, he later received an Honorary Academy Award in 1974, solidifying his legacy in the annals of American filmmaking.
Hawks, the cinematic maestro, fearlessly navigated a sea of genres, from Scarface’s gritty underworld to the screwball charm of Bringing Up Baby. His directorial magic flowed through the landscapes of Only Angels Have Wings and the rapid-fire wit of His Girl Friday. Icons like To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River showcased his genius, while Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rio Bravo added musical and western notes to his symphony of storytelling. Hawks, a trailblazer, etched the image of the “Hawksian woman” – strong, eloquent, and unforgettable – into the tapestry of Hollywood’s golden era.
Table of Contents
|May 30, 1896
|Goshen, Indiana, U.S.
|December 26, 1977 (aged 81)
|Place of Death
|Palm Springs, California, U.S.
|Film director, producer, screenwriter
|Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo
|Athole Shearer (m. 1928; div. 1940), Slim Keith (m. 1941; div. 1949), Dee Hartford (m. 1953; div. 1959)
|3, including Kitty Hawks
|Kenneth Hawks (brother), William Hawks (brother), Mary Astor (sister-in-law), Bessie Love (sister-in-law)
Early life and background
Howard Hawks, born in 1896 in Goshen, Indiana, came from a well-off family involved in the paper business. Growing up with four siblings, Hawks enjoyed a comfortable childhood until tragedy struck when his youngest sister, Helen, passed away in 1911.
The family moved to Pasadena for better health, where Hawks found joy in coaster racing. Despite an average academic record, he graduated from Pasadena High School and later attended Phillips Exeter Academy, possibly due to his family’s wealth.
After a brief stint in Hollywood during his summer break in 1916, Hawks joined the Army during World War I, teaching aviators to fly. Returning to Hollywood post-war, he started his film career with Cecil B. DeMille.
Entering films (1916–1925)
In 1916, Howard Hawks dove into Hollywood’s world, rubbing shoulders with Victor Fleming, a cinematographer and aviator. Hawks, a racing enthusiast, landed his first film gig after a dirt track incident with Fleming. This led to Hawks working on Douglas Fairbanks’ film, kickstarting his cinematic journey.
By 1917, Hawks was on Cecil B. DeMille’s sets, navigating the film industry’s intricacies. His directorial debut at 21, a dream sequence with Mary Pickford, marked the beginning of his directorial career. Hawks’s wartime service, though clouded by lost records, involved training aviators.
Post-WWI, Hawks and his brother, Kenneth, joined Hollywood’s hustle. Hawks, aided by family wealth, became a producer, working with Monty Banks. Forming Associated Producers, a venture with Hollywood insiders, Hawks transitioned from producing to directing by 1923.
In the roaring ’20s, Hawks’s Hollywood life was a lively mix of rented houses and friendships with risk-taking men. Thalberg’s influence and aviation connections shaped Hawks’s path. Joining Famous Players–Lasky, Hawks excelled as a Story Editor, even getting involved in screenplays.
In 1925, Hawks, true to his determined nature, left MGM when Thalberg hesitated on a directorial promise. This marked a pivotal moment in Hawks’s journey, setting the stage for his remarkable directorial career.
Silent films (1925–1929)
In the dynamic world of 1920s Hollywood, Howard Hawks emerged as a trailblazing director, weaving his creative vision through a series of films at the Fox Film Corporation. Sol Wurtzel’s invitation marked a turning point, unleashing Hawks’s directorial prowess over the next three years with eight films that reflected his evolving style.
Among these, “Fig Leaves” stands out as Hawks’s comedic debut, earning him acclaim for its art direction and costume designs. Despite Hawks’s tendency to downplay his early work, “Fig Leaves” was a hit and remained an exception in his own critical evaluation.
In the experimental realm, “Paid to Love” showcased Hawks’s attempt to emulate F. W. Murnau’s style, incorporating atypical tracking shots and expressionistic lighting. While not entirely aligned with his preferences, Hawks demonstrated versatility and collaboration with Seton I. Miller, a partnership that would endure through seven more films.
The discovery of “Cradle Snatchers” in 20th Century Fox’s vaults by Peter Bogdanovich unveiled a presumed-lost gem, highlighting Hawks’s adaptability in adapting a successful stage play to the silver screen.
The rift between Hawks and Sol Wurtzel deepened during “Fazil,” leading to Hawks’s departure from Fox in 1928. “A Girl in Every Port” marked a significant milestone, introducing Hawksian themes and characters, particularly exploring a unique “love story between two men,” anticipating the director’s future trademark narratives.
With “The Air Circus,” Hawks delved into his passion for aviation, capturing the fervor of the era. Despite disagreements on reshoots, the film achieved moderate success and became one of the lost gems in Hawks’s filmography.
“Trent’s Last Case” brought Hawks into the realm of sound films, albeit facing challenges with Raymond Griffith’s damaged voice. Hindered by studio decisions, the film was only briefly screened in England, adding a layer of mystery to Hawks’s early career.
Exiting Fox in 1929, Hawks embraced independence, avoiding long-term studio contracts for the remainder of his illustrious career. The legacy of these early films echoes through the decades, laying the foundation for Hawks’s future masterpieces.
Howard Hawks, the mastermind behind iconic films, led a fascinating life filled with love, adventure, and famous friends. He married three times: first to actress Athole Shearer, then to Slim Keith, a fashion icon, and finally to actress Dee Hartford. Hawks had children from each marriage, including Barbara and David with Shearer, and Kitty with Keith. His son Gregg, named after cinematographer Gregg Toland, hailed from his last marriage.
Apart from filmmaking, Hawks had a need for speed, crafting the winning car for the 1936 Indianapolis 500 and sharing thrilling motorcycle rides with Hollywood stars. He also enjoyed diverse hobbies like golf, sailing, and carpentry, all while maintaining his membership in the Checkers Motorcycle Club.
Hawks wasn’t just a director; he was also a talent spotter, claiming credit for discovering and nurturing writers like William Faulkner. His friendships extended to literary legends like Ernest Hemingway, with whom he shared a love for flying and fishing.
Despite his colorful personal life, Hawks didn’t shy away from politics, supporting Thomas Dewey in the 1944 U.S. presidential election.
In summary, Howard Hawks lived a life as adventurous and captivating as the stories he brought to the big screen, leaving behind a legacy that transcended Hollywood’s boundaries.
Awards and recognition
In 1974, Howard Hawks received a special Honorary Academy Award, recognizing him as a “giant of the American cinema” with a body of work that stands out for its consistency, vividness, and variety. This prestigious acknowledgment celebrated Hawks’ significant contributions to world cinema.
Peter Bogdanovich, recognizing Hawks’ cinematic brilliance, suggested a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. Paramount, promoting Hatari!, contributed to the exhibition, which later traveled to Paris and London. Bogdanovich even prepared a monograph for the occasion, leading to a special edition of Cahiers du Cinéma and Hawks being featured on the cover of Movie magazine.
In 1996, Entertainment Weekly ranked Howard Hawks as the No. 4 greatest director. Total Film magazine echoed this sentiment in 2007, placing Hawks at No. 4 in their “100 Greatest Film Directors Ever” list. Hawks’ film Bringing Up Baby secured a spot on the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list at number 97. In the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs, three of his films were recognized: Bringing Up Baby (No. 14), His Girl Friday (No. 19), and Ball of Fire (No. 92).
The Sight & Sound polls in 2012 further highlighted Hawks’ impact, with six of his films making it to the critics’ top 250 films. Notably, six of his films boast a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The United States Library of Congress acknowledged the cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance of eleven of his films, including classics like The Big Sleep and Scarface, by inducting them into the National Film Registry.
From the Directors Guild of America, Hawks earned three nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, reflecting his prowess with Red River (1949), The Big Sky (1953), and Rio Bravo (1960). The Online Film and Television Association honored him with induction into their Hall of Fame in 2005.
Howard Hawks, a luminary of the film industry, was immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a star at 1708 Vine Street. While nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 1942 for Sergeant York, Hawks clinched his only Oscar in 1974 as an Honorary Award, celebrated for being a “master filmmaker” with a distinguished place in world cinema.
Influence and legacy
In the 1950s, Eugene Archer had plans to write a book on influential American film directors like John Ford. However, after discovering the preferences of French film enthusiasts through Cahiers du Cinéma, Archer shifted his focus to directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. Surprisingly, books on Hawks only emerged in the 1960s, and a comprehensive biography was only published in 1997, two decades after his passing.
Film critic Andrew Sarris deemed Hawks “the least known and least appreciated Hollywood director of any stature.” This lack of widespread recognition could be attributed to Hawks not aligning strongly with a specific genre, unlike Ford’s Westerns or Hitchcock’s thrillers. Hawks, a versatile director, worked across various genres, including gangster, film noir, comedy, Western, and more. His preference for independence in film production further set him apart from his peers.
While commercially successful, Hawks’s films received limited critical acclaim, with only one Academy Award nomination for Best Director for “Sergeant York” and an Honorary Academy Award presented shortly before his death.
Critics often tried to categorize Hawks as an action-film director with a “masculine bias.” However, Hawks frequently delegated action scenes to second-unit directors, and he preferred indoor settings. His directorial style, marked by an improvisational and collaborative approach, made his films appear less visually stylized.
Despite the challenges in interpreting Hawks’s style, his influence on filmmakers like Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino is undeniable. Renowned directors such as Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and François Truffaut have expressed admiration for Hawks’s work. Andrew Sarris included Hawks in the “pantheon” of the 14 greatest film directors in the United States.
Hawks earned the nickname “The Gray Fox” due to his prematurely gray hair, and he has been considered an auteur by some critics, recognized for his distinct style and thematic consistency. French critics from Cahiers du cinéma venerated his work, while independent British writers like Robin Wood admired films like “Rio Bravo.” Hawks’s impact extends to popular and respected directors, making him a pivotal figure in the history of cinema. Entertainment Weekly placed him fourth on their list of greatest directors, highlighting his thematic hallmarks and the versatile brilliance evident in his films across different genres. Jean-Luc Godard went so far as to call Hawks “the greatest of all American artists.”