Learning How To Whistle: Of Stars and Scribes

Movies viewed for this entry: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “To Have and Have Not” (Ethan), “Red River,” “His Girl Friday” (Elaine)

Ethan: All right, to start off, I just want to say that despite our slow going here at the beginning of this feature, I’m way more excited about this than I was at this same point last year when I tried to do the same thing with Woody Allen. Allen’s style is consistent, his genre more or less the same, and his themes can get redundant – so by the time I was done watching five movies I was already exhausted. Howard Hawks, on the other hand, is known for being something of a studio cypher. He worked in a wide array of genres, and we actually have a challenge here in trying to figure out what, if any, connection there is to be made between his films. So Elaine, now that we’ve both seen a couple of his movies, any first impressions? If you weren’t already aware of the fact, would you even be able to tell that “His Girl Friday” and “Red River” were directed by the same man?

Elaine: Ethan, the answer to your question is definitely no, which, I think, is a large reason why Howard Hawks is so forgotten today while his films live on. It’s hard to draw a connection between the slapstick, quick-talking repartee of “His Girl Friday” and a long cattle drive across the American Midwest narrated by John Wayne’s characteristic drawl. Two things that I will say hold true for both films, however, are an ability to allow his well-cast stars shine in their roles, as well as a reliance on scripts that are not as sound as they first appear.

Ethan: I’m glad you mention the star actors. While his lack of obvious directorial preferences might make him a little less popular to modern-day film snobs like ourselves, it’s obvious to me why he was one of the most in-demand filmmakers of his day. The studio system was built around the popularity of on-screen personalities, and Hawks just gets out of the way and lets those stars do their thing. Sure, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” looks like every other 1950’s musical, but when you can watch Marilyn Monroe, who cares? When I think about “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” it comes down to a list of my favorite Monroe moments, but that really has nothing to do with Hawks. Or does it? Are there tell-tale signs of an actor’s director?

Elaine: As the less film snobby one of the two of us (or perhaps just the one less attached to the auteur theory–same thing), I’m inclined to say no. The Cary Grant of “His Girl Friday,” a sharp-witted, smooth-as-velvet newspaper editor that will do literally anything to get the story (and win the girl), is one of the funniest characters Grant ever played, but he’s not so different from the Grant of other classics, such as his similarly suave socialite C.K. Dexter Haven of “The Philadelphia Story” (made in 1940, the same year as “His Girl Friday”.) Even in one of his more serious displays, the eternally romantic “An Affair to Remember” (1957), Grant wins us with the same charm that made one of the biggest stars of the silver screen, regardless of the director. But since Grant did make five films under Hawks’ direction (four of which we’re watching this summer), perhaps Hawks had a large role in creating and shaping that on-screen persona? I believe the same might be said about John Wayne, but of course, you’re the Western expert here.

Ethan: Though they did collaborate often, I think it would really be a stretch to give credit to Hawks for Grant’s star persona. He’d already gotten his break in some Mae West comedies in the early ’30s and Leo McCarey’s “The Awful Truth” (1937) was probably where the Cary Grant that we all know and love emerged. In general, I think studio executives had far more to do with the crafting of stars than directors (although it’s funny that you mention John Wayne, since the collaboration between him and John Ford would be a strong exception to that statement). I think you’re right that Hawks was more a savvy caster than an active star-maker. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are a perfect screen couple in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” – Russell as the quintessential fast-talking, independent Hawksian brunette, and Monroe as Monroe. Humphrey Bogart simply replicates his “Casablanca” performance in “To Have and Have Not” (which is basically a replica of “Casablanca” on the whole). And John Wayne always had that imperious, tyrannical streak that fits his character in “Red River” a lot better than, say, Gary Cooper would. He’s not bringing out anything new in these actors, just fitting them with the right roles.

Elaine: Let’s not forget Montgomery Clift in this mix of great casting. Though he’d worked on Broadway for nearly a decade, “Red River” was his first appearance on the silver screen (even though the film was not released until after Fred Zinnemann’s “The Search,” which earned Monty a Best Actor Oscar nod.) And what a memorable appearance it was. Before I saw him in it, I never believed that Monty could convincingly play a cowboy, so Hawks definitely deserves credit for that. In general, I believe that Hawks may have had a larger influence on Clift’s performance than with the other, more established stars and personas, like Grant and Wayne. Clift worked with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood in his early career (in addition to Hawks, Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler and George Stevens), but I think his performance in “Red River” formed the foundation for his later career-defining, Oscar-nominated role as the doomed social climber George Eastman in Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” Clift applies that same quiet sensitivity, mysterious melancholy, and in particular, nervous energy that he cultivated on the plains of Texas in “Red River” to the yacht club and mansion of his later role.

So we’ve established that Hawks knew what actors fit his roles and got out of their way. He didn’t seem to have the same good judgement when it came to screenwriters, though. What do you think?

Ethan: Before we move on, it would be remiss of me not to mention that one star Hawks should be given all the credit for, even more so than Clift, is Lauren Bacall. Hawks’ wife showed the director a picture of Bacall on a magazine cover, he sought her out for “To Have and Have Not,” and the rest is history.

But you’re right again, feeble scripts have certainly cast a pall over several of these first-round entries, at least. “To Have and Have Not” manages to slip in some clever, censor-dodging wordplay (including the rightly renowned “You know how to whistle?” exchange), but otherwise is such a shameless cannibalization of plots points and characters from “Casablanca” that it’s depressing when you remember that William Faulkner was a co-writer. He and Jules Furthman would team up again for “The Big Sleep,” which we’ll talk about more in a later discussion, which for my money is far more successful than this shameless attempt to simultaneously cash in on Ernest Hemingway and Michael Curtiz’s reputations. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is less obviously derivative, although Charles Lederer had both a book and a Broadway musical to draw on, so I’m honestly not sure how fresh we should consider it. It’s a breezy narrative with a fair amount of zippy one-liners and at least one laugh-out-loud scene (when Marilyn Monroe, stuck climbing out of a cruise ship porthole, seeks the assistance of a remarkable earnest toddler), but nothing you’d really boast about. Overall, I’d say Hawks’ screenwriters didn’t have a particularly firm grasp of the concept of subtext – was that true in your experience as well?

Elaine: Surprisingly, I did. “His Girl Friday” is one of my favorite movies (being about journalists and all), so I was shocked to find serious flaws in its writing.  Widely known as the best movie ever made about the newspaper business, it’s also one of the noisiest ones you’ll ever watch. Michael Bay might have the market cornered on explosions, but Howard Hawks proves that you don’t need bombs to fill a cinema with noise. Everyone is constantly talking in “His Girl Friday”; the movie moves so quickly with its rapid-fire dialogue that you’re too busy trying to decipher all the words and keep the story straight to notice any plot holes or oddities on first viewing. Maybe that’s what screenwriters Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur wanted, because as dazzling and funny as stars Russell and Grant can be, this classic story of newspapermen starts to get shaky on closer scrutiny. One striking example of this is some very odd mood swings the film experiences about halfway through. At one point, a young woman throws herself out of the window to her death after being hounded by the journalists. This tragic incident is supposed to show us the dark side of the newspaper business, the consequences of such cutthroat reporting, but we are allowed only a few seconds to consider this and process the suicide before the next comedic set-up bursts into the room, and we forget all about the dead girl and begin laughing again. The same thing happens when Hildy (Russell) and we, the audience, believe that her mother-in-law has been killed on her account. Hildy breaks down into tears, but these tears are brushed away and dried mere moments later as Cary Grant begins another bid for the Guinness World Record for talking speed. The writers seem to want you to know that the newspaper business is not just slapstick and smiles, but are so caught up in their own wit and cleverness that their more sensitive attempts come off as callous and poorly judged.

Ethan: It’s worth thinking for a moment about the production-line system that Hawks and his screenwriters were working under. Were we living in the ’40s, people would think it was slightly silly that we were judging a film based on Hawks’ contribution – directors were practically treated like overburdened producers, their primary goal to usher a film through shooting. Screenwriters were the primary “authors,” the people responsible for the creative quality of the film. So on the one hand it’s difficult to say what Hawks really felt about the mood swings in “His Girl Friday,” or the excruciating globe-zooming introduction to “To Have and Have Not” (now they’re even ripping off the iffy bits of “Casablanca”), or the all-too explicit opening titles of “Red River.” Yet it does seem like there’s enough of a trend throughout Hawks’ work for over-explanation, regardless of the writer, to think that the director possibly didn’t hold his audience’s intelligence, or patience, in much high esteem.

Elaine: What you just said is definitely true of “Red River.” The story opens like one of those old Disney movies. A large book that opens to us with the swelling of some music (in this one’s case, a really corny song that Hawks then reused with a different title in his later Western, “Rio Bravo”). The book tells us that it contains the memories of the early settlers of the Texan frontier, and as the movie continues, we get these superfluous, difficult to read “diary entries” that summarize what we just watched, or destroy the suspense of what we are about to see. Not only are they distracting and unnecessary, but I think they really show Hawks’ undervaluation of an audience’s understanding that you were talking about, Ethan. This doesn’t even include the transition in time at the beginning of the movie. Care to tell us more about that?

Ethan: Ugh. Don’t remind me. “Red River” transitions from its opening prologue to the main story through a time lapse montage that is so absurdly terrible that I can’t believe it isn’t self-parody. I can’t even begin to describe this moment on my own, so I hunted it down for all to see. For the relevant passage, skip to 8:45 and watch the next (excruciating, what-the-hell-is-happening-right-now) minute.

That seems as good a note as any to sign off for this first installment of Learning How to Whistle. We’ll be back soon with more ramblings and opinions on the life and work of Howard Hawks!

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