Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York (1941) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 12/30/2016

Howard Hawks was one of the original Hollywood auteurs as so dubbed by Cahiers du cinéma, and Sergeant York has been a long-standing Hawks picture that I had never seen.

As big a success as the film was in its day, one of the biggest box office hits of 1941 and nabbing star Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar, it’s an odd movie to take in at the present.  It’s quite the propaganda film, made before Pearl Harbor, which actually occurred during its theatrical run.  It tries to strike the begrudging nature of a US public not ready to head to Europe by making a hero out of a religious Tennessean  who sought to conscientiously object before becoming a war hero. He’s turned to join when considering saving more lives by killing Germans than otherwise.

The ultimate message of heading to war, not out of desire or duty, per se, but through a somewhat stripped down sense of right and wrong was doubtlessly hammered out by the film’s many screenwriters.

What’s even more strange, perhaps, is the very heavy-handed bible-thumping of the film. The real Alvin York (this is based on the true life of a major WWI hero) was very religious and this aspect of the story is given due attention. The first half of the film is about York going from drunken lout to hardworking Christian that includes a lightning bolt straight from heaven to lead him to “That Old Time Religion”. That said, Cooper at times sounds like a Class A hayseed (imagine in hillbilly-speak) “Well, that thar killin’, the Good Book is agin’ it”, not exactly the greatest of free-thinkers.

When you’re cognizant of it, propaganda has an somewhat unpleasant flavor, but that’s not saying that it can’t elevate to higher art. There are other elements of charm here, some of the depictions of the isolated Tennesseans and characters (like the always welcome Walter Brennan). A young Joan Leslie is quite good too. An equally young June Lockhart plays York’s sister (didn’t realize that til after).

I watched this with my kids, who both enjoyed it, though my son was weirded-out until he recognized the propaganda. Then he says, “Aaaahh!”

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/20/2016

One of Howard Hawks’s most well-regarded films, Only Angels Have Wings is quite a picture.  It stars Cary Grant, one of Hawks’s favorite leading men, stepping out from screwball comedies and into an action-adventure drama about daring pilots in a dangerous Central or South American outpost, delivering mail over mountains and taking their lives in their hands on every flight.

It’s not at all bereft of comedy.  There are some wonderful comic moments throughout, but this is a gritty adventure featuring some really great stunt flying footage (as well as some less compelling miniatures for special effects.)

It also features the wonderful Jean Arthur (for whom I’ve developed quite an appreciation) as Grant’s love interest, a musician who dropped into the camp and never leaves.  Also terrific is Thomas Mitchell, who plays Grant’s best friend and fellow pilot.  And knock-out Rita Hayworth in one of her first significant roles as Grant’s ex.

It’s been written about a ton by better writers than me, but this is pure Hawks, the director around whom the auteur theory was largely conceived.  His rough and ready he-men, measured by their bonhomie and strengths of both character and body.  Bright, tough and witty women.  A concentrated and evocative world view.

It’s a great movie.

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday (1940) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/03/2015

I love His Girl Friday.  Back in film school, I wound up seeing it multiple times as part of a class that I was TA’ing.  But it had been a long while.

The kids hadn’t seen it.  They really liked it a lot.

Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell are superb in Howard Hawks’ rattatat machine gun dialogue, snappier and funnier and faster than you can shake a stick at.  Ralph Bellamy is also hilarious as the squarest square in all of Albany, NY.

Screwball comedy at its sharpest.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/18/2013

I have fond memories of this movie from childhood, watching it with my mom.  I’m wont to say that it was one of her favorite films, but I’m don’t remember that specifically and she’s no longer around to ask.  But it’s easy enough for me to think that. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe.  Maybe it’s not Howard Hawks’ personal best but it’s still good fun.

Grant plays an absent-minded scientist, married to the lovely Rogers.  He’s working for a lab trying to evoke a sort of “youth formula”, a fountain of youth serum, which his elderly, eager boss, the hilarious Charles Coburn is keen to try out.

Testing on chimps has led nowhere.  That is, until a chimp gets into the act, mixes a serum and dumps it in the water cooler.  Then Grant takes a shot of his test serum (washing it down with the water cooler water) and suddenly he’s a vivified as a teen.  He runs off with Coburn’s sexy secretary, Monroe and plays hooky, buying a sports car, roller skating, and high-diving.  Getting into a lot of trouble.

When he comes down from his high, Rogers gets in on the act, testing the waters herself (still thinking it’s Grant’s formula and not the water doing the work).  She becomes playful and histrionic and more screwball silliness ensues.

And then, toward the end, drinking up a pot of coffee made with the water, Rogers and Grant revert to childhood, getting more and more silly and deeper into their shenanigans.

Clara wound up getting pretty into it.  Felix thought it was a bit “weird”.  I think it certainly has its moments.

Rogers is vibrant and funny and has a very amusing scene where she balances a glass on her forehead as she lies down on the floor and rises again without tipping it over.  Grant’s comedy is typically charming.  Besides Some Like It Hot (1959), I think that this was the only other film from which I was really familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a kid.  It’s a small role and the classic dumb blonde.  But she’s sweet and charming too.

Still, the best element of watching the film was recollecting seeing it with my mom.  It was very much of her era (she would have been nine when it came out).  And it was nice to watch it with my kids, rounding out the experience.

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938) movie poster

(1938) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/29/11

My latest “with the kids” experiment was introducing them to the classic Hollywood screwball comedy.  And to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Howard Hawks.  I don’t know if this was the ideal film from this period to start with, but I’d long been wanting to re-visit it myself and thought we’d go for it.

While neither of them laughed out loud much or at all, they both said that they liked the film.  Though they kept thinking that someone was going to get eaten by “Baby”.  Maybe that is just from seeing more black-and-white horror films than comedies.  Who knows?

Bringing Up Baby has been the template for wacky romance comedies since it came out in 1938.  Grant plays a scientist who is building the first complete “Brontosaurus” (which even in my youth was still a dinosaur, though now is not).  He is about to marry a chilly gal who wants him to land some big funds for their museum and his work.  Then into his life walks Hepburn, a flighty, goofy, silly, lovely woman who takes an immediate shine to him, and quickly destroys all of his best chances at making a good impression on his would-be philanthropist.  And into her life drops “Baby”. the tamed leopard.

What can I say, it’s a classic.  Great stuff from Grant and Hepburn (it may be her most appealing role).  Hawks is indeed part of the American auteur group, and this is one of his best comedies.

Rio Lobo

Rio Lobo (1970) movie poster

(1970) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 08/28/10

A rather disappointing swan song for the great American auteur Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo is his second re-working of his great Western Rio Bravo (1959) from a decade prior and his final film.  Also disappointing was his prior re-working of Rio Bravo, El Dorado (1966).  Many critics consider Rio Bravo to be his last great film, but it’s interesting that he went back to the well not just once but twice.

I’d queued up both Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo back when I’d seen Red River (1948), but only got around to seeing them after watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which truth be told, is better re-working of the material than Hawks himself managed.  By the 1960’s, the classic Hollywood Western had gone through some major evolutionary changes, whipped about by directors like Sergio Leone (and other Spaghetti Westerns) and Sam Peckinpah.  Like many film genres, the Western is a lens upon the time of its production, a set of rules or standards or structures which can be used as a metaphorical setting for stories about other things.  But the Western in the 1960’s and 1970’s became typically more revisionist, at least in regards to the way that the classic Western had mythologized American values and history.  It’s actually probably a fantastic cultural study to pore over the bulk of the genre this way.

But Rio Lobo is stuck.  It’s still trying to be the classic Western as in the heyday of the studio system, following the conventions, not breaking from them, and it pins its Hollywood style on its leading man, John Wayne, yet again.  But here, he’s now over 60 and his voice is raspier and more tired-sounding.  He’s bigger and older, still a commanding presence, but now surrounded not by quality players as in Rio Bravo, but a bunch of not so hot young actors (with the exception of the great Jack Elam).  And the story, which is kind of convoluted when you boil it down (even though it is written or co-written as was Rio Bravo by Leigh Brackett), is more of a paint-by-numbers sort of build-up to the shoot-out at the end.

What’s interesting about viewing films through the auteur theory lens is that even the poorer films of a great director’s oeuvre are fascinating.  In studying authorship, it probably is more interesting, particularly with a good Hawksian film scholar.  But sadly, watched for simple pure enjoyment, it’s not an argument in and of itself for Hawks, Wayne, or the Western at all.  It’s tired and heavy with re-tread.  And especially so for me, since only earlier in the day I’d watched Rio Bravo.

I’m not trying to say what makes a film great or not great.  I’m sure there are a lot of ways to slice it, analyze it, parse it, and study it.  I watched it because it was a Howard Hawks film, a sibling of sorts of Rio Bravo.  So, don’t get me wrong, I do watch films accordingly.  It’s just too bad that his final film was a mere shadow of his finer work.  But one might find that that is often the case.

Rio Bravo

Rio Bravo (1959) movie poster

(1959) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 08/28/10

Inspired by watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which was inspired by director Howard Hawks 1959 Western, I decided to queue up Rio Bravo, which I’d actually had in my film queue for a few years now anyways.  I’ve often noted that it’s pretty impossible to have seen all the great films of the world, probably impossible to have seen simply all the great films from Hollywood alone.  And I watch a hell of a lot of movies compared to the average Joe.  Bottom line, I’d never seen Hawks’ great western, though I had seen one of his own re-tinkerings with it, his 1966 film El Dorado.

It’s one thing to see the films that cannibalized Rio Bravo, or paid homage to it.  It’s another to go to the source material, one of Hawks’ most-beloved films.

It stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson, so the cast, while a little on the odd side as a grouping, is actually pretty damn great.  Wayne is the sheriff in a Texas town, holding prisoner the murderous low-life brother of a wealthy, disreputable family until regional authorities come to take him for trial.  But the villain’s brother hires a litany of would-be killers for money to stake out the town and wait for the right moment to strike and free the prisoner.  All that Wayne’s sheriff has on his side, is the gimpy Brennan, the recovering alcoholic Martin, and eventually the young hotshot Nelson against the crew of killers-for-hire.  Well, actually, he’s go the sexy, slightly sullied Dickinson and the diminutive Mexican hotelier on his side too, but then that’s all part of the film’s legend.

It’s said that this film was made, partially, in response to High Noon (1952), the classic Fred Zinneman Western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, which is considered a metaphorical critique of McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC).  In High Noon, Cooper is a sheriff who can find no one to help him fend off the coming of a gang set to kill him.  The town’s cowardice is meant to reflect the cowardice of those who didn’t stand beside the accused Communists.   Wayne in particular hated High Noon for these reasons, and the common reading is that Rio Bravo is a conservative political response to the earlier film.  In Rio Bravo, while Wayne’s buddies are all a little questionable on the outside, they all stand up, show their pluck and their worth in the end.  I actually don’t know how that plays out with the HUAC metaphor, but it is oppositional in its narrative.

More than anything, it’s a Howard Hawks film, and a great one for applying the Auteur Theory to as it exemplifies many of Hawks’ ideological considerations, visual styles, characterization, and humor.  It’s certainly the best of Hawks’ Westerns that I have seen and a very likable film.  You can easily see why it’s a favorite of so many.

I grew up disliking Wayne, perhaps for what he symbolizes (and how much of that includes his conservative politics) or perhaps what I’ve projected on him.  But Wayne in cinema is quite a grand and interesting figure, who starred in numerous great films made by a number of great directors.  This film, made at the end of what is sometimes referred to as the “Western cycle”, or the end of the period of the classic Hollywood Western, still works from that same set of staple elements that made the classic Hollywood Western a great genre.  It’s still part of the studio system, it’s classic Hollywood, up and down.  Wayne is 50 years old in this film, but he’s still a rock-solid hero and star.

Angie Dickinson is striking beautiful in this film (I can’t say as I’d ever thought much of her before), and she’s a classic Hawksian female lead: fast-talking, able to drink and “be one of the guys.”  Martin puts in a solid dramatic performance, with added humor and a song as well.  Heck, Ricky Nelson, even not given much to do and not doing a whole lot with it, also is a charming asset in the film.  And Walter Brennan.  Jeez, I love Walter Brennan.   A fine film, all told.

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not (1944) movie poster

(1944) dir. Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/20/10

You know those great movies that were made in the days before “they don’t make ’em like they used to?”  The best of Hollywood’s output during its heyday?  Movies with classic lines like “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”  Starring great movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Walter Brennan?  Directed by the auteur of auteurs, Howard Hawks?  And even co-scripted by William Faulkner, a nobel prize-winning novelist adapting for the screen a book by another nobel-winner, Ernest Hemingway?  And throw in Hoagy Carmichael!

Okay, so it’s not really quite like this film has as many true peers as it could, but it is of an era of classic stuff.  This is one of those movies that you’d hope no idiot would ever try to re-make.  It’s just not necessary (despite the fact that it doesn’t stick too closely to the novel at all).  It was also 19-year old Lauren Bacall’s first film and where she met and started her life-long romance with Humphrey Bogart.  It’s got a hell of a lot going for it.

I’d just read To Have and Have Not last year for the first time, and believe it or not, I’d never seen the film myself before now.  It’s never too late to discover for yourself what many people have known for eons, movies like this, they are worth digging up and seeing.  Big time.

Moving the action from Cuba to Martinique and truncating a more complex narrative into a single setting of time and place certainly does rob the novel quite a bit of its character.  But it takes the general scenario, a rum-runner/captain of a small fishing boat/half-honest American Harry Morgan, who through circumstances winds up taking the smuggling of some human cargo for a political situation with which he is not involved, and makes as good on it as it perhaps might have been possible.

At times, there’s a tad bit of re-hash of Casablanca (1942) going on, but the film has so much of its own that that might be quibbling.  Bogart and Bacall are terrific together.  And although her singing leaves a bit to be desired, her sultry voice and gorgeous eyes and lips leave nothing to be desired.  It’s all there.

Hoagy Carmichael as “Cricket”, the pianist, is a wonderful thing to rediscover as well.  He’s got such a deft way with his songs, you almost wish the whole film was about him at times.  And Walter Brennan.  That guy is just plain great.  They truly do not make gentlemen like him these days.

Hell, it’s all about the “having” and not anything about the “not”.  This is top-notch Hollywood.  You cannot go wrong.

The Thing from Another World

The Thing (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks
viewed: 12/08/07

The funny thing about this film for me, one that I actually had seen several times as a kid, was that it was my dad’s favorite science fiction/horror film.  I grew up loving horror films, “monster movies” as I referred to them then.  But this was the only one that my father really liked and would watch with me.  I don’t know why.  Maybe as a 12 year old he’d seen it in the theater and it had scared him real good.  Or maybe it’s simply that The Thing is considered to be one of the best Hollywood science fiction/horror films of all time and my dad simply would have agreed.

Part two of my Howard Hawks double feature, and a part of my ongoing look at 1950’s science fiction films, The Thing is good quality stuff.  It’s one of the few films that actually had an excellent re-make, too, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) might well be Carpenter’s high point as well.  I don’t know if it’s because I watched it right after the stunning Scarface (1932) but while the film was very good, I wasn’t as riveted or as impressed as I had been by the earlier gangster film.  Hawks’ name doesn’t appear as director, rather as producer, but it is commonly thought that he had a significant hand in directing the film.

It’s a great scenario for a horror film.  Following a crash near the North Pole, a team of military men and scientists uncover a spaceship (which they manage to blow-up) and the titular “thing”, an alien being, thought to be of greater intelligence despite the fact that he developed from vegetable matter rather than fauna.  He’s a big, scary guy, seen almost entirely in long shots, particularly the compelling image of him strangling the dogs as they leap and fight him.  It’s not the clearest of images, shrouded in a snowstorm and silhouette, but the savagery of the action has the power of an E.C. Comics cover.

The film retains the classic 1950’s xenophobia.  The alien represents the unknown, the viscious outsider.  It also is cynical about science, featuring a ruthlessly committed scientist who would sacrifice the entire outpost to save their visitor.  The action is slick and intensely well-handled.  When the “Thing” attacks the room and is set on fire, the whole sequence has the action and power of any film perhaps ever shot.

Hawks well deserves his place in the cinema hierarchy.   He made some amazing films.