Howard Hawks is a tricky subject in the history of film. Cited by French New Wave critics and later by Andrew Sarris as irrefutable proof of their collective auteur theory, his movies nonetheless lack the sort of forthright, distinct “artistry” easily identifiable in the work of some of his peers. With Carl Dreyer, we have the baroque landscapes and lengthy tracking shots of Gertrud (1964) and Ordet (1955); with Alfred Hitchcock, the ongoing themes of psychological tension and a voyeuristic directorial gaze, from 1929’s Blackmail all the way to Vertigo (1958) and beyond. Hawks, on the other hand, does not at first seem to earn his spot among these firmly entrenched auteurs, jumping opportunistically from genre to genre, from style to style, as he does. His long-standing status as a–perhaps the–great film artist of the Old Hollywood era has surely been solidified by now, but it nonetheless feels strange to haphazardly throw Hawks in with the rest of the auteurist gang. It is easy to tell that the same person directed, for example, Persona (1966) and Winter Light (1962); can the same really be said of Rio Bravo (1959), an epic and slackly-paced Western, and Twentieth Century (1934), a rapid-fire screwball comedy?
From now until November 10th, a quick visit to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, might help the curious moviegoer answer this question. The museum’s ongoing retrospective of Howard Hawks’ oeuvre includes a whopping 39 movies, serving as a helpful introduction to his work and his overarching style; on October 19th, for example, one could go see his World War I air force drama The Dawn Patrol (1930) and follow it up with his World War II air force drama Air Force (1943) only a half hour later. I myself opted to go see Bringing Up Baby (1938), a screwball comedy about a paleontologist (Cary Grant), a rambunctious woman he meets on a golf course (Katharine Hepburn), and a leopard (sadly uncredited). Already, within that outline, lies a trope Hawks would return to again and again as an auteur. In Bringing Up Baby, he makes a movie about the power struggle between a man and a woman, and more than that, he makes sure to constantly emphasize the gendered nature of this struggle. During the scene in which Grant’s David and Hepburn’s Susan first meet, these tensions are brought to a boil, as Susan steals David’s golf ball, crashes his car, and reacts to her transgressions in a cutesy “who, me?” manner–like a little girl would. David, meanwhile, tries to keep his cool, interacting with Susan sternly and maturely, playing the role of the grown-up adult male. This dynamic is explored throughout Bringing Up Baby’s snappily paced shenanigans, Grant’s straight man constantly at odds with Hepburn’s schoolgirl persona.
What’s most interesting about this dynamic, however, is that nobody wins. This is Hawks’ craft: what at first appears to be a slapdash set of “she’s the woman, I’m the man!” comedy routines slowly reveals itself to be a nuanced deconstruction of those very same routines. Unlike, for example, Nicholas Ray’s revisionist Western Johnny Guitar (1954), Bringing Up Baby does not seek to stage a reversal of these tropes but rather to display the vicissitudes with which they come packaged. By the end of the film, David has been won over by Susan’s hyperactive girlishness, but the same can’t be said for the audience, who has just witnessed many a near-death experience for our uptight protagonist. David’s scrupulous, mannered behavior is hard to like – it has him scrambling madly to please others, primarily his bossy fiancée, and never himself – but is the “freedom” Susan presents really all that liberating? The two are in love, surely, but that love is fraught with real danger, as evinced by the collapse of a humongous dinosaur skeleton, David’s life’s work, as the very last catastrophe to strike the two characters. In other words, Hawks does not choose to prize one standard of behavior over another – to urge his audience to “live a little!” (Susan) or to “slow down and take care of oneself” (David) – but seems instead to show us a third way “out” of the gender conundrum. His conclusion? Relationships between men and women are not “this way or that”; they are sad, funny, cruel, erratic, and can often make no sense at all. In articulating this profound truth with wit and verve, Bringing Up Baby almost seems sufficient proof of Hawks’s deserved spot at the top of the auteurist pantheon.
Such a spot, however, is hard to secure without a measure of filmographic consistency, and in His Girl Friday (available to stream on Hulu Plus), Hawks provides it. This film is structured by the same gendered tension between career-driven pragmatism and mischievous passion, although this time the roles are switched, Cary Grant’s character embodying the latter and Rosalind Russell’s the former. Taken as a package with Bringing Up Baby, however, what’s most striking about His Girl Friday is not the fraught relations between the two characters but how Hawks represents those relations. In Bringing Up Baby, for example, Hawks emphasizes the contours of conversation–not only heated exchanges and emotional climaxes, but even their interstices, the banalities in which characters engage when they don’t have anything else to say. In His Girl Friday, this focus on conversation is elevated to a nearly absurd degree, to the point at which large chunks of the movie seem to consist only of conversation. Befitting the movie’s newsroom setting–in which conversations, article pitches, and arguments flow from one room to the next–Hawks’ specialty of overlapping dialogue is brought to a peak. It’s almost painful to imagine how nightmarish the shooting process must have been for the actors, who pick up and then abruptly put back down their countless lines with unthinkable precision.
One might then expect some sort of correlative flashiness on the part of Hawks’ camerawork, but it is not so; both Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are remarkably restrained in presenting their respective subjects. Hawks’ favorite directorial tools–clean framing, eye-level shots, minimal motion–serve not to assert his presence as auteur, but to give weight and momentum to the story he is telling. When he breaks his own unspoken rule of subtlety–in a backwards tracking shot toward the middle of Bringing Up Baby, or a fantastically creepy glimpse of a gallows in His Girl Friday–these gestures are made all the more weighty by the delicacy of that which surrounds them. Discussions and evaluations of various auteurs often centers around their ability to make themselves “visible” within their own films; in his two seminal screwball comedies, Hawks reminds us that an auteur can also choose not to reveal himself with equal expertise.
The point here is not to play some game of “find the tropes, justify the auteur theory,” something easy to slip into when handed a retrospective like MoMI’s. Hawks has been solidified as an auteur by generations of film critics more learned than me; he doesn’t need justifying. But for those of us who grew up with a different idea of what a film artist can be, those of us raised on Tarkovsky and Bergman and Fellini, watching Hawks can be a transformative experience. The easy summation, and one I’ve read many times before, would be to say that, unlike those guys, Hawks brings “pop” to the level of “art”. I think he does something even deeper, though. With Hawks, we’re shown that the dividing line between pop and art might not even be there at all.
“The Complete Howard Hawks” runs through November 10 at the Museum of the Moving Image.