PRINT April 1969


Howard Hawks, Only Angels, His Girl Friday, Tender Is the Night, Scarface, and Red River

Scarface (1932) is a passionate, strong, archaic photographic miracle: the rise and fall of an ignorant, blustery, pathetically childish punk (Paul Muni) in an avalanche of rich, dark-dark images. The people, Italian gangsters and their tough, wisecracking girls, are quite beautiful, as varied and shapely as those who parade through Piero’s religious paintings. Few movies are better at nailing down singularity in a body or face, the effect of a strong outline cutting out impossibly singular shapes. Boris Karloff: long stove-pipe legs, large boned and gaunt, an obsessive, wild face; Ann Dvorak: striking out blindly with the thinnest, sharpest elbows, shoving aside anyone who tries to keep her from the sex and excitement of a dance hall. Besides the sulphurous, extreme lighting and so many feverish, doomed types, like Osgood Perkins as Johnny Lovo, top hood on the South Side until his greedier right-hand man Tony Camonte takes over, the image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.

Crisp and starched where Scarface is dark and moody, His Girl Friday (1940) is one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty lapels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, out-maneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism and verbal bravado. A line is never allowed to reverberate, but is quickly attached to another, funnier, line in a very underrated comedy that champions the sardonic and quick-witted over the plodding, sober citizens.

The thing you remember most about Cary Grant’s sexy, short-hop Lindbergh in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), a rather charming, maudlin Camp item, is his costume, which belongs in a Colombian Coffee commercial: razor-creased trousers that bulge out with as much yardage as a caliph’s bloomers and are belted just slightly under his armpits. Except for a deadpan, movie-stealing performance by Richard Barthelmess, this movie about a Zeta Beta Tau fraternity of fliers in a South American jungle is a ridiculous film of improbability and coincidence, the major one being that Bat McPheerson, the blackest name in aviation, the man who betrayed Thomas Mitchell’s kid brother and married Grant’s old flame, should show up years later broke and in need of a job in Barranca, where buddies Grant and Mitchell are busting up planes on the strangest stalactite mountains.

Red River (1948), as a comment on frontier courage, loyalty, and leadership, is a romantic, simple-minded-mush, but an ingeniously lyrical film nonetheless. The story of the first trip from Texas to the Abilene stockyards is a feat of pragmatic engineering, working with weather, space, and physiognomy. The theme is how much misery and brutality can issue from a stubbornly obsessed bully (John Wayne, who barks his way through the film instead of moving), while carving an empire in the wilderness. Of the one-trait characters, Wayne is a sluggish mass being, insensitive and cruel-minded on the front of the screen; Joanne Dru is a chattering joke, even more static than Wayne, but there is a small army of actors (Clift, Ireland) keyed in lyrically with trees, cows, and ground.

The very singular compact names that beat like a tom-tom through the above films are as eccentric and Hollywoodish as the character who makes them. They’re summing-up names, they tie a knot around the whole personality, and suggest the kind of bravura signature that underlines itself. Jeff Carter, Tess Millay, Mathew Garr, Guino Rinaldo, Buck Kennelley, Johnny Lovo, Molly Malloy, Cherry Valance, are dillies of names that indicate a Breughel type who creates a little world of his own, outfitted in every inch with picturesque hats, insensitive swagger, and good-natured snobberies.

Howard Hawks is a bravado specialist who always makes pictures about a Group. Fast dialogue, quirky costumes, the way a telephone is answered, everything is held together by his weird Mother Hen instinct. The whole population in Scarface, cavemen in quilted smoking jackets, are like the first animals struggling out of the slime and murk towards fresh air. Only Angels, a White Cargo melodrama that is often intricately silly, has a family unit living at the Dutchman’s, a combination bar, restaurant, rooming house and airport run by a benevolent Santa Claus (some airline: the planes take off right next to the kitchen, and some kitchen: a plane crashes, the wreck is cleared and the pilot buried in the time it takes them to cook a steak; and the chief control is a crazy mascot who lives with a pet donkey and serves as a lookout atop a buzzard-and-blizzard infested mountain as sharp as a shark’s tooth). The wonderfully dour reporters in Friday, the mawkish cowboys in Red River, are also strangely pinned in place by the idea of people being linked together in tight therapeutic groups, the creations of a man who is as divorced from modern angst as Fats Waller, whose whole movie-making system seems a secret preoccupation with linking, a connections business involving people, plots, and eight-inch hat brims.

The Mother Hubbard spirit gives the film a kind of romance that is somewhat Wasp-ish with a Gatsby elegance and cool. Both the girls in Scarface, like Zelda Fitzgerald, would fling themselves away over a Russ Columbo recording of “Poor Butterfly.” Ann Dvorak, dancing with a big, bland-faced clod who is bewildered by all her passion and herkyjerky cat’s meow stuff, is so close to Tender Is the Night in her aura of silly recklessness. The sophomoric pilots in Barranca, like Fitzgerald’s expatriates in Paris, are ravished with each other’s soignée: Bonnie playing psuedo-hot “Peanuts” with a whole saloon jammed around her piano cheering her on, is an embarrassing square version of super-square Chico Marx. The feeling of snobbery in any Hawks work is overpowering, whether it is a Great White Father (Grant) patronizing a devitalized native with a gift watch or the female Jimmy Breslin (Rosalind Russell) breezily typing a socko story. This romance which wraps the fliers-reporters-cowhands in a patina of period mannerism and attitude makes for a film that isn’t dated so much as removed from reality, like the land of Tolkien’s Hobbits.

It is interesting how many plots are interwoven into a scene. The whole last part of the Front Page remake is a fugue in fast humor, peculiar for the way each figure touches another in ricochets of wild absurdity. Molly Malloy, the killer’s lady defender (“Ah come on fellahs, he didn’t even touch me, I just gave him some tea, and he was shaking all over”) jumps out the window and is forgotten; her boyfriend, who has been entombed forlornly inside a rolltop desk, is dragged to his cell, presumably to be hung the next morning; Hildy Johnson finally gets maneuvered back to the Morning Star by her arch heel editor; the mayor and the sheriff are politically destroyed for trying to bribe a fat Baby Huey, who turns up with a reprieve for the convicted killer. Then there’s Louie, a terrific heist artist who steals a mother-in-law and gets mangled by a police car which was driving in the wrong lane. People who talk reams about great film comedy never mention this version of Hecht’s play with its one twist, an elegantly played, pragmatic girl, sharp and immediately aware of everything in the ace reporter’s role. It is a prime example of Hawks’ uncelebrated female touch: the light flouncy foot, the anti-pomposity about newspaper problems, and the Mother Hen way of setting up family relationships. The ingenuity of its pragmatic engineering is that every gesture (she picks up the phone, it’s funny) contributes to the plot, is laugh provoking, and adds up to a supply of intricately locked humor so large that there’s hardly time to relish any one gag.

The films have a musical comedy hokishness joined to a freedom, a mellifluous motion which is summed up in the line “wherever they roam they’ll be on my land,” as a couple of cows—the start of a mighty herd: the man’s bull and the boy’s cow—wander off into a nice, sparse landscape. But the deep quality in any Hawks film is the uncannily poetic way an action is unfolded. Sometimes this portrayal of motion is thrilling (the cattle going into Abilene), funny (Abner Biberman’s harmless hood: “everybody knows Louie”), gracefully dour (Karloff’s enigmatic cockiness in a bowling alley, like a Muybridge photograph) or freakishly mannered (Karen Morley sizing up Scarface’s new pad: “It’s kinda gaudy, isn’t it”), but it is always inventive, killingly expressive, and gets you in the gut. One blatantly colloquial effect is slammed against another. The last section of Scarface builds detail on detail into a forbidding whirlwind. As the incestuous duo shoots it out with the cops, slightly outnumbered eighty to one, the lighting is fabulous, Dvorak’s clamoring reaches an unequaled frenzy (“I’m just like you, Tony, aren’t I, I’m not afraid”), and there is an authentic sense of the primeval, life coming to smash the puny puffed up egos.

Not many moviemakers have gone so deeply into personality-revealing motion, the geography of gesture, the building and milking of a signature trait for all its worth. Hawks’ abandon with his pet area, human gesture, is usually staggering, for better or worse. Why should Cary Grant get away with so much Kabuki-like exaggeration, popping his eyes, jutting out his elbows, roaring commands at breathtaking speed in a gymnasium of outrageous motion? Sometimes Hawks’ human interest detailing falls on its face: the beginning of a cattle drive with Wayne a tiny speck moving down a channel of earth, the Knute Rockne of Cattledom, and then, those endless ghastly close-ups of every last cowboy, one after the other, giving his special version of a Yahoo.

Scarface, as vehement, vitriolic and passionate a work as has been made about Prohibition, is a deadly grim gangster movie far better than White Heat or Bonnie and Clyde, a damp black neighbor to the black art in Walker Evans’ subway shots or the Highway 90 photographic shot at dawn by Robert Frank. Nowhere near the tough-lipped mentality or hallucinatory energy of Hawks’ only serious film, His Girl Friday is still better than a clever, arch, extremely funny newspaper film. It’s hard to believe that anything in Chaplin or W. C. Fields has so many hard, workable gags, each one bumping the other in an endless interplay of high-spirited cynicism. But rating these close camaraderie films, teeming with picturesque fliers-punks-pundits and a boy’s book noble humanism, in the Pantheon division of Art and giving them cosmic conceptions is to needlessly overweight them.

A director who’s made at least twenty box-office gold mines since 1926 is going to repeat himself, but the fact is that Howard Hawks’ films are as different as they’re similar. In each action film he’s powerfully interested in the fraternal groups that he sets up, sticking to them with an undemonstrative camera that is always eye level and acute on intimate business, and using stories that have a straight-ahead motion and develop within a short time span. The point is that each picture has a widely different impact: from the sulphurous lighting and feverish style of Scarface to the ignorant blustering of John Wayne in a soft Western that doesn’t have any pace at all. Within the devil-may-care silliness of his Angels picture, the difference in acting between Barthelmess (crafty and constipated), Thomas Mitchell (maudlin, weepy) and Jean Arthur (Good grief!) is so violent as to suggest the handling of three directors.

Hawks, a born movie manipulator who suggests a general moving around little flag pins on a battle map, is not very fussy about the pulp story figures nor the fableized scenery into which he jams them. The opening shots of his Andes airline movie are supposed to “vividly create Barranca, the South American town” in and around which the “completely achieved masterpiece” is set. This operetta seaport, with boas of smoke hanging in swirly serpentines and pairs of extras crisscrossing through the fake mist, might be good for a Douglas, Arizona high school production. In the next “vividly created” scene, Jean Arthur is being dim and blithe, snapping her fingers (the first of the block-headed swingers) in time with some fairly authentic calypso dancers who are being unbelievably passionate at ten in the morning. In such movies, where a broken down Englishman or a drunken rubber planter is seated in the corner muttering “only two more months and I get out of this Godforsaken place,” a Rhonda Fleming or Brian Keith (in something called Javaro) is far classier than the dopey inner-tubes who so seriously act characters getting the mail through for seven straight days in Hawks’ corny semi-catastrophe.

Hawks gets exhilarating situations: the stampede in Red River is great, maybe because everyone shuts up during the panic. He can be very touching, as in Harry Carey, Jr.’s death with four or five cowboys standing in straight-line silence in a strangely hollowed out terrain that suggests Gethsemane. Yet no artist is less suited to a discussion of profound themes than Hawks, whose attraction to strutting braggarts, boyishly cynical dialogue, and melodramatic fiction, always rests on his poetic sense of action. It would be impossible to find anything profound in Rosalind Russell’s Hildy, but there is a magic in the mobile unity of the woman: her very mannish pinstripe suits, the highly stylized way she plants a hand on her hip, and her projecting of the ultimate in sophisticated swagger, taking off her hat and coat and showing how a real reporter sets up shop. The genius of such action engineering is that Hawks is able to poeticize dialogue as well as faces and costume, making a 100% ordinary line—Hildy’s parting shot to Earl Williams in his death cell: “Goodbye Earl and good luck”—seem to float in an air of poignant, voluptuous cynicism.

Manny Farber