Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors

Henry Hathaway

Born as Henri Leopold de Fiennes, March 13, 1898; Sacramento, California
Death:  February 11, 1985; Los Angeles, California

Henry Hathaway had a solid, four-decade career as a versatile and proficient Hollywood director. He never made a great film, but he directed so many very good ones that his filmography looms as a monument to the strengths of the studio system and its most reliable artisans. Moreover, Hathaway was one of the most intelligent and well-read of classic Hollywoodians—among other things, the man who inspired William Faulkner to write A Fable.

Born into show business to an actress mother and stage-manager father, Hathaway was in films from the early 1900s as a child actor, especially in Westerns directed by Allan Dwan. He later turned prop boy and, following WWI service, became an assistant director; he can be seen—in costume—as a figure rushing along the raceway in the 1926 Ben-Hur, trying to alert the charioteers to real-life danger that resulted in the spectacular, horse-killing pileup inadvertently recorded for and retained in the film.

He won his director’s spurs in 1932 and made ten Zane Grey Westerns for Paramount’s B unit; one remarkable entry, To the Last Man (1932), is shocking in its violence, with an uncanny power beyond mere generic obligations. Hathaway also directed a good Shirley Temple picture, Now and Forever (1934), before there were Shirley Temple pictures, and his rapport with that film’s adult star, Gary Cooper, led to the strange fantasy-romance Peter Ibbetson (1935) and the rousing swashbuckler Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). For the latter, Hathaway received his only Oscar nomination.

This was still Paramount, and Hathaway’s own emerging style matched the studio’s: strong, impeccable pictorialism, striking selection and use of locations, polished direction of actors. (Second-unit director Richard Talmadge, who stayed with Hathaway through much of his career, surely shares in the credit for the strong outdoor compositions and location work.) After a Mae West vehicle, Go West, Young Man (1936); Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the first outdoor movie in three-strip Technicolor; Souls at Sea (1937), a good maritimer compromised by studio cutting; and Spawn of the North (1938), a nearly Hawksian Alaskan adventure, Hathaway directed Cooper in The Real Glory (1939) for Samuel Goldwyn, then settled in at 20th Century–Fox for his lengthiest partnership with a studio.

Overall, Hathaway’s work at Fox was not up to Paramount par. Indeed, his best early-Forties films were loanouts: Shepherd of the Hills (1941), a reversion to Lonesome Pine mode for his old studio, and Sundown (1942), a WWII adventure nominally set in Africa, for producer Walter Wanger. But in 1945 Hathaway, in collaboration with March of Time producer Louis de Rochement, embarked on a remarkable—and still atmospherically persuasive—series of semidocumentary thrillers “filmed where they happened” and incorporating nonprofessional actors along with Hollywood players: The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1946), and Call Northside 777 (1948), as well as the closely related, fictional Kiss of Death (1947). Thereafter Hathaway reverted to working comfortably on standard Fox fare, though fond attention should be drawn to Niagara (1953, with Marilyn Monroe and the Falls), the trim Westerns Rawhide (1951) and From Hell to Texas (1958), and the amiable John Wayne comedy North to Alaska (1960).

Subsequently, Hathaway was entrusted with three of the five episodes of MGM’s Cinerama epic How the West Was Won (1963); he claims to have served as de facto producer on the entire project. He took over another roadshow, Circus World, in mid-production, but resigned from MGM’s 1964 remake of Of Human Bondage. He still knew his way around a Western, and Paramount: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Nevada Smith (1965, the far superior prequel to The Carpetbaggers), Five Card Stud (1968, way below his standard), and then, gloriously, True Grit (1969). True Grit was indistinguishable in craft from anything Hathaway had made thirty years earlier—which did nothing to disqualify it as one of the strongest films of an epochal film year, with moments of savagery (recall 1932’s To the Last Man) equal in power to The Wild Bunch’s much more talked-about violence. It is also, of course, the film for which his frequent star John Wayne won the best actor Oscar.

That would have been a milestone to retire on, and the last three films Hathaway made—he kept working into the mid-Seventies—were all negligible. But honest work was a habit with him, and after such a career he had nothing to apologize for.