Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors

Balls of Fire: Women in the Films of Howard Hawks

Carole Lombard with two redoubtable character actors valued by both Hawks and Frank Capra: Roscoe Karns and Walter Connolly

[Originally written for a 2003 film series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Pantheon director Howard Hawks (1898–1977) loved to make movies about colorful tough guys coping with actual and existential threats in the middle of some exotic nowhere. As in all the genres he made his own (the gangster film, the Western, the screwball comedy, the private eye movie, the musical, and every breed of action film). Hawks also imagined a radically new species of female, heir to every bit of the angst, appetites, and armored courage of his heroes. Appreciative critics dubbed this incandescent dame the “Hawksian woman.” James Agee described Hawks discovery Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not) as “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.”

Sadly, the kind of feminist projections Hollywood dreams up these days can’t hold a match to the exhilarating mix of smarts and distinctively sexy style, vulnerability, and fast-talking cockiness that define Hawks’s go-getters. She is pure cinema: character and feeling in motion, talk as action. From movie to movie, Hawks’s heroine may change her traveling name—Cesca, Bonnie Lee, Hildy, Slim, Tess Millay, Feathers—to suit her high-stakes game (dream girl, newspaper reporter, saloon singer), but she’s always the “ball of fire” that ignites the bravest passions and masculine ideals of gun-shy men. The Hawksian woman learns grace under pressure even as she defrosts her lucky stiffs into letting go, taking an emotional leap of faith. In the mating duels that constitute Hawksian love affairs, coded hipster-talk is the weapon of choice as the players grow up, or down, to fall (literally and figuratively) into each other’s arms.

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Friend and frequent script collaborator William Faulkner opined that Hawks was “telling the same story again and again—until he got it right.” The story is always about the dangerous sport of living and loving, how to be—professionally and personally—under existential fire. “We owe God a death, if not today, then tomorrow” is the mantra that drives all of the movies Jacques Rivette called “adventures of the intellect.” In contrast to American cinema and literature’s continuing penchant for tales about a pair of Huckleberry Finns who light out for adventure in the territories, Howard Hawks’s heroes dared the challenging company of cheeky tomgirls and smoky-voiced sirens. We are the luckier for it.

(1940/b&w/92 min.)
Scr: Charles Lederer; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy.
Lewis Milestone had already filmed the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur hit play The Front Page, but a decade later Hawks wagered it would work even better if Hildebrand Johnson sex-changed into Hildegarde, ace reporter and ex-wife of amoral but irresistibly dynamic editor Walter Burns (Grant at his most physically and verbally manic). Wisecracking Russell gives as good as she gets in this mordant celebration of cutthroat journalism.

(1934/b&w/91 min.)
Scr: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Carole Lombard, John Barrymore.
Adapted from another Hecht–MacArthur play about an overbearing Svengali in pursuit of his fed-up Trilby, this seminal screwball features theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe entraining on the cross-country Twentieth Century to persuade—by any means necessary—the star he created to return to his stage. As in His Girl Friday, verbal gambits go rat-a-tat-tat, acid jibes ricochet every which way, and only consummate hams like Jaffe (“You gray rat! I close the iron door on you”) and Lily Garland make the existential cut. Barrymore and Lombard are simply incandescent.

(1939/b&w/121 min.)
Scr: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess.
Along with Rio Bravo, Angels is a Hawksian masterpiece about an isolated community of men, their ranks decimated daily by death, whose bonding, coded language, and behavioral camouflage create a necessary “clean, well-lighted place.” When two very different but equally disruptive women invade this hermetic world of stoic flyboys, casualties mount. The evolution of Arthur’s glowing Bonnie Lee into a full-fledged “angel” is as heart stopping as the film’s flying sequences. Grant creates one of his most complex characters, and, making a comeback, onetime star Richard Barthelmess is superb as a coward who must redeem himself. You can chart emotional or ethical vectors in the ritual exchange of matches and cigarettes in this beautifully performed and photographed film.

(1944/b&w/100 min.)
Scr: Jules Furthman, William Faulkner; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan.
Hawks bet Hemingway he could make a movie from the writer’s worst novel and then proceeded to dream up this mysteriously self-reflexive film about hipster style as ethical barometer and raison-d’être. Having discovered Bacall in a fashion magazine, Hawks Pygmalion’d her into “Slim,” his own famously gorgeous wife, and then, “half” in love with her himself, watched as Bogart fell hard for the woman who could play as tough as he did. Yes, there’s a plot—something about Vichy thugs and Free French heroes—but the film’s really about the way Hoagy Carmichael tickles the piano keys, Bogart lights his cigarette, and Bacall blows smoke as she lounges in a bedroom door.

(1938/b&w/102 min.)
Scr: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles.”
One of the darkest, most hallucinatory of screwball comedies, Baby charts the evolution of two arrested souls: Grant’s scientist, locked up in extreme rationality, and Hepburn’s free spirit, who blithely deconstructs every system for making sense of the world—time, language, identity, geography, and gender, for starters. Traveling from an urban museum housing the bones of a prehistoric dinosaur to a nighttime forest sheltering not one but two very lively leopards (one tame, the other gone bad)—traveling from civilization to anarchy—this odd couple’s journey towards equilibrium is by turns hysterically funny and terrifying.

(1952/b&w/97 min.)
Scr: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, I.A.L. Diamond; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn.
This is another comic quest for equilibrium: a scientist and his wife are trapped in roles that make for a sexless, sterile marriage. Treating perpetually distracted professor-hubby Grant as though he were a retarded child, Rogers comes off as a no-nonsense mama rather than a desirable mate. When an ape accidentally discovers a formula for restoring youth, the two backtrack into cathartic adolescence and childhood—with sex-object Marilyn Monroe and lecherous old coot Charles Coburn as funhouse mirrors reflecting out-of-whack libido. As usual in Hawksian comedy, there are moments of something very like true horror, as when Rogers cradles the infant she believes her husband has become, literally.

(1941/b&w/111 min.)
Scr: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper.
A delicious spoof of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that pits Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea, saloon singer and gangster’s moll, against Cooper’s laconic scholar of slang, too long cooped up in a musty mansion full of elderly professors (played by a bevy of adorable character actors). From Gene Krupa’s tour-de-force performance of “Drum Boogie” to the profs’ lovely chorus of “Gaudeamus Igitur,” music moves the unlikely lovers toward illumination and intimacy. There’s more sentiment abroad than is Hawks’s wont—his tearjerking is usually tougher—but who’s complaining?

(1936/b&V99 min.)
Scr: Jules Furthman, Jane Murfin; dir: Howard Hawks, William Wyler; w/ Edward Arnold, Frances Farmer, Joel McCrea, Walter Brennan.
Lumber baron Barney Glasgow, based on Hawks’s own grandfather, abandons Lotta, a saloon girt who’s the love of his life, in his rush to big-time power and glory. When he encounters her daughter many years later, he tries to rekindle the old dream, though his own son is his rival. {A decade later, Hawks would repeat and splendidly refine this narrative structure in Red River.) The two luminescent Lottas are flawlessly enacted by Frances Farmer, who Hawks believed “had more talent than anybody I ever worked with.” With only a week to go on the shoot, Hawks was fired ‘by Samuel Goldwyn; William Wyler finished the film.

(1959/color/141 min.)
Scr: Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, after a story by B.H. McCampbell; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ John Wayne. Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan.
As David Thomson notes, Rio Bravo, “apparently a Western—everyone wears a cowboy hat—is a comedy conversation piece.” And, one might add, a musical. Hawks is so sure-handed here that character, plot, and setting are spare to the point of abstraction. What’s profoundly moving are the creative patterns—like incremental refrains—of communication, community, and mutual witnessing among the performers, the director’s self-reflexive idea of family and home. As Feathers, Angle Dickinson recalls Bacall and previous Hawks drifters, but the texture and style of her velvety performance are all her own.

(1953/color/91 min.)
Scr: Charles Lederer; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes posits Russell and Monroe as Hawksian comrades-in-arms, professional practitioners of extreme sexual style in a world of impotent nebbishes and nerds. Critic Molly Haskell likened this charismatic duo to a pair of ace gunfighters. Given the state of manhood in this surreal, primary-colored movie (the musclebound Olympic team won’t give Russell so much as a glance as she bumps and grinds her way through “Anyone Here for Love?”), the girls’ only worthy mates are each other.

(1949/b&w/103 min. )
Scr: Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, Hagar Wilde; dir: Howard Hawks; w/ Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan.
War Bride puts skirt-chasing French officer Grant into total drag (with attendant humiliations) as he pursues a feisty female American lieutenant. Ann Sheridan’s take-charge type is harder: than Hepburn’s a decade earlier (her siege of Grant in Bringing Up Baby drove him into a feathery peignoir), but in this almost documentary-style comedy about military bureaucracy, sexual deprivation, and postwar womanhood, Hawks is after bigger game: nothing less, in the words of critic Robin Wood, than “the realities of the modern world.”