Friday, April 5, 2013

Howard Hawks and the Intellectuals

By Ed Garea

The name of Howard Hawks carries a definite connotation. Known for his Westerns and action yarns, off the screen he was known as a “man’s man.” Before he found his passion working in Hollywood, Hawks served in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and after the war flew planes and drove racecars. When not on the set, Hawks spent his time hunting, fishing, golfing, driving fast cars, and piloting airplanes. 

His circle of friends reflected his interests. Two of his closest friends were Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Hawks fished, hunted, collected guns, drank and womanized with both. Faulkner worked for Hawks as a screenwriter or contributor on a number of films, among them Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Land of the Pharaohs (1955). 

Hemingway, though he never worked directly for Hawks, is famed in movie lore for an apocryphal story set in 1939 while the two were on a fishing – and drinking – trip. Hawks tells the story in Peter Bogdanovich’s book Who the Devil Made It? (The title itself originated from a quote by Hawks.):

I told Hemingway I could make a picture out of his worst book and he said, rather grumpily, “What’s my worst book?” I said, “That bunch of junk called ‘To Have and Have Not.’ ” He said, “Well, I needed money.” I said, “Oh, I don’t care about that part.” He said, “You can’t make a picture out of that.” “Yes, I can.” So for about 10 days we sat around, while we were fishing, and talked about how these characters met one another, what kind of people they were, and how they ended up. When I came back, I went over and bought the story and started in on the premise that Hemingway and I had evolved. 

Hawks has also wanted to make a film about the wartime escapades of his friend Hemingway with the famed war photographer Robert Capa, but the project never got off the drawing board.

But Faulkner and Hemingway served as more than friends, they also served Hawks’ ideal of what an intellectual should be; the word “intellectual” implies a man of action that can write a damn good novel or story. Nowhere in any of Hawks’ films will we find any interest in ideas as such. None of his films are built around a separate social or ethical theme. For Hawks, ideas are part and parcel of the situations, the actions, and the characters in his films. His films are unabashedly commercial: “I never made a statement,” biographer Todd McCarthy quoted him as saying. “Our job is to make entertainment. I don’t give a God damn about taking sides.” Seeing himself as a storyteller who used film, he never let an idea come between the story and audience.

That being said, he did have certain attitudes that were expressed in his films. Foremost is the attitude of male camaraderie. It’s what allows Hawks’ heroes to overcome adversity, and without it the hero cannot succeed. We need to stick together if we are to win. In his wartime Air Force (1943), it is when the crew of the Mary Ann comes together as a crew that the Japanese enemy starts being overcome. 

Even more representative of this attitude is Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Cary Grant heads a decrepit airmail and freight service in the Peruvian Andes. They only persevere because of their common bond. If a pilot cracks up and dies it’s because he didn’t have what it took, period. No excuses. Richard Barthelmess is a pilot who bails out when his plane gets in trouble, leaving its mechanic there to die. No one wants anything to do with him. It’s only when he refuses to bail out when his new plane is damaged and lands it with paralyzed mechanic Thomas Mitchell that he is finally accepted by his crewmates. 

Not even women are exempt: Jean Arthur is a showgirl stranded among them. Because she doesn’t understand what camaraderie is, she doesn’t care for what she sees as a cavalier attitude. It’s only when she becomes “one of the boys” that Grant is able to return her love and open himself up emotionally to her. This is the world of Howard Hawks.

So it stands to reason that he has no use for the intellectual as such; what we would refer to jokingly as “the egghead.” This sort of intellectual is incapable of action on his own. He’s lost in contemplation of some arcane idea or object necessary to realize his arcane idea. He’s separate from his peers because of this and cannot relate himself to the social world around him – the real world.

We can divide Hawks’ attitude to intellectuals into Prewar and Postwar. The Prewar Hawks saw the intellectual as a bumbling bozo living in a world estranged from that of ordinary society, a threat to no one but himself in his endless obsession with puzzles and objects. But, for Hawks, the Postwar intellectual is now seen as a threat: his creation of an agent of destruction capable of wiping mankind from the face of the planet signifies his anti-life stance. Worse, he doesn’t realize the gravity of what he has done. Far from being isolated from society he is now in positions of authority, but his lack of common sense and enthrallment with utopian ideals will doom us unless checked by those that do possess the common sense and commitment to life that he so clearly lacks.

Hawks has often said in interviews that the characters of David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby and Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire were exaggerations; and the same with Dr. Barnaby Fulton in Monkey Business. Hawks said he saw the role as a great comedy vehicle for Grant. As for The Thing from Another Planet, he said that he kicked it around with screenwriters Charlie Lederer and Ben Hecht and they decided the story needed a heavy (besides the Thing), so they chose the scientists. But this explanation by itself shows a great coincidence, one too great to be taken at face value. Huxley could have been presented as a normal man, without all the baggage. The same for Potts; why not make Stanwyck’s character the heavy, the boob? As for Monkey Business, why does Hawks go to the lengths he does to make Fulton look silly? As for The Thing from Another Planet, why isn’t everyone banded together to stop the invader? Why must there be a split and a war within the colony? No, the way he presents intellectuals and academics in his movies is perfectly in keeping with the Hawksian world-view, and that of his screenwriters.


Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), the hero of Hawks’ flawed screwball masterpiece, Bringing Up Baby, is a milquetoast paleontologist who’s been working for the past four years piecing together a brontosaurus skeleton in a museum. His fiancée and assistant, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) is officious, smothering, and buttoned down to the extreme. She reminds us of Bebe Neuwith’s repressed Lilith in Cheers and Frasier. In marrying him, she declares that she’s more interested in David’s work than in him as a person. “Our marriage must entail no domestic entanglements whatsoever,” she tells David. It’s a sign that she will be the dominant in the family. For his part he simply acquiesces to her demands, one of which is winning a $1 million endowment from the wealthy Mrs. Carlton Random (May Robson) for the museum. Her lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving), will make the decision on her behalf, so, as Alice reminds him, David must make a good impression. During David’s game of golf with Mr. Peabody he crosses paths with heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) and we know right away his life will never be the same. She’s capricious, acting for the moment as opposed to David. If we were to cast this in Freudian terms, we might say she is the Id to his Superego.

But unlike David and Alice, Susan is alive. She ruins David’s golf game – and meeting with Mr. Peabody – in an argument over whose golf ball it is on the course. From here on in with their relationship, she dominates him completely. But it is within this relationship that David finally begins to grow, for he is finally out in the real world, where things take place by chance and not through planning.

Most of the film’s shenanigans take place at the home of Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson). David makes a bad impression on her at the door, and later discovers she is THE Mrs. Carlton Random. So David and Susan must hide his identity, lest her aunt find out who he really is and cancel the endowment. During their time together, a vertebrae David has been seeking to complete his skeleton finally arrives, but is taken by the family dog, named George. It is in their attempt to discover where George has hidden the bone that David’s world is turned upside down. Susan discovers that the gardener has accidentally let Baby (the leopard Susan’s brother sent her as a gift to her aunt and the Baby of the title) loose from the stable and she has mistaken a wild leopard from a nearby circus being carted off for Baby and lets the animal out of his cage.

The climax of the film occurs when Susan spots the wild leopard on the roof of Dr. Lehman’s house. Thinking it’s Baby she tries to coax it down, but Lehman, coming to the front door, sees only Susan (who he thinks is deranged, based upon his earlier meeting with her at a dinner club), drags her into the house, and calls for the constable. When Constable Slocum arrives, he sees David slinking around the grounds and arrests him as a Peeping Tom.

At the jail, Slocum, with the help of Lehman’s providing psychological theories, refuses to believe either David or Susan. When Elizabeth and her guest, Horace Applegate, arrive to bail the duo out, Slocum arrests them as well, believing they are impersonators. Unable to get Slocum to listen, Susan concocts a story that she is moll “Swinging Door Susie” and the others are “the Leopard Gang. This Slocum and Lehman swallow whole, and while they are writing it up, Susan escapes through a window. Enter lawyer Peabody, who is recognized by Lehman. He explains their real identities. Meanwhile Susan has captured the circus leopard and drags it in to the station. David now takes charge, probably for the first time in his life, and using a chair, backs the beast into an empty cell.

The ending of the film confirms David’s experience: Alice breaks off their engagement and David returns to his brontosaurus. Hearing Susan’s voice in the outer corridor, he scrambles up to a platform overlooking the skeleton. Susan climbs a nearby ladder on the other side of the brontosaurus, telling him that she has retrieved his bone and that Aunt Elizabeth gave her the million dollars, which she tells David she will donate to the museum. Initially, David is unmoved by her, but thinking over their weekend, admits that it was the best weekend he’s ever had and it was due to her. Susan, overcome, begins to swoon on the ladder and realizes that she’s losing her balance. As David tries to pull her to his platform, she lands on top of the skeleton, causing this one-of-a-kind restoration to collapse in a heap. David now shrugs it off and embraces Susan.

The collapse of the brontosaurus is our sign that David has left the ivory tower for the land of the living, and in embracing Susan (representing the life force), he trades the sterile for the vital. I said it was a flawed masterpiece. This is due to the horrible miscasting of Hepburn in a role she was ill-prepared to enact. It was her first comedy, and she simply wasn’t up to playing against Grant, who excelled at any type of comedy, from drawing room to madcap screwball. It was a role that screamed out for Carole Lombard, who could match Grant in frenetic energy without appearing obviously playing a comedy.

Sometimes overlooked is the marvelous performance in the film by Fritz Feld as psychiatrist Dr. Lehman. Upon running into Susan in a restaurant and getting into an argument with her over identical purses, he thinks she is deranged. And by his strict standards, she is. However, she never takes the time to explain and, more importantly, he never takes the time to listen. He’s too busy trying to pigeonhole her into some mental aberration or other. Later, when the equally daffy constable Slocum (Walter Catlett) takes Susan, David, and the whole bunch into jail, Lehman is there to concoct strange psychological theories based on the line of baloney Susan is feeding both of them. It begs the question of who is really deranged: Susan, or the authorities.

The next example of the Prewar intellectual skewered by Hawks is linguistics professor Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire (1941). Like David Huxley, Potts exists in a vacuum cut off from everyday society – and reality. He oversees a group of like-minded intellectuals that have spent the last nine years composing an encyclopedia. When the garbage collector (Allen Jenkins) drops by for help with a radio quiz, his colorful use of slang convinces Potts that his article on slang, composed only from research books, is already outdated, and he needs to do further research, which can only be had by going directly into the field. 

He goes to a nightclub, where he writes down every slang expression he hears. He also meets stripper Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), inviting her to a slang symposium. She dismisses his invitation, but later learns that the D.A. is looking to subpoena her as a witness in his case against her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). She now takes Potts up on his invitation and arrives at his doorstep later that night.  (In the Bogdanovich interview, Hawks says he based the plot on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.)

What begins as a match between two differing points of view ends up with them falling in love and Potts having to rescue her from Lilac, who has kidnapped her and taken her to New Jersey to be wed, as a wife cannot testify against her husband. Potts, accompanied by the professors and the garbage collector, comes to her rescue and Potts realizes he must fight Lilac. Knowing he has to fight Lilac, Potts has brought along a book on how to box, but it is of no help. Only when he discards the book and relies on his instincts is he able to subdue Lilac and his gang.

Both Huxley and Potts live in ivory towers, cut off from the world-at-large. And both are redeemed through the intervention of a strong woman rooted in the real world, with each experiencing an existential catharsis. David confesses to Susan in the end that their past weekend was the most fun he’s ever had, and Potts, thinking he’s speaking with another professor, confesses not only his love for Sugarpuss, but how she’s made him come alive. And that is the point Hawks is making in both films – the professors are dead, living in the past or in books. Because the Academic could only hurt himself, he was a comical figure and a subject for screwball comedy.

In Part Two, we’ll examine the scientist from Hawks’ Postwar view as constituting a threat. The threat from within comes in Monkey Business and the threat from without is seen in The Thing From Another World.


BRINGING UP BABY (RKO, 1938) Director: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, and Alice Walker. B&W, 102 minutes.

BALL OF FIRE (Goldwyn, 1941) Director: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.K. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Allen Jenkins. B&W, 111 minutes.

Bogdanovich, Peter – Who the Devil Made It? (New York: Knopf; 1997)

McCarthy, Todd – Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood (New York: Grove Press; 2000)

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting 1940 when films were mainly about storytelling