For the love of Howard Hawks

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It’s Oscar season and my friends and fellow bloggers over at Once Upon a Blog, Paula’s Cinema Club and Outspoken and Freckled are hosting their annual 31 Days of Oscar blogathon. And before we go any further I should point out that, while I love watching the Oscars and think it’s super fun to talk about them, in no way do I think the Oscars have any real merit or are reflective of anyone’s talent or body of work. I think it’s a lot more impressive to build a legacy that will outlive you than to win some awards. And if you need any proof of this, just remember that these people never won an Oscar: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Cary Grant, Thelma Ritter, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck and the subject of my post for this blogathon, Howard Hawks.

Arguably the most versatile of all directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Howard Hawks was nominated only once, for Sergeant York (1941). Even more astonishing is the fact that he continues to be slightly overlooked and not that massively well-known. He’s not really a household name, not in the way he should be, anyway. And I think that has to do with the fact that it’s hard to pinpoint him. He did so much, so well, in so many different genres, so unpretentiously and so unassumingly, that it is hard to associate him with something, in the way that you’d associate John Ford with Westerns or Alfred Hitchcock with thrillers. Howard Hawks has no genre. He did it all. Screwballs (Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century, Ball of Fire), Westerns (Rio Bravo, Red River), Action-adventure (Only Angels Have Wings), Film Noir (The Big Sleep), Gangster (Scarface), Musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)… He was so versatile, it’s incredible to think that all of these films were made by the same person. In fact, I’d say that, apart from Billy Wilder, he probably made the biggest number of classics out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And yet, he never really got the credit he deserved, even during his lifetime. He was always, perhaps fittingly, called a commercial director, but look what that produced! And even though there are some elements that you’ll usually find in a Howard Hawks film, such as the importance of male friendship or the so-called ‘Hawksian woman’, it’s still hard to immediately identify him with such trademarks, perhaps because he was so extraordinarily versatile. Maybe that was it. Was Howard Hawks just too darned good? Could he do everything so well that people took him for granted? I know I have. I didn’t even realise he was my third favorite director of all time until about two years ago when I was doing one of my ‘desert island’ situations quizzes and it turned out that I would gladly take at least four of his films with me. He’s always been there, and I never realised it. Shame, shame, shame. And speaking of Oscars, he did eventually win an Honorary Award in 1975, but we all know what those things really mean. I don’t know what film he should have won for instead and I think it’s ludicrous that he only received one nomination. But if it’s any consolation, he’s now in the grand pantheon of ‘What? Never won an Oscar?!’ people and, honestly, I think that’s probably even better.
Click here to read the other entries for the Oscar blogathon.

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COMEDY GOLD #2: The dinner from Bringing up Baby (1938)

Katharine-in-Bringing-Up-Baby-katharine-hepburn-4314212-500-375Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere in San Francisco of Bringing up Baby (1938), so as a celebration I’ve decided to talk about one of my favorite movie moments ever. Sure, it’s hard to pick a favorite scene from Howard Hawks’ ultimate screwball comedy, but for me, those moments at the dinner table are absolutely hysterical. The first time I watched Bringing up Baby about 10 years ago, I had to replay that bit at least three times, just to take it all in. There’s so much going for it, so many little things, it’s remarkable.

It starts off with Major Applegate (Charlie Ruggles) telling Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) one of his big game hunting stories, after which he asks David ‘Mr Bone’ Huxley (Cary Grant) if he’s ever been in Arabia. David’s mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t reply. He asks him again and he says no. ‘I suppose you’ve spent most of your time in Africa?’, ‘No’, ‘Tibet, perhaps?’, ‘No.’, ‘Malay Peninsula, perchance?’, ‘Excuse me’, he says before he gets up to follow George, the dog, with the spoon still in his hand. After that, the whole thing is a hilarious disaster: David’s aloofness and continuous trips outside (with the spoon), Major Applegate’s impressions of animals noises, prompting the most priceless three-way reaction of all time – Susan (Katharine Hepburn), David and George -, and of course, Susan’s deadpan delivery of ‘It was probably an echo’, which is still one of my favorite quotes ever.

It’s such a great scene, it almost feels like it could be in a sketch show. It works wonderfully as a stand-alone scene (to a certain extent) and it’s pure comedy genius. But then again, they all are. After all, who doesn’t love Susan and David singing ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’ to Baby, the leopard?

Happy 80th anniversary!

DOUBLE BILL #11: Merrily We Live (1938) and My Man Godfrey (1936)

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In many ways, Merrily We Live (1938) is the forgotten cousin of My Man Godfrey (1936). They are strikingly similar, plot-wise and character-wise, and yet, only one of them is a classic.

In Merrily We Live, Mrs Kilbourne (Billie Burke in her only Oscar-nominated performance) has a habit of hiring ‘tramps’ as servants, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family, Mr Kilbourne (Clarence Kolb), their children Jerry (Constance Bennett), Marion (Bonita Granvile), Kane (Tom Brown), not to mention Grosvenor (Alan Mowbray), the butler who threatens to quit every day. One day, when Rawlins (Brian Aherne) arrives at the Kilbourne residence to use their phone, Mrs Kilbourne mistakes him for a tramp and hires him as a chauffeur.

Norman Z. McLeon’s Merrily We Live is a delight and the fact that it’s virtually unknown these days is an outrage. It’s as funny and wacky as the best of them, with Billie Burke playing one of the most spendidly ditzy characters ever. She’s an absolute riot as the slightly insane matriarch, who can never keep track of anything. Brian Aherne’s Rawlins, however, is the main character, and it’s such an understated, effortlessly funny and charming performance. His romance with Jerry is one of the film’s highlights and it’s absolutely lovely. I love how adorable Merrily We Live is. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice, because it is also absolutely hilarious, but you don’t get many movies as endlessly delightful as this. And as I said, it’s ridiculous how overlooked it is.

My Man Godfrey, on the other hand, is a classic and everybody loves it. Socialite and drama queen Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) hires ‘forgotten man’ Godfrey (William Powell) as a butler, after she brings him with her to a high society scavenger hunt. Soon after, she falls in love with him (who wouldn’t?) and things get even crazier.

Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey is undoubtedly one of the most famous and beloved screwball comedies of all time. There’s nothing not to love about it. William Powell’s performance is a work of art, as is Carole Lombard’s. Gail Patrick’s Cornelia is the ultimate screwball comedy villain (is that even possible?) and Mischa Auer’s Carlo is wonderfully funny as the film’s second craziest character (after Irene). The social commentary is not to be overlooked, either, with Godfrey delivering a ‘knock ‘em dead’ speech to Cornelia about what a spoiled brat she is. I think that’s one of the things that makes this film so great. It’s a screwball with a conscience, which is saying quite something about a film as zany as this.

So why have these two films gone down such drastically different paths, as far as their place in movie history goes? Are they too similar? Perhaps. Perhaps we only need one of them, and My Man Godfrey is the better of the two. It’s curious to see how these things happen. I mean, they were both extremely successful when they came out, receiving 5 and 6 Oscar nominations (Merrily and Godfrey, respectfully), so it’s a bit of a mystery why one of them is so unknown. I, for one, would love to see Merrily We Live on every ‘top 20 screwballs’ list. I think it deserves it. And you know how I like to root for the underdog.

The appeal of The Hitch-hiker (1953)

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As our titular hitch-hiker ruthlessly murders unsuspecting travellers in Illinois, leaving a trail of bodies behind in the film’s opening sequence, we’re immediately stripped of any sense of comfort we may have had to begin with. The callousness and coldness with which he does it lets us know straight away that we’ve walked into one of the quintessential road thrillers of all time.

Somewhere along the way, our hitch-hiker gets picked up by Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and within seconds, he’s pointing his gun at them and forcing them to take him across the border to Mexico. His face finally comes out of the shadows in the scene’s climax and here he is. Emmett Myers. A cold, narcissistic, arrogant, cocky serial killer who is so detestable, he’s the definition of a ‘love to hate’ character. He taunts and torments Collins and Bowen relentlessly, he plays mind-games with them, he bullies them and he makes you want to slap him. That’s what you want from your villains. And William Talman nailed it. It’s an extraordinary performance. And the bum eye that doesn’t close even while he’s sleeping? Genius.

Ida Lupino’s masterful direction doesn’t let up either. Right from the off, she thrusts us into this nightmare, showing us these mindless killings by this sadistic ex-convict in the middle of nowhere. That feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness only increases throughout the film. We’re in the middle of a vast desert, and yet we’re stuck. We’re stuck in this car, with these people, and we can’t go anywhere. We can’t escape. Just like Collins and Bowen. That’s the beauty of road thrillers, especially the hitch-hiker type. That’s what makes them so exciting. It’s what makes The Hitch-hiker so great. It’s tense, it’s stressful, and it’s impressive. And it’s educational as well. Never, ever pick-up a hitch-hiker, that’s my motto. I’ve become paranoid about these things and I can safely say this and Detour (1945) have ruined me forever.