TONY Q&A: Museum of the Moving Image's David Schwartz on Howard Hawks
We chat with a retrospective's programmer about the essential appeal of Hollywood's coolest subverter.
Wed Sep 4 2013
The rousing films of Howard Hawks, a legendary Hollywood director with a cool, unassuming style, return to Museum of the Moving Image in what must be the revival event of the year. It's an embarrassment of riches, ranging from comedy classics (His Girl Friday) to essential Westerns (Rio Bravo), wisecracking noirs (The Big Sleep), safari adventures (Hatari!) and even a monster movie that bears another director’s name (The Thing from Another World). The near-complete retrospective begins this weekend and runs through November—read our appreciation and critics’ picks here. TONY chatted with Moving Image’s David Schwartz, chief curator and programmer of the series, about the finer points of the Hawksian woman and onscreen professionalism. Schwartz, a film-world veteran who started at Moving Image in 1985, was happy to gush.
Time Out New York: So can a smart person, with a lot of free time, see every Hawks movie at your series?
David Schwartz: Well, every one that exists. There are a few films that are lost, some early silents, basically. There was an early version of Road to Glory that’s missing. We tried. They’re simply not around.
Time Out New York: Still, the devotion here is impressive. For a newbie, what’s Hawks's appeal?
David Schwartz: To me, he’s the consummate Hollywood director. The most overused word in film criticism is auteur: People call everybody an auteur who’s a writer-director they admire. When Wes Anderson makes a film, he’s getting independent financing because he’s Wes Anderson. It’s common to call a director like that an auteur. But Hawks is different. To me, the real use of the word auteur has to do with someone like Hawks who worked within Hollywood’s studio system, within its constraints, and who still managed to put his stamp, his personality, on the films.
Time Out New York: He was different because he tried to subvert the big machine.
David Schwartz: Yeah, to subvert it, to play around with it. He worked though almost every genre and did his spin on Westerns, musicals, screwball comedies. He actually helped launch some genres: Scarface was one of the seminal gangster films. And he completes genres, too—Bringing Up Baby takes screwball as far as it can go.
Time Out New York: Does a Hawks movie have a certain look?
David Schwartz: His films seem to be almost without style. There’s a deceptive simplicity. Think of the opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; it’s just two girls, right in front of the camera, pow. That’s an ultimate Hawks moment. But it becomes clear after you watch enough of his films that, of all the great American directors, Hawks seems to be the one who’s least interested in the institutions of politics, war, the big topics. He barely deals with marriage. Rather, he’s interested in setting up enclosed worlds where the only thing important is how people relate and what their codes of behavior are. Bonds of friendship—that’s his main subject.
Time Out New York: Even though he does make a war picture in Sergeant York, it’s not heavy, like Saving Private Ryan. That might be an oblique comment on war in itself.
David Schwartz: Sure, I think Hawks is stripping away pomposity and pretentiousness, and getting to the essence of things. Take Rio Bravo, which I feel was kind of a response to the heroic High Noon. There are, like, eight different Presidents who think High Noon is their favorite film. But in Rio Bravo, the only thing that’s important is this unlikely group of misfits, bonding together and working with what they have.
Time Out New York: Hawks is often called protofeminist, although he would have cringed at that term.
David Schwartz: He directed his women as if they were just one of the guys. That was his great insight. There’s certainly sexiness and a battle of the sexes going on, and he did use some of the most beautiful actresses of the day. He discovered Lauren Bacall. But he liked to play around with gender roles and have the woman in charge. Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne more than meet their match in Bacall and Angie Dickinson. There wasn’t a romanticism, like in Casablanca, where Ingrid Bergman is glamorized and treated like an object.
Time Out New York: Meanwhile, you also get a whiff of people hiding here.
David Schwartz: There’s a sense in Hawks that everything is a performance. People present themselves in the world. There’s this feeling that everything is an act, but it’s also a test. And that defines who you are.
Time Out New York: In interviews, Hawks was utterly straightforward, even borderline blasé. You have to wonder if he knew what he was achieving.
David Schwartz: Actually, he was very sophisticated. He didn’t often take screenwriting credit, but he was involved in almost every screenplay.
Time Out New York: Even when it’s working with William Faulkner.
David Schwartz: Right! He didn’t need to put his name on things; he didn’t have a big ego in that way. Nowadays we valorize the writer-director, but that’s a relatively recent development. At the same time Hawks had this incredible instinct for entertainment. He felt that all you needed in a film were a bunch of really good scenes that weren’t boring. [Laughs] And that’s it. That’s what his movies are.
Time Out New York: These movies are massively important. Is Hawks, in some way, underrated?
David Schwartz: His Girl Friday is an influential film—specifically what Hawks did with sound. I remember talking to Robert Altman about that: He told me that everybody makes a big deal about how he plays around with overlapping dialogue in The Player and Nashville, but it was all done in His Girl Friday. Hawks had a sense of pacing. He could also be laconic: Rio Bravo is a really relaxed film. The later films, Hatari! especially, are very much in that key.
Time Out New York: Which directors would you call Hawksian today?
David Schwartz: Hm. That’s an excellent question. I just saw it yesterday, so it pops into my head quickly, but Enough Said, the new Nicole Holofcener film with James Gandolfini’s final performance, has a Hawksian feeling to me. It’s very unassuming, not flashy at all. Low-key, but sharp. I don’t even know if she’d consider herself influenced by Hawks.
Time Out New York: What about Quentin Tarantino?
David Schwartz: Eh. John Carpenter literally remade Rio Bravo as Assault on Precinct 13. And we’re showing the original The Thing, which Carpenter also remade. Hawks is credited as only the producer on it, but we know that Christian Nyby wasn’t the strongest director in the world. That seemed like a borderline choice—that’s why we put it in. It seemed fair.
Time Out New York: Do you have a favorite Hawks film?
David Schwartz: Oh God, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! I could give you ten favorites. Certainly To Have and Have Not was very important for me, because of when I saw it. At the time—late teens, 19, probably—my idea was that the great films were European. An important film was by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni. And Hawks just blew me away.
Time Out New York: Will he ever be forgotten?
David Schwartz: Hawks is a perennial, because there are so many champions of him these days. But he’s not like Hitchcock. His films aren’t picked apart in classes the same way. Hawks is a little harder to teach, actually. I once taught a class at Purchase, which was Hawks and Billy Wilder combined, and the students responded to Wilder more, because his style was more modern, more grandiose. He was easier. Hawks’s modernity is harder to tease out.
Time Out New York: Your series will help.
David Schwartz: We actually did a Hawks series in 1994, and that was almost 20 years ago. What’s poignant is there hasn’t been a full Hawks show since then. And we’re about to show everything in 35mm, except for Red Line 7000, which only exists in 16mm print, lent to us by the Academy Film Archive. There might be another show in ten years, but a lot of it will be digital.
Time Out New York: What’s a really rare title that no one should miss?
David Schwartz: There are the acknowledged classics and then there are the films people haven’t seen, underappreciated ones like Dawn Patrol and A Girl in Every Port with Louise Brooks. Or Come and Get It: Hawks singled out Frances Farmer’s performance in that as one of the best in any of his films. I’m not worried about Red River bringing out crowds.
“The Complete Howard Hawks” runs Saturday, Sept 7, through Nov 10 at Museum of the Moving Image..
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
You might also like
Film events calendar for New York City
- The 100 best animated movies
- The 50 greatest war films of all time
- The 50 best documentaries of all time
- The 50 best songs from ’80s movies
- The best and worst Woody Allen movies
- The best and worst James Bond movies: a ranked list
- New York movies: The 100 best films set in New York City
- Movies in the park and summer outdoor screenings in NYC
- Guest editor Susan Sarandon interviews Richard Gere: ‘No one paid any attention to me. Nobody.’