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His Girl Friday
His Girl Friday

“The Complete Howard Hawks” at Museum of the Moving Image

The Queens venue presents a retro of the ultimate Hollywood auteur; we weigh in on the filmmaker’s innovations.


Masculine feminine
It’s a he-man’s world in the films of Howard Hawks, filled with high-flying daredevils, race-car drivers and grizzled gunfighters. Yet he always let the so-called fairer sex have their share of flint. Even before the filmmaker changed the gender of a motormouthed journalist in a game-changing comedy (see next entry), you could detect hints of “the Hawksian woman” in his screwball dames and harlots with hearts of quartz (notably Frances Farmer in Come and Get It [1936]; her saloon sassmouth is the archetype in embryonic form). It was with Betty Joan Perske, however, that he’d create the ultimate XX-chromosome counterpart to his tough guys. Teaching her to lower her voice and changing her name to Lauren Bacall, Hawks fashioned a take-no-shit persona for the starlet that, in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), gave Humphrey Bogart a run for his money. “He believed women should behave like men,” Bacall said later, but by making his heroines equal—or in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), superior—to the guys while still giving them their femininity, Hawks also believed that the only thing better than a lady who stood by her man was one who stood up to him.—DF

Sound and the fury
If you watch enough Hawks—films filled with people doing things like landing airplanes and pouring whiskey shots—you’ll come to the belief that movies only have to show, not tell. But what about all those words, tumbling out of the actors’ mouths like Keith Haring squiggles? The director had a talent for turning reams of dialogue into something else, and rarely do the words mean what you’d think. In the case of the blistering His Girl Friday (1940), the chat is 100 percent foreplay: verbal sparring between a crafty editor (Cary Grant) and his dazzling cub reporter (the inspiring Rosalind Russell), divorced but used to flirty bickering. You know Russell’s character won’t be long with her buttoned-down fiancé, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), simply by the way he’s left in the dust by these speed demons. Hard as it is to believe, Hawks made an even faster comedy in Twentieth Century (1934), where the constant pronouncements of theater bigwig Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and his latest find, lingerie-model-turned-diva Lily (Carole Lombard), are a thinly veiled grab for identity itself. If they’re not always “performing,” then who are they? Bit players? Hawks himself was a laconic guy, but when asked in interviews for his secret with dialogue, he’d say: “Do it in 20 seconds less.”—JR

Losing the thread
So many of Hawks’s movies are vivid portraits of communities—air-freight pilots in
Only Angels Have Wings (1939), encyclopedia-researching intellectuals in Ball of Fire (1941), cattle drivers in Red River (1948)—wedded to clockwork-perfect stories. But the filmmaker hit upon something profound in his later works by losing the narrative thread and cultivating a series of “hang-out” tales in which personality takes precedence over incident. Rio Bravo (1959) is the watershed: The film is more interested in the clashing natures of John Wayne’s Texas sheriff and his motley crew, and the complicated sense of humanity that results, than in how they’ll fend off bullet-blasting bad guys. The safari adventure Hatari! (1962) goes even further; Hawks had a skeletal idea about zoo-animal catchers that he shaped into a comically laid-back examination of man versus beast. Little of lasting consequence happens in either picture, yet the absence of written-through drama allows these light-tone late works to take on much deeper shades. (Hawks knew he was onto a good thing, going on to remake Rio Bravo twice with 1966’s El Dorado and 1970’s Rio Lobo.) Beneath their entertaining surfaces, these movies play like philosophical explorations of our human comedy, films in which nothing happens yet everything does.—KU

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich

"The Complete Howard Hawks" runs Sep 7 through Nov 10 at Museum of the Moving Image. Click for showtimes

Read our Q&A with MoMI series programmer David Schwartz
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