Cinema's Optimist 

Film critic and author David Thomson on Howard Hawks' career.

Last year, when local film enthusiast Malcolm Pratt -- via his organization Cinema Memphis -- staged a retrospective of British filmmaking team Powell and Pressburger at downtown's Cannon Center, it was so unexpected and grandiose that it was difficult to imagine a sequel.

But Pratt is making good on his promise to turn the event into an annual celebration. This weekend, Cinema Memphis screens seven films from perhaps the greatest of Hollywood directors, Howard Hawks, and brings to Memphis one of Hawks' foremost champions, respected film critic and author David Thomson.

Chances are, Cinema Memphis will find a larger audience this time around. Even if Hawks might not be that much better known to casual filmgoers than director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger, the actors who populate his films probably are. The seven films this week star the likes of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gary Cooper, and Dean Martin.

The 2002 edition of Thomson's classic Biographical Dictionary of Film is littered with Hawks: A still from To Have and Have Not is used on the cover. Thomson leads the book with an exchange from Rio Bravo. In the acknowledgments, Thomson lists His Girl Friday among his three favorite films. And his full entry on Hawks is a passionate and perceptive appreciation where Thomson insists that were he forced to choose only 10 films to while away his years, they would all be by Hawks.

One of the oft-cited keys to Hawks' greatness and why many, including Thomson, call him the quintessential Hollywood director, is his versatility. Most American directors of Hawks' era and stature are identified with specific styles: John Ford with westerns. Alfred Hitchcock as the master of suspense.

But Hawks did everything. There was perhaps no movie genre he didn't try: western, screwball comedy, film noir, war movies, action-adventure, historical epic, musical, gangster movies. Everything. But what made Hawks special was his ability to not only impose a personal style and worldview on so many different genres but to use his personal style to play with the boundaries of these genres, sometimes blurring one into another.

"That's the thing that's great about Rio Bravo," Thomson says. "If someone said to you, 'What is Rio Bravo?' You would say, well, it's a western, but ... And it's everything that hangs on that "but" that's interesting. Because it's also a bit of a musical. It's also a comedy. It's also a love story. It's got so many things thrown in there."

Similarly, Hawks' Bogie and Bacall vehicles -- To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep -- are more than meets the eye. "They both talk and look and act as if they were film noir," says Thomson, "but they're also screwball comedy. They've got so many different genres mixed in together."

"The greatest optimist the cinema has produced."

That's the claim Thomson makes for Hawks in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, one rooted in an ethic that's constant in his films.

"I think he believes that human society can be made better by common sense and intelligence and people being decent and kind to each other," Thomson says. "But the thing about Hawks is that he's the most down-to-earth realist there ever was, so it's a mixture of realism and optimism. 'Is that all you've got? It's what I've got.' I think it's a good motto for life."

This optimistic, open view of life comes through in Hawks' attitude toward women. Hawks, like Ford, is thought of as a masculine director, with many of his films concerning primarily male subcultures. But in Hawks' inherently egalitarian world, women could compete -- and be embraced -- as equals.

"I think Hawks was a true feminist," Thomson contends. "You get some of the earliest examples of women living by their wits in Hawks' films, whereas I think Ford sentimentalizes women. Hawks was prepared to be surprised by women, always."

You see this most in Hawks' romantic tropes, in the electric back-and-forth between Grant and Russell in His Girl Friday, in the way Bacall and Angie Dickinson are allowed to get the best of Bogart and Wayne, respectively, and in the way Bogart and Wayne adore them for it.


Hawks is typically lauded as a "storyteller," a description that, on the surface, fits a director with such a direct visual style, entertaining manner, and adroitness at so many genres. But the term is also misleading.

Hawks' films are usually more concerned with characters and situations than stories. His focus was on individual scenes, which he would try to inject with as much fun and what he called "business" as he could.

This is why what's often most memorable in Hawks' films are moments that aren't crucial to the narrative but that help establish character or tone or that are just enjoyable in their own right: Montgomery Clift and John Ireland having a shooting contest with a tin can in Red River, John Wayne rolling Dean Martin a cigarette or Angie Dickinson throwing a flower pot through a window in Rio Bravo, Bogie and Bacall discussing racehorses in The Big Sleep, Katharine Hepburn's long putt and Grant's lost intercostal clavicle in Bringing Up Baby.

And Hawks' interest in character and situation made him a brilliant director of actors. "We've got a number of films where very famous star actors are used in quite unusual ways," Thomson says of the Cinema Memphis slate of Hawks films.

He's speaking primarily of Wayne and Bogart, who boast perhaps the two strongest personas in the history of the medium. But Hawks found previously undiscovered depths to the Wayne character in Red River, a revelatory role that paved the way for Wayne's most celebrated performance, in Ford's The Searchers. And in Rio Bravo, Hawks brought out a modesty and humor in Wayne that had been buried before.

Hawks' tweaking of Bogart was perhaps even more interesting.

"What Hawks said to Bogart when they made To Have and Have Not is exactly borne out in the film," Thomson says. "[Hawks] said, 'You are known as the most tough, insolent, independent guy on the screen, and I'm going to put you in a movie with a 19-year-old girl who trumps you all the time.'"

Hawks today

To most critics and buffs, Hawks is an acknowledged master, but the American film establishment has never really given him his due. Hawks never won an Oscar in his time and places only one film on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films (Bringing Up Baby, barely squeaking in at #97).

"I think to this day he's not as highly thought of as he should be," Thomson says. "Here is a man who was recognized as being very good but not outstanding. But we look back on it now -- and, you know, some of these films are 70 years old -- and his films look as sharp and fresh as if they'd been made yesterday."

Thomson sees some echoes of Hawks in contemporary movies, citing the chattiness and digressions of Quentin Tarantino and the very Hawksian versatility of Curtis Hanson. But, sadly, today Hawks' films might be most notable as a reminder of what has been lost in American movies.

"He has the best of that American attitude to movie-making that existed in the '20s, '30s, '40s. That you entertained people, and you did it in as smart and quick a way as you can," Thomson says. "And I'm afraid that these traits have deserted us."

At least this weekend, Memphis filmgoers get an unprecedented chance to see what we've all been missing.

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