In my attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of cinema history, it’s occurred to me that the work of Howard Hawks constitutes one of my biggest blind spots. I’ve seen three of his screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and I Was a Male War Bride), the first two of which I admit are masterpieces of the genre; one of his noir films (The Big Sleep); and two of his Westerns (Red River and Rio Bravo), both of which are justifiable classics. But it’s not until now that I’ve gotten around to two of his most famous films, the cheerfully lightweight musical-comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and one of the foundational gangster thrillers, Scarface (1932).
As even a cursory glance at Hawks’ filmography reveals, he dabbled in nearly all of the major genres of the classical studio era: screwball comedy, Western, gangster film, musical, film noir. Many Hollywood directors worked in multiple genres, but most are closely identified with one particular genre in which they specialized: John Ford with westerns, for instance, or George Cukor with comedies (specifically those starring women). It’s not so easy to make broad, totalizing claims about Hawks. For an especially tortuous example of one such attempt, see Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin’s Short History of the Movies, in which they argue that Hawks’ films are not only characterized by their “driving narratives” and “action” (true enough) but also by “complex tensions [that lie] between the characters’ verbal facades and their unverbalized feelings,” and that “the great Hawks film are stories of the evolution of trust, of growing faith in another human being.” These claims may hold for some of Hawks’ films—particularly Bringing Up Baby and Red River—but how can we apply them to something as effusive as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with its paper-thin characters and threadbare plot? This film is a good example of how much mileage Hollywood cinema could get out of sheer style, because style is all that it has to recommend it.
The co-presence of films as different as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Red River suggests that we can’t talk about “the Hawks film” the same way that can talk about the Ford film or the Hitchcock film. But that’s not a bad thing. Why this desperate urge to make a case for Howard Hawks as an auteur, as a filmmaker who was innovative and atypical? Why not admit that Hawks was a brilliant journeyman director who perfected the genres he worked in, instead of trying to come up with ways in which he deviated from them? Can we only respect Hawks if we turn him into some kind of innovator? Hawks’ talent, it seems, was not for innovation. It was for knowing how best to play by the rules of whatever genre he happened to be working in. That in itself makes him worthy of adulation, and it seems more honest than trying to boil down his heterogeneous body of work into some kind of auteurist formula.