Howard Hawks (1896-1977)

Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks was a film director, producer and screenwriter of the highest quality. He was responsible for some of Hollywood's greatest classics over a wide timespan and from a variety of genres such as 'Scarface' in 1932, 'Bringing Up Baby' in 1938, 'Sergeant York' in 1941, 'Red River' in 1948, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' in 1953, and 'El Dorado' in 1967. Hawks, amazingly, only received one Oscar nomination for Best Director - for 'Sergeant York' - and never won an Oscar. He was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1974.

Hawk's career spanned the whole of the period known as Hollywood's Golden Age. He started in the era of short silent movies being made by small independent companies, and continued through the beginning of Talkies and through the age of massive studio power, into the early 1970's.

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He was born Howard Winchester Hawks on May 30, 1896 in Goshen, Indiana, the eldest of five children. His family were wealthy and moved to the warm climes of Pasadena, California when he he was a young teenager. After attending the exclusive Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire Hawks studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University. His first movie work was during summer vacations from Cornell when he worked part-time as props man for Famous Players-Lasky where he became friends with Douglas Fairbanks.

Hawks spent his early years racing cars professionally and flew planes in the Army Air Corps in World War I. Both of these interests surfaced later in his films. After the war he returned to California and began gaining experience in various aspects of movie production working at different times for some of the most notable early film directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Allan Dwan, and Marshall Neilan. Hawks also made important contacts with other major players in Hollywood, such as Victor Fleming, and producer Irving Thalberg. In 1924 he wrote his first screenplay for Paramount, for the silent movie 'Tiger Love'.

Directorial Career

He continued working for Paramount as a scriptwriter until 1926 when he was given his first chance to direct on the movie 'The Road to Glory' which he had also written. In all he directed eight silent movies reworked the scripts of most of them without being officially credited for his work, but it was with the advent of Talkies that he really began to show what he could do.

He drew on his flying experience during the war for 'The Dawn Patrol' in 1930, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. making his film debut. 'The Crowd Roars' in 1932 has James Cagney as a racing-car driver in a movie that benefits greatly from Hawks's personal knowledge of the sport. In 'Scarface' in 1932, a gangster film that has become a classic, Paul Muni gives a masterly performance as a thinly disguised Al Capone. 'Twentieth Century' in 1934 is a dazzlingly energetic screwball comedy which made Carole Lombard a star.

Hawks had his failures, too. 'Viva Villa!' in 1934 was an ill-fated biopic of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Vila, and Hawks was replaced as director by Jack Conway, but in the space of a few years at the end of the 1930's, Hawks directed a series of enduring masterpieces. 'Bringing Up Baby' in 1938 is unsurpassed among Hollywood comedies; 'Only Angels Have Wings' in 1939 is the best of Hawks's flying pictures; and 'Sergeant York' in 1941 stars Gary Cooper as a World War I hero, a performance that won him an Oscar, gained Hawks his only nomination for Best Director, and went on to become the biggest box office hit of the year.

Through the 1940's Hawks demonstrated his uncanny ability to switch between genres with equal success. He teamed a young Lauren Bacall with Humphrey Bogart in a romantic thriller based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, 'To Have and Have Not' in 1944. So successful was the partnership that Hawks teamed them again in the 'The Big Sleep' in 1946. Two years later Hawks ventured into the Western genre with 'Red River'. He returned to comedy in 1949 with 'I Was a Male War Bride', starring Cary Grant in drag.

In the 1950's, Hawks successfully explored yet more genres, including musical comedy in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' in 1953 in which he was able to draw out abilities in Marilyn Monroe previously unseen by critics or audiences, and 'Land of the Pharaohs' in 1955, a biblical epic that was one of the director's rare flops. It was followed by what is perhaps his greatest film, 'Rio Bravo' in 1959, starring John Wayne and Angie Dickinson. The relationship between the marshall and the gallant band of misfits is uncovered with tact and delicacy, and the romance between Wayne and Dickinson is surprisingly tender. He remade the film twice - in 1967 as 'El Dorado' and again in 1970 as 'Rio Lobo'. Both remakes starred John Wayne.

End of Career

In the 1960's, Hawks's powers declined, though 'Man's Favorite Sport?' in 1964 is an amusing comedy. By the mid 1960's, Hawks was finding finance difficult to come by, and consequently could not attract the same quality of stars, forcing him to make 'Red Line 7000' in 1965, a return to the racing car milieu of his youth, with a cast of unknowns. But Wayne, loyal as ever, returned to the fold for Hawks's last movie, 'Rio Lobo in 1970.

Hawks's films present, for the most part, a masculine world in which an elite band of heroes unite in the achievement of a goal. Women can be admitted to this circle, but only if they can keep up with the pace and maintain the necessary sangfroid. His films are simply and efficiently made, all the focus being on the presentation of story and character.

He never felt confined to any particular genre and was able to switch, seemingly effortlessly between Westerns, the screwball comedy, film noir, the historical epic, the musical comedy, science fiction and horror, the combat film, the biopic, the gangster film, the racing film and the aviation film. No other director has created such a diverse and high quality body of work.

Hawks initially did not get the recognition his output deserved and he was not taken as seriously as some of his contemporaries such as John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock. In the 1950's his work was championed by an influential group of critics writing for the French journal 'Cahiers du Cinema', who included Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut and eventually the quality of his films was recognized.


Suave in appearance and something of a ladies' man, Hawks gave little away in his public persona, preferring to let his films speak for themselves. He was married three times, firstly from 1928 to 1940 to Athole Shearer, with whom he had two children. Athole was the sister of movie actress Norma Shearer. His second marriage was to interior designer, Slim Keith from 1941 to 1949 with whom he had one daughter. Finally, in 1953 he married actress Dee Hartford. The couple divorced in 1959.

Howard Hawks had two brothers, both of whom also went into the movie business: director/writer Kenneth Neil Hawks and film producer William Bettingger Hawks.

Hawks was physically active throughout his long life and at the time of his death was planning another film, a remake of the 1928 'A Girl in Every Port' to star John Wayne.

Howard Hawks died on December 26, 1977, aged 81, in Palm Springs, California, after suffering a stroke.

Hawks's Lifetime Achievement Academy Award referred to the director as "a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid, and varied bodies of work in world cinema." It is an apt summary of the career one of the greatest directors in the history of Hollywood.

Howard Hawks Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Director ... Sergeant York (1941)

Honorary Award:
"A master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema." (1975)

Howard Hawks Filmography

The Road to Glory
Honesty - The Best Policy
Fig Leaves
The Cradle Snatchers
Paid to Love
Paying the Penalty
A Girl in Every Port
The Air Circus
Trent's Last Case
The Dawn Patrol
The Criminal Code (uncredited)
The Crowd Roars
Tiger Shark
La foule hurle
Today We Live
The Prizefighter and the Lady(uncredited)
Viva Villa! (uncredited)
Twentieth Century
Barbary Coast
Ceiling Zero
The Road to Glory
Come and Get It
Bringing Up Baby
Test Pilot
Only Angels Have Wings