The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946)

Hawks in fine form, Bogart in classic form, and Bacall introducing her sultry self. An all-time classic, just not a personal fave of mine. Maybe one of the greatest screenplays written, but we probably owe most of it to Chandler’s genius. Film’s like these, meaning those so universally loved, make it extremely difficult to take a new spin when so much has already been written. If I noticed something new this time around it’s Hawks’ use of subtle tracking shots across interior spaces, complimenting Marlowe’s constantly evolving, fluid approach toward the investigation.

Monkey Business (Hawks, 1952)

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers playing a scientist couple drinking the youth enhancing kool aid and acting like children = a damn fine time. Director Howard Hawks once again proves the best comedy feels the most seamless and instinctual to the story, giving both Grant and Rogers a great character dynamic to play off throughout. The highlights include Rogers shooting a slingshot at Marilyn Monroe’s butt and Grant dancing around with a group of children dressed like Indians about to scalp a pestering love interest. Also kudos for a priceless referential opening sequence. Monkey Business is a great comedy that uses it’s talent not as gross out cliches or mindless ironic twists, just as human beings acting out the hidden childhood joys adulthood often brutally suppresses without rhyme or reason. When each character comes down from artificially reliving childhood aura’s, there’s both a sigh of relief and a sadness at what’s come and gone.

A Song is Born (Hawks, 1948)

Howard Hawks doing jazz? Sounds strange, but the first half of A Song is Born, which involves a group of sequestered music professors getting introduced to the wonders of Jazz, contains many musical moments which border on bliss. Hawks gathers Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, a many others to perform as themselves within the story, the resulting “jam sessions” a gleeful, eye opening experience for both the older academics and the viewer. Too bad Hawks gets bogged down in the traditional, dame on the run story, which inevitably overwhelms the initial glimmer of musical light. Virginia Mayo plays the femme, and her mole to the academic’s straight men doesn’t ever gel as it should, partly because she and lead prof. Danny Kaye have little chemistry. Why Hawks didn’t try a more improvisational narrative to compliment the great music beats me, but the classical Hollywood studio system might have had something to do with it. A Song is Born turns ugly in the third act, mixing some strangely brutal moments of violence with more story contrivances. The final collective musical rendition reminds why the film seemed to be heading in the right direction, but by this time, A Song is Born has already flushed any of it’s originality down the toilet, replacing it with stale, cliched plot fodder and dumbed down characters.

Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934)

This isn’t one of the great Hawks films, even though some major critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum would disagree with me. It’s about “the greatest ham of all time” as Hawks said himself, and Twentieth Century is one over the top interlude after the other. It’s funny, even hilarious at times, and the running gags work wonderfully (the lunatic on the train is pure genious). Barrymore and Lombard are perfect together and exemplify a kind of mania seeped in artisitc collaboration. The supporting players like Roscoe Karns and Walter Connoly shine bright, giving slight glimmers of relief in between battles of prose between the two stars. Twentieth Centry has the charm of other Hawks films, it just lacks the classy ease and timeless quality of his comedic masterpieces, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bringing Up Baby. One can only eat so much ham, even if it’s served on a golden platter by one of America’s finest filmmakers.

I Was a Male War Bride (Hawks, 1949)

A strange and curiously enlightening film from Howard Hawks. What starts out incredibly standard, i.e. Cary Grant’s French Capt. falls in love with Ann Sheridan’s feisty American Lt. on a mission in the German countryside, becomes something else altogether by the end. After the two get hitched, man and wife spend the rest of the movie trying to be together, hindered, divided and harassed by the United States military through a number of comedic cases of mistaken identity. The only way Grant can join Sheridan in America is to take war bride status, a hit to his ego and his masculinity. Hawks supplies the beautiful blocking and Grant brings the fast talking juice, but it’s the arc of the film that feels most revolutionary. Completely emasculated, tired, and tortured, Grant’s initial cocky demeanor folds into a strong willed base of support for his new love, revealing it’s the effort that counts, not the gender.

Air Force (Hawks, 1943)

Howard Hawks’ Air ForceΒ works beautifully as a piece of Hollywood wartime propaganda released in the middle of World War II. This is important because of how singularly focused the film feels, spending all of it’s time with a bomber squadron crew made up of a diverse set of personalities reflecting a sameness of American patriotism, even though there are characters who expectedly change throughout the film – the once selfish become gung ho flag wavers too. Air Force is an obvious propaganda film, painting the invisible enemy as cowardly and deceptive. But Hawks does give his group of characters plenty of clout as real, three-dimensional soldiers thrust into complex and life threatening situations. While death is seen as a passing fact of life, the characterizations are so strong we still feel the loss. Air Force sports some spectacular special effects (for which is was nominated for an Academy Award) and James Wong Howe’s camera moves swiftly through the air along with these valiant servicemen. While obviously biased, Hawks’ film must be viewed within the context of it’s release. Air Force is impressive and effective as a war film, but more interestingly it’s a slice of anger aimed between the eyes of America’s once enemy Japan, an overt simplification of war time history and the consequences of battle. It’s purpose however rings loudly with thoughtfully drawn out character parallels and feisty banter, vintage Howard Hawks.