We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

My friends and I used to play a game while waiting for our Film 101 course to start. We’d make up film categories and choose the greatest in each. Our best private-eye film (The Big Sleep), best comedy (His Girl Friday), best screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby), best western (Red River), best science fiction (The Thing), and our second best gangster film were all directed by the same man: Howard Winchester Hawks.

What is truly amazing is that the list doesn’t even include The Dawn Patrol, Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings, Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, I Was a Male War Bride, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo.

How is it possible that the director who made such a huge number of critically acclaimed works has never inspired a biography? Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Variety film critic Todd McCarthy answers the question. Hawks was, in the words of photographer Robert Capa, a “mythomaniac.” McCarthy navigates the myth-strewn maze Hawks left in his wake, mining the surviving (at the time) links to the director (including Angie Dickinson, Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum, and Hawks’ ex-wife, Slim Keith) as well as Hawks’ papers and the legal files of numerous studios. The result is an in-depth examination of a shallow man.

Hawks was a friend of both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, yet “He steered clear of anything that smacked of the highbrow, the literary, or the intellectual.” In an industry whose hierarchy was composed largely of Jews, Hawks was somewhat anti-Semitic, yet he was a lifelong friend of the writer Ben Hecht, a committed Zionist. He sided with numerous Hollywood right-wingers, yet, said his son, “Dad didn’t like people who were in politics.” One gets the impression that the only thing that kept Hawks from being completely odious was a simple lack of emotional commitment to his own prejudices.

Hawks’ personal life reflected a lack of emotional commitment to everything except movies. His three marriages drifted as he browsed fashion magazines looking for young, slender, well-groomed females he could “mold.” (He responded only to this type; Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes did nothing for him.) Except for his youngest son, Hawks scarcely acknowledged his children and had little to do with their lives.

Incredibly, a man with so Neanderthal a view of women and sexual relationships had an enormous impact on the sexual attitudes of the generation that grew up on his films. If one were to make a list of the most spirited, unconventional female characters in classic American films—Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo come quickly to mind—many of them would be from Hawks’ movies.

McCarthy cuts through this seeming paradox: “Hawks’ oeuvre does not represent an autobiography; rather, it constitutes a massive self-projection, a portrait of his fantasy of himself as a great flier, racer, soldier, explorer, pioneer of industry, detective, criminal, lover, hunter, and sheriff.” And he created women to match the men. That his own life didn’t measure up to his characters’, or that he never found the right women, matters not at all. He enriched our lives with the ones he imagined.

If this thick, rich biography has a major flaw it’s that McCarthy sometimes indulges in the kind of overintellectualization that Hawks himself deplored. Dragging back the tired old auteur theory (particularly regarding the personality of the director as a criterion of value) adds nothing to the enjoyment of Hawks’ work. We are only interested in Hawks’ personality because we like many of his movies; why should we bother to search for signs of his personality in clunkers like The Big Sky, Man’s Favorite Sport?, Red Line 7000, and Rio Lobo? Who cares what aspects of Hawks’ personality they illustrate, particularly when, outside of his skills as a filmmaker, Hawks seems to have had so little personality?

In making a case for Rio Lobo, McCarthy quotes an essay from Film Heritage that asks why, “if such artists as Matisse, Faulkner, and Wallace Stevens could be allowed many recapitulations of the same subjects, why not Hawks?” The obvious answer is: No reason at all, but Rio Lobo still sucks.

The achievement of Howard Hawks is that it chronicles in vivid detail how perhaps the last great popular artist in movies worked. We have artists making films today, and God knows we have popular directors, but we have no more popular artists in films—at least none that have yet given an indication of Hawks’ staying power. G.K. Chesterton wrote of Dickens that “he did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted.” Howard Hawks may have been the last American director for whom we could say the same thing.CP