REFERENCE POINTS 


;The canonization of American iconoclast Howard Hawks was cemented back in the '50s when the French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma became the first film writers to deem him important. Since then, this unassuming director's status continues to elevate from craftsman to auteur, as his pioneering efforts are acknowledged exhaustively in books, documentaries and DVD supplements.

;; With most of his significant features on DVD, vegging on the couch for a weekend of nothing but Hawks (a dream weekend, to be sure) is an easy option. This month marks the DVD release of three Hawks movies from three different studios: Universal's belated release of his Scarface; Warner's two-disc reissue of Rio Bravo, this time with two commentaries, two featurettes and a documentary about Hawks; and, for the first time, one of Hawks' funniest movies, MGM's Ball of Fire.

;; As this trifecta indicates, Hawks made movies to please all sorts, and most of us have encountered his movies, tangentially or not and whether we knew it or not. John Wayne fans have surely seen Rio Bravo, Hawks' best Western and perhaps the best Western of the pre-Leone era. Marilyn Monroe admirers have Hawks to thank for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with its "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." World War I buffs can't do better than Hawks' portrait of pacifist hero Sergeant York. Film noir lovers have for decades futilely tried to solve the insoluble crime at the core of Hawks' idiosyncratic Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep.

;; Perhaps buyers of Universal's 20th-anniversary Scarface gift set, a bloated and excessive collection for a film that was bloated and excessive, took a look at the bonus disc, Hawks' controversial and undoubtedly superior 1932 original. (Start composing your hate mail now.) Ditto to John Carpenter fans who might have checked out Hawks' original Thing From Another World, a terrific sci-fi classic even though the genre was of such low esteem that Hawks took his name off the picture.

;; Oh, and that Lauren Bacall line, "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … [seductive pause] … blow"? The most suggestive innuendo in the movies since the once-not-totally-unattractive Mae West sluttily croaked, "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" Yeah, that whistle was from a Hawks movie: To Have and Have Not.

;; His films have seeped into modern movies, too; the New Hollywood of the 1970s never resisted the opportunity to quote him. Film geek-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich showed clips of Hawks' Criminal Code in his disturbing violence deconstruction Targets and used Hawks' Red River to bittersweet effect in The Last Picture Show. Harvey Keitel pontificates about Rio Bravo to a disinterested potential suitor in Martin Scorsese's debut feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? Carl Reiner employed bits of The Big Sleep for his cut-and-paste noir comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and a scene from His Girl Friday opens this year's disappointing Man in the Chair.

;; Whether it's queer theorists finding gay subtext in Red River – c'mon, Montgomery Clift and that other dude aren't really talking about their guns – or feminists admiring Hawks' tough-as-nails leading ladies Jean Arthur and Ann Sheridan for reducing the men in their lives to subservient lapdogs (see Naomi Wise's essential 1971 essay "The Hawksian Woman"), Hawks has long had a home in intellectual art-cinema discourse.

;; But at the end of the day, Hawks' films are entertainment above all else, and his most entertaining and enduring films are his screwball comedies, such as Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday (the best journalism movie ever; sorry, Alan Pakula, and sorry, Ron Howard), I Was a Male War Bride and Monkey Business. These movies provide Hawks the most fertile ground for his most trailblazing trait: the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, which has reverberated in everything from Robert Altman to Aaron Sorkin. In the Turner Classic Movies documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks, the aged director reveals the trick to his realistic dialogue style – adding a few unneccesary words to the beginning and end of every sentence so that nothing is lost in the overlapping process.

;; But the glory of Hawks' comedies lies as much in his choice of brilliant screenwriters as it does his direction. Ball of Fire, about a stodgy professor compiling an encyclopedia (Gary Cooper) and the ball-of-fire nightclub singer he falls for (Barbara Stanwyck), was written by Billy Wilder, before the German émigré went on to a directing career. Hawks loved the film so much that he made it again seven years later as the inferior Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born but was unable to capture the comic gold of one of Wilder's wittiest scripts.

;; Some of Ball of Fire's highlights: Gangster moll Stanwyck, on the lam from the law, is in desperate need of a place to stay where the fuzz won't find her. "I have a friend who's an undertaker," a gangster suggests. "He always has a free slab." When Stanwyck first enters the book-crammed home of Cooper and his colleagues, she says, "That's a lot of books – are all of 'em different?" Pleading to stay at Cooper's place, Stanwyck tells him to inspect her throat, raw from singing all night. "It's as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore!" she says.

;; I can't follow that up, except to urge studios to keep these Hawks releases coming. (We're still waiting on Air Force, The Criminal Code, The Big Sky and others.) His impact is ubiquitous, his movies get richer with every viewing and younger generations continue to discover them. The French get a lot of flak for worshipping Jerry Lewis – an artist in his own right as well – but they were correct about their groundbreaking praise of Hawks as a visionary. I don't care how much Hawks denied it.

film@orlandoweekly.com

More by John Thomason

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