Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for his Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked about his three favorite American directors and answered, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our gr...
Much as I love Orson Welles, I've never quite forgiven him for his Cahiers du Cinema interview when he was asked about his three favorite American directors and answered, "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." How dare he exclude our greatest director, Howard Hawks? Of course it should be Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. Twice because he was versatile enough that his comedies and dramas intertwine; Ford was brilliant visually and emotionally but easily mired in his misty-eyed Irish sentiment. When he tried to do comedy he got lost in children's choirs and rolicking brawls. Hawksian men face danger on a daily basis, and when they die, they die like men, or they survive like men; either way, without speeches. And if they meet a woman, it's ten times faster and more disorienting than a Maginot line charge.There's no chaperone, no parson beaming, no dance, no time for blarney. The whole fabric of the John Ford fort, the small town unity that extends in generations for centuries back, is gone in an instant with Hawks, boiled down to a gummy old cripple, a drunk, and a limping sheriff, holed up in a jail and visited daily by attractive women who seem more modern and free of phony glamor than even Ford's dirty-faced tomboys.It matters not, of course, the John Ford John Ford John Ford mindset has won out. Do a search on Amazon for a Howard Hawks boxed set you won't find a thing (except an Italian R2). Look for a John Ford and whammo. Hawks films are classics--very few misses in his canon--but they're not rich in surface 'importance.' Instead of emotion, race, and historical accuracy, they are fun, archetypal, witty, engaging, resonant more on a Jungian than Freudian level. In some ways it's as if Hawks films take place in the universe that Ford has set up, the same towns and valleys, but then Hawks film doesn't show up for the big dance and goes around back to roll cigarettes and take shots. Fords films are about obeying the rules, worshipping tradition, joining the social order with a deep Catholic devotion, and letting Victor McLagen ham it up; Hawks films are about breaking rules, sidestepping tradition, letting Dean Martin suffer through the shakes brought on by prolonged proximity to Jerry Lewis. "In case you haven't figured it out yet," John Wayne explains to his prisoner; "the minute your brother starts somethin' you're liable to get accidentally shot." The way Wayne says 'shot' is a chilling reminder of death's finality. In some films guns are just toys and marksmanship almost irrelevant - the heroes never miss and the villains never hit- but in Hawks it's about being a dead shot even with a pistol fired from the hip.The earlier sound era of Hawks had some major classics, like SCARFACE (1932), but in the 30s Hawks was still figuring himself out. He had some great writers, many of whom had also witnessed a lot of death, like William Faulkner, a fellow WW1 pilot who took very clear-eyed looks at buddies in danger. BUT Hawks had yet to find his signature action movie style, the male bonding-in-isolation, the querencia mentality, wherein courageous, noble, chivalrous marksmen, pilots, or hunters band together against great odds in an enclosed space. In some of these early films he was even bound by love triangles of the old Lon Chaney Sr. variety, the pugnacious brute ranting with jealousy because his lady love's found a more perfect mate.Anyway, maybe examining these five early films (in order of release) will help. They're all rather obscure so I mention how to locate each film, be it available only on VHS, DVD-R, or TCM--which is a crime considering nearly every John Ford movie ever made is remastered out there on disc, and my own ratings. THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931)Avail. on VHS and Region 2 DVD*** Walter Huston is a tough but fair warden who, as DA, sends a naive kid (Phillip Holmes) up the river for ten years after he whacks a masher with a bottle in a notorious speakeasy. "An eye for an eye - that's the foundation
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