Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Howard Hawks: The Second Measure of the Man

The Stanford Theater ended its Howard Hawks series in late June.  I saw six films in the series; all directed by Hawks with the exception of O. Henry's Full House which I explain later.

A Girl in Every Port starring Victor McLaglen, Robert Armstrong & Louise Brooks; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Dennis James; (1928)
Air Force starring John Garfield; (1943)
Red River starring John Wayne & Montgomery Clift; with Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru & John Ireland; (1948)
O. Henry's Full House; anthology; (1952)
I Was a Male War Bride starring Cary Grant & Ann Sheridan; (1949)
The Big Sky starring Kirk Douglas & Dewey Martin; (1952)

The Stanford series followed and mostly duplicated a similar PFA series of which I only saw three films.  The films I most regret missing were Paid to Love, Dawn Patrol, Viva Villa! and The Outlaw.  I have not seen the first three films and it must be 30 years since I saw The Outlaw.  Jane Russell had quite an effect on my adolescence.  I was a big fan of Paleface and Son of Paleface also (I used to know the words to Buttons and Bows).  Perhaps someone will put on a posthumous Jane Russell retrospective.

The Stanford series (called Movies to Dream By On a Desert Island) had the involvement of noted film critic and historian David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film).  Thomson wrote the program guide included 10 pages of biographical information on Hawks as well as synopses of all of Hawks films (not just the ones screened by the Stanford).  In addition, Thomson introduced the 7:30 film on Saturday nights.


O. Henry's Full House consisted five short film based on O. Henry stories.  Each story was directed by a different person.  The author John Steinbeck introduced each segment.  I stayed through the fourth segment, The Ransom of Red Chief which starred Fred Allen & Oscar Levant and was directed by Hawks.  By then it was almost 11:30 PM and I was getting sleepy

The preceding segments were The Cop and the Anthem starring Charles Laughton and directed by Henry Koster; The Clarion Call starring Richard Widmark & Dale Robertson and directed by Henry Hathaway; and The Last Leaf starring Anne Baxter, Jean Peters & Gregory Ratoff and directed by Jean Negulesco.  The segment I skipped was The Gift of the Magi with Farley Granger & Jeanne Crain and directed by Henry King.  Marilyn Monroe makes a cameo appearance in The Cop and the Anthem.

The fact that three of the five directors of O. Henry's Full House were named Henry makes me wonder if Hawks & Negulesco were replacements or second choices.

Full House left me near empty.  It was kind of interesting to see Charles Laughton as a bum and Richard Widmark channel Tommy Udo again but their performances seemed ham handed.  The Last Leaf was my favorite.  Anne Baxter plays a woman ill with pneumonia.  She comes to believe that when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her bedroom window, she will die.  Jean Peters plays here sister and caregiver.  Russian born Gregory Ratoff plays the tempermental artist who lives upstairs of the sister who plays a crucial role in Baxter's recovery.

Hawks' The Ransom of Red Chief  had a lighter tone than the other segments despite the fact child kidnapping and ransom were at the heart of the story.  Fred Allen & the droll Oscar Levant play kidnappers whose victim (Lee Aaker) is a hellion and then some.  The boy makes such a nuisance of himself that the kidnappers agree to pay the boy's father to take him back.  Lacking in Hawks' typical flourishes, Red Chief  never elicited more than a smirk from me.


Air Force was a WWII propaganda film which played a loose and fast with the facts.  No need to recount the inaccuracies since there were so many.  The film follows a B-17 crew as they fly from California to Hawaii to the Philippines in the days around December 7, 1941.  John Garfield plays the hardnut side gunner who washed out of flight school.  There is another pilot named Tex who is fighter pilot but looks down on the bomber pilots.  If I recall correctly, the co-pilot (Gig Young) was dating the pilot's sister.  Frankly, Air Force wasn't worth the trip down to Palo Alto.

Similarly unimpressive was The Big Sky with Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin as two frontiersmen making their way up the Missouri River on a keelboat.  They have a friendly rivlarly which I've seen depicted in countless films.  Arthur Hunnicutt (who would play Bull in El Dorado) plays the grizzled trapper who serves as a mentor to Douglas and Martin.  Half-Cherokee Elizabeth Threatt plays a Blackfoot princess in her lone (but memorable) film appearance.  Covering much of the same ground as Hawks' Westerns, The Big Sky never really hit its stride.


Red River is a film I've never seen all the way through before.  For 97% of the film, it was as good as any John Wayne film I've seen.  Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a stubborn man who gave up his true love and is willing to kill in order to be successful as cattle rancher.  Along for the ride is Walter Brennan as his second banana and Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth, his ward.  Matt's parents were killed when he was a child on the wagon train out west.  Dunson and Groot (Brennan) take him in and form a de facto, tri-generational family unit.  Dunson owns the ranch, even though Matt's cow and Dunson's bull started the herd. 

15 years later, Matt is grown up and Dunson has a herd of 1,000 head.  He can't sell them in Texas so he has to drive the herd to Missouri.  Dunson sets out with a group hired cowpokes.  He makes them all pledge to see the drive through to the end which is hypocritical since he broke a similar pledge when he left the wagon train to set up his ranch.  Among the hired hands is Cherry Valence (John Ireland) who has a rivalry with Matt that borders on homoerotic.  They literally compare the size of their pistols.

Dunson is the harshest of trailbosses.  Nothing will dissuade him from his Missouri destination including unconfirmed reports of railroad stockyard in Abilene.  When Dunson attempts to lynch two deserters, Matt leads a rebellion against Dunson.  They oust Dunson from their camp and take the herd to Abilene.  Dunson vows to kill Matt and take back his herd.

The rest of the film shows Dunson (with a group of cowboys/gunslingers) tracking Matt and the herd to Abilene.  Joanne Dru shows up as a love interest for Matt who bizarrely offers to bear Dunson's child if he will give up his pursuit of Matt.  I must have missed some of the coded messages in that scene.  The film progresses nicely until the finale when Dunson catches up with Matt in Abilene.  They begin a furious fistfight which is interrupted when Dru starts shooting (she is a marksman) at them and demands they recognize the love they have for each other.  Turning on a dime, Dunson sees the error in his ways and makes peace with Matt...even encouraging him to marry Dru so as to avoid the regret he faced as a younger man.  Complete copout at the end which isn't surprising because the film is based on a Borden Chase story which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.  Do they still publish that?  Anyway, the film changed the ending of the story and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

For most of the way, Red River is a great film with John Wayne giving us a preview of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers.  The film is propped up by a strong supporting cast including Clift, Brennan, Ireland, Harry Carey Jr. as a cowboy with a sweet tooth who causes a stampede and Chief Yowlachie as a poker playing Indian who wins Groot's false teeth.

I recognized one of the songs as a downtempo version of a song from Rio Bravo.  It's clear that Hawks had a stock company of actors he used in his Westerns including Wayne, Brennan, Hunnicutt, Paul Fix, et al.


It's a bit sad to see Cary Grant dressed in drag in I Was a Male War Bride.  Fortunately, it only happens for a brief period towards the end of the film.  For the majority, Cary Grant is busy being Cary Grant.  Oddly enough, he is cast a French army officer who is assigned to find a German scientist in post-WWII Europe.  Ann Sheridan as an American WAC accompanies him on his mission for no apparent reason except so that he can have someone to banter with.  Actually, Sheridan plays a great "straight man" for Grant to bounce off of.  For most of the film, Grant is exasperated at Sheridan's actions as well as the indignities he must suffer as a man trying to marry an American military "serviceman."  The Army procedures assume an American male will marry a foreign female and Grant's situation sets this assumption on its head...to madcap results.

A lightweight film which seems to waste Grant and Sheridan's talents, I was nonetheless amused by I Was a Male War Bride at vaious points throughout the film.  That's more a testimonial to Grant & Sheridan (I just picked up on the Civil War connection...if I only I could think of a pun) than the plot.


That leaves A Girl in Every Port with the incomparable Louise Brooks whose screen time is lamentably short in the film.  Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong are two sailors who go from port to port.  They have a not so friendly rivalry in trying to shack up with women in each port.  They bond over a couple of bar room fights and one saves the other from drowning and/or a night in jail.  Slapstick and broad emotional brushstrokes are the stock in trade until Louise Brooks shows up. 

What an first impression she makes!  With her trademark bob cut, she is a circus highdiver wearing a curve hugging swimsuit.  The camera follows her shimmying up a ladder to prepare for her high dive.  Brooks, Montgomery & McLaglen form a love triangle, although the audience & Montgomery know that Brooks is a gold digger as they shared a past in Coney Island or somehwere.  There is the obligatory split between the two men with Montgomery not wanting to destroy McLaglen's idealised view of the woman.  Montgomery leaves his mark on his conquests which is a small anchor & heart tattoo.  This proves crucial in tipping off McLaglen about Brook's past.

That's too much plot recounting.  The main reason to see A Girl in Every Port is to see Lulu - to admire her, to be smitten by her, to desire her and to plan to see Pandora's Box where her beauty and talents are on full display.  Pandora's Box plays at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Saturday, July 14 at 7:00 PM at the Castro Theater.

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