Howard Hawks and Stories

As you may recall, a few weeks ago I wrote about film director Howard Hawks’ cavalier attitude towards, not to say contempt for, stories. What interested him was scenes, and how they brought out the relationships between characters. So I’ve been watching some Hawks films with this in mind. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it makes for really disjointed movies.

He did a cute little flick in ’49 called I Was a Male War Bride. Cary Grant plays a French officer forced to work with Ann Sheridan, an American WAC. I kept forgetting that Cary Grant is supposed to be French, because he talks exactly like Cary Grant. Anyway, he and Ann Sheridan hate one another. We’re supposed to understand that Grant is a lech, which is why Sheridan hates him, but I kept forgetting that part because Grant seems oblivious to all the really cute WACs running around. So much for character development.

But here’s the big thing: At a crucial point in the story, Sheridan is supposed to realize that she’s actually madly in love with the alleged cad. And that’s how it happens. In one scene, they are bickering as usual, and in the next she is mooning like a schoolgirl and begging him to say something nice to her. If there was a transition, something that brought about the change, I missed it.

This is fairly typical of Hawks’ movies. They’re jerky. Here’s a scene. Here’s another. Is this a result of contempt for stories or for audiences? Or is it because he learned his trade in the days of silent movies, when stories tended to be primitive by necessity? I suspect that all of these play a part.

At one point, Peter Bogdanovich asks Hawks if he thinks about film-making as an art. The answer is monosyllabic and negative. How does he think about it, then? As a business. Which may explain why there are so few of Hawks’ movies I would care to see twice. One of the rare exceptions is To Have and Have Not, which despite Hawks’ denial is clearly a remake of Casablanca, and a poor one. Casablanca (directed by Michael Curtiz) I can watch over and over. What wonderful characters. What great scenes. What a tight little story. Hawks’ remake has only three memorable characters and a goodly number of amusing scenes. The story stinks.

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