The films of legendary director Howard Hawks not only span a wide variety of genres, but frequently rank with the best in those genres, whether the war film (The Dawn Patrol), gangster film (Scarface), the screwball comedy (His Girl Friday); the action-adventure movie (Only Angels Have Wings), the noir (The Big Sleep), the Western (Red River and Rio Bravo), the musical-comedy (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and the historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs).
Though Howard Hawks created some of the most memorable moments in the history of American film a half-century ago, serious critics generally eschewed his work, as they did not believe there was a controlling intelligence behind them. Seen as the consummate professional director in the industrial process that was the studio film, serious critics believed that the great moments of Hawks' films were simply accidents that accrued from working in Hollywood with other professionals.
In his 1948 book The Film Til Now, Richard Griffin summed this feeling up with the dismissal, "Hawks is a very good all rounder."
Serious critics at the time attributed the mantle of "artist" to a director only when they could discern artistic aspirations, a personal visual style, or serious thematic intent. Hawks seemed to them an unambitious director who lacked the personal touch of an Alfred Hitchcock or an Orson Welles. (Neither Hawks, Hitchcock or Welles won an Best Director Academy Award and were nominated as Best Director just once, each; Welles won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane in 1942 and all three later were awarded honorary Oscars for their bodies of Work by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ironically, Hawks and Welles were nominated in the same year, one year after Hitchcock gained his only directorial nod.)
The consensus of mainstream American critics was that Howard Hawks lacked the painterly sensibility of John Ford (who won six Oscars, four as Best Director), and had never tackled heavy themes like the failure of the American dream or racism, like George Stevens (two time Oscar winner, Best Director, as well as the recipient of the Irving Thalberg award, the Academy‘s highest accolade for a producer). Hawks was seen as a commercial Hollywood director who was good enough to turn out first-rate entertainments in a wide variety of genre films in a time in which genre films such as the melodrama, the war picture and the gangster picture were treated with a lack of respect.
The Birth of an Auteur
One of the central ideas behind the modernist novel that dominated the first half of the 20th-century artistic consciousness (when the novel and the novelist were still considered the ultimate arbiters of culture in the Euro-American world) was that the author should begin something new with each book, rather than repeating him/herself as the 19th century novelists had done. Howard Hawks was not like this, and in fact, the latter Hawks constantly recycled not just themes but plots, so that his last great film, Rio Bravo, essentially was remade as El Dorado and Rio Lobo (1970).
Rio Bravo, itself, was a remake of High Noon. Thus, in his constant recycling of themes, stories and even visual tropes, Hawks did not fit the "modernist" paradigm of an artist.
The critical perception of Hawks began to change with the emergence of the auteur theory in France in the 1950s. The auteur theory was the idea that one intelligence was responsible for the creation of superior films regardless of their designation as "commercial" or "art house."
In the early '50s, the French-language critics who wrote for the cinema journal Cahiers du Cinema (many of whom would go on to become directors themselves) elevated Howard Hawks into the pantheon of great directors. The Cahiers critics claimed that a handful of commercial Hollywood directors like Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock had created films as artful and fulfilling as the masterpieces of the art cinema. Andre Bazin gave these critics the moniker "Hitchcocko-Hawksians".
Jacques Rivette wrote in his 1953 essay, "The Genius of Howard Hawks", that "each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing."
Howard Hawks, however, considered himself an entertainer, not an "artist". His definition of a good director was simply "someone who doesn't annoy you." He was never considered an artist until the French New Wave critics crowned him one, as serious critics had ignored his oeuvre. He found the adulation amusing, and once told his admirers, "You guys know my films better than I do."
The auteur theory did not begin to influence American movie criticism until the 1960s, when critic Andrew Sarris introduced it with his essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" and refined it in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.
Commenting on Hawks' facility to make films in a wide variety of genres, said of Hawks, "For a major director, there are no minor genres."
Commenting, in turn, on this phenomenon, Sarris' wife Molly Haskell said, "Critics will spend hours with divining rods over the obviously hermetic mindscape of Bergman, Antonioni, etc., giving them the benefit of every passing doubt. But they will scorn similar excursions into the genuinely cryptic, richer, and more organic terrain of home-grown talents."
Howard Hawks was finally honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1975, with a special Oscar. The citation hailed him as, "A master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema."
The recognition was belated, but well deserved. An American auteur had been officially recognized.