We take a hopefully representative cross section of Howard Hawks’ voluminous output and run it through our extensive analytical suite to determine the truth of it. Join us as we poke and prod at Scarface, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes until they stop wiggling and give up their secrets. For science!
The movie opens with the assassination of Chicago South side mafia boss Big Louis Costillo by none other than his own bodyguard, Tony Camonte, in a hit sanctioned by rival Johnny Lovo. Joining Love as his ambitious right hand man, Camonte soon earns a reputation with his boss for being a fearless go-getter who thinks nothing of going toe to toe with the other Chicago outfits as they wrestle for control of the city’s bootleg liquor market during prohibition.
Of course, Tony’s ambition was always going to outpace that of his boss, and when he ignores the order not to poke the hornet’s nest of the North side outfit run by Irish mobster O’Hara, it becomes increasingly clear that the two men are not going to be able to co-exist within the outfit. Camonte’s actions become ever more abrasive, in particular his open courting of Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy, and so the stage is set for the inevitable showdown.
Naturally the whole endeavour pivots upon Paul Muni’s performance as Camonte, a charismatic, down to earth yet absolutely ruthless veneer of amorality wrapped around a deeply troubled core that wrestles, depending on how you want to read into it, either with repressed sexual proclivities toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) or his best friend and faithful sidekick Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). Camonte’s ascent of the underworld is going quite spiffingly, thank you very much, until Cesca and Rinaldo become romantically entwined, at which point the red mist descends and the guano hits the turboprop. At this point Camonte’s flamboyant projection gives way to the frankly insane monster within, and while Muni’s performance may not be deemed particularly sophisticated by modern standards it is nonetheless engaging and easy to appreciate as a landmark in the trajectory of how male power fantasies would occupy the medium for most of the century.
Interestingly though, much of the rest of the movie’s narrative is driven by Karen Morley’s portrayal of Poppy, a surprisingly high profile role that outshines the likes of Lovo and Rinaldo, and which casts the character as much more than just fawning gangster’s moll. I was surprised at how openly Poppy’s manipulation of the two male leads is played, as I’d gone into Scarface somewhat naively expecting little but broad stereotypes. My real takeaway though was Ann Dvorak, with whom I think I would have been head over heels in love, had she not passed away the year I was born. While Cesca has way less screen time than I would have liked, Dvorak’s screen magnetism and confident projection of her sexuality is just great, and I was in no doubt whatsoever of either her seduction of Rinaldo, nor her status as the fulcrum upon which Tony’s sanity ultimately rests. Dvorak’s herself seems to have been quite the renegade, and perhaps a performer ahead of her time, but that’s a story for another time.
One thing I wasn’t necessarily prepared for was the humour of the piece, a lot of which is channeled through Vince Barnett’s portrayal of the seemingly gormless and ultimately tragic character of Angelo, Tony’s secretary who has a running gag around not being able to remember the names of telephone callers. In one prolonged sequence involving rival mobsters shooting up a restaurant, Angelo is desperately trying to take the name of a caller as he is understandably distracted by bullet impacts ripping up the wall inches from his head. This is a sequence that can only fully be appreciated when one understands that in the days before explosive squibs these were actual bullet impacts from actual bullets being fired around the actor’s head. Only after reading this did I understand that Barnett’s very apparent nervousness in the scene might not have been acting; one wonders how many takes were involved…
Visually I was again unprepared for quite how sophisticated Scarface proved to be, though in hindsight I once again surprise myself with my own ignorance; motion pictures may still have been in their relative infancy, however photography was not, and it stands to reason that inventiveness in one application may follow the other. The movie’s mise-en-scene is much more compelling than I’d expected, with some very atmospheric camerawork and set design, especially in the first half of the film, and while the technical limitations of the time are apparent there is still a good deal of visual inventiveness even by today’s standards; in particular I loved the calendar accompanied by Tommy gun moving on time, but that’s not to rule out an audacious opening single take that chronicles the hit on Big Louis, beginning outside on a street lamp, moving indoors to a restaurant table conversation before ending on a whistling Camonte doing the deed in silhouette.
Remarkably, Scarface was Hawks’ 10th official directorial outing in six years (11th if one counts 1930’s The Criminal Code), and despite some unavoidable artefacts of anachronistic hindsight it remains a startlingly inventive, propulsive narrative experience: a stark reminder that the groundwork for Hollywood’s golden age was laid some thirty to forty years prior in the inventive approach of the medium’s earlier, often insanely prolific pioneers. If I have a particular bone to pick it’s knowing that Hawks openly courted audience with the likes of Al Capone, while at the same time opening on a title card that claims the movie, quote “an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government,” before going on to demand of the audience “The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?” I’m not sure the movie or its director do enough to distance themselves from accusations of glamourising the antagonists of the piece, in which context this seems like a cynical ploy to shift the perception of moral ambiguity onto the audience. Then again, if Al Capone has designs on vetting your take on his persona then maybe a title card proclaiming “this is all a bit naughty” is actually a bold move.
Anyhoo, that’s a rabbit hole I’m not going down today, and suffice to say I enjoyed Scarface a great deal.
His Girl Friday
My mum is a big Cary Grant fan, so I was watching films starring him from a very young age, and it’s because of that this is the only one of the films we selected for this episode that I’d seen before (my only other Howard Hawks experience having been 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, which stars both Cary Grant AND a leopard, so is clearly the baws).
While Grant is a vital part of this film, though, he’s not actually the protagonist of this adaptation of Ben Hecht’s play, The Front Page. Rather, that’s Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, a crack newspaper reporter who’s about to give up her career, settle down and have babies with Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin, an Albany insurance salesman. To this end, Hildy goes to the offices of The Morning Post, a leading newspaper in a fictional, unnamed city in New York State, to tell the editor she won’t be returning.
The wrinkle here is that the editor is her ex-husband, Walter Burns. Burns, played with relish by Grant, might charitably be described as a self-centred, scheming, duplicitous, unscrupulous bastard (and he’d probably thank you for it), both a bounder and a cad, who isn’t about to let his best reporter, or his wife, just walk away, and certainly not to a cultural backwater like Albany. Despite the film’s title, though, Hildy is neither subservient nor servile, and certainly not stupid, and she can see through most of Walter’s attempts to sabotage her plans or tempt her to return.
Judo of the mind it is, then, as Burns uses Hildy’s own strengths and weaknesses against her, especially her reporter’s instincts and curiosity. To this end, Burns asks her to do a last favour for the paper and cover an upcoming execution as his best man is unavailable (naturally he gave said man an unexpected two-week holiday to ensure this unavailability). Hildy can’t help but be sucked in, and minor issues like Walter having Bruce framed for passing counterfeit notes, or a henchman bodily removing her soon to be mother-in-law from the press room, are entirely insufficient to distract her from a tale of political intrigue, corruption, last-minute execution reprieves and police incompetence.
His Girl Friday is, simply, an enormous amount of fun, with both Grant and Russell in exceptional form, screenwriter Charles Lederer’s sizzling dialogue flying back and forth between them like the ball in an Olympic-level table tennis match, their scenes crackling with energy. Even the fourth-wall breaking moments, like Burns describing Bruce, played, by Ralph Bellamy, as looking “like that fellow in the movies, you know… Ralph Bellamy!”, or warning the sheriff of the horrible fate suffered by the last person who crossed him, one Archie Leach (both ad-libs by Grant) add to the enjoyment, rather than detracting from it.
The dialogue (also contributed to by an uncredited Hecht) is the key to the film. The situations are absurd and farcical, but you’re unlikely to care, because you’ll instead be enjoying scenes like the one where the members of the press corps at the court have a conversation in newspaper headlines and sub-headings.
Like Scarface, His Girl Friday begins with text telling us what issues the film is going to be about (to wit, unscrupulous reporters who would do the sort of thing seen later, like plead for an execution to be moved to an earlier time just so they can make the morning editions, not at all like the fine, upstanding journalists we have today), but unlike Scarface, which was a miserable experience, so entertaining is His Girl Friday that almost nothing the film does hits a wrong note for me.
A veiled reference to the consequences attached to the ethnicity of the police officer whose death is at the heart of the intended execution could be simply a political comment, but some scumbag walking into the press room later in the film, and starting to talk loudly on the phone about picaninnies, threatened to sour the whole thing for me. That, fortunately, is fleeting, but it does leave a bad taste.
However, if you have any love at all for Cary Grant then you need to watch this, as here he is entirely Cary Grant, and for once has the foil he richly deserves. Brilliant fun.
Gary Cooper plays one Sergeant Alvin York, in this 1941 biographical outing. York was a dirt poor farmer hailing from a village in rural Tennessee that’s just to the south of the middle of nowhere, struggling to provide for his family on the poor farm land, hoping to one day earn enough to buy some rather less stone-based farmland. He’s a rambunctious soul, if by rambunctious you mean violent alcoholic, but a sudden conversion to religion sees him stow away his jackass tendencies and become an upright citizen, steered by Walter Brennan’s Pastor Rosier Pile.
However, Pastor Pile’s radical interpretation of Christianity, that being that “maybe we shouldn’t kill each other”, will cause a problem when the US of A starts conscription into the Army for World War 1. York attempts to register as a conscientious objector, but is countered by arguments that killing for your country is a good and righteous thing, actually, and something you should all be ready to do, particularly any men in the audience of its initial release.
During the war York is the main part of a heroic action that beggars belief, but nonetheless appears to be true, overrunning a machine gun nest that has his platoon pinned near single handedly and capturing around 130 enemies. Hailed and decorated as a hero, he does not want to personally profit from his actions and instead devotes the rest of his life to improving the lot of his native rural Tennessee.
I did not know a great deal, by which I mean anything, about either Sergeant York the film or the person, so this more that held my attention throughout. For a contemporary reference, think Hacksaw Ridge except told in an era where fragmentation grenades make people go “ooft” and fall to their knees, rather than Ridge‘s method of making people fall to their knees by reducing their shins to splinters.
Cooper plays everything stoically enough, although on a personal level York’s character gets less interesting as the film goes on. He’s certainly more interesting as a young thug than a military man, but there’s a medium amount of schrift given to discussion about conscientious objector status that brings up interesting points. I’m not convinced it answers any of them, but it’s at the very least a far more considered look at them than I’d expect from Hollywood given the timing of the film.
This was well regarded at the time, although it’s not the best film in any aspect from 1941 by a long chalk, given the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, and some little indy flick called Citizen Kane, but at the very least I’m not outraged by putting in the the same sentence as the other films. A solid story solidly told, so a solid recommendation from the so solid crew.
To Have and Have Not
Legend has it that 1944’s To Have and Have Not is the result of a bet between Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, in which the former wagered he could make a great movie adaptation of even the least of the latter’s literary output. It is a bet Hawks is generally agreed to have won, though I’d be interested to see whether any legitimate bookmaker would offer odds on such an endeavour where “adaptation” means changing the time, setting, conflict, themes and majority of key character traits and definitions beyond much recognition.
In Hawks’ take, Humphrey Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a charter fishing boat captain operating tours out of the French Caribbean island of Martinique during the early stages of World War II, right about the time France became occupied by/rolled over for (delete as applicable) the Nazis. As the Vichy bureaucrats administering the island and its police force tighten their grip on local dissenters, including hotel owner Gerard (AKA “Frenchy”, played here by Marcel Dalio), Morgan is approached by the Free French resistance with a job offer that involves smuggling two French fugitives back to Martinique from a small neighbouring island.
Keen to avoid being caught in a conflict that was, at this point, anyone’s problem but America’s, Morgan is initially disinterested, however the arrival of Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall), a globetrotting American national who has landed penniless in Martinique, soon changes the game. Morgan predictably develops feelings for the sultry, charismatic Marie who matches him for smarts and wit at every turn, and wants to assist her safe passage off the island out of harm’s way. When the Captain’s shifty last charter is killed by a stray bullet from a firefight between the resistance and the local police before he can sign off his travellers cheques, it soon becomes clear to Morgan that the only way to clear his bills and buy Marie a flight is to take the resistance job after all.
Naturally not everything goes according to plan, but that’s largely by the by, as the wartime plotting of subterfuge and shenanigans are not the primary weapon in To Have and Have Not’s arsenal. That accolade undoubtedly belongs to the chemistry between its two leads, this being Bacall’s movie debut and the first of four riotously popular movies she would make with soon-to-be husband Bogart, and it’s not hard to see why the pair became one of Hollywood’s most successful couples. Unsettling singing voice aside, Bacall’s screen debut is electric, betraying nothing of the supposed anxiousness she brought to the set, and some of the banter she brings to bear not just upon Bogart but also the assembled supporting players remains best described as “top level.” You do know how to whistle, don’t you listeners?
Speaking of support, B&B have quite the backup here, from Walter Brennan as drunken boating sidekick Eddie, bizarrely obsessed with a line of questioning that involves dead bees, to Dan Seymour as Captain Renard whose accent work seems to be predicated entirely upon chewing a mouthful of them. Somewhere in the middle Hoagy Carmichael shows up to chew matchsticks and shoehorn in some of his popular output on the old Joanna, and I have to wonder just how much more you could ask for.
The visual flair and storytelling of Scarface is very much absent here, with Hawks’ intent as director somewhat wisely focused upon keeping the cameras rolling to capture the chemistry of his leads as they set fire to several thousand feet of celluloid. In a very measured way Hawks and his cast avoid the temptation to pour too much fuel on that fire, with much of the underlying romance implicit rather than explicit, thus swerving the kind of melodrama that might bog down a less efficient narrative. As it is, that economy of passion feels far more genuine and the movie all the more engaging for it.
Ultimately, To Have and Have Not has very little to say about anything, eschewing entirely the source material’s dissection of the wealth divide in Cuba in order to focus on the interplay between its two stars, one already firmly established, the other cementing themselves a first class ticket into Hollywood history. In that sense it represents one end of the spectrum that describes the best of cinema as a medium; that sometimes it really is enough just to want to tell a good yarn, and to trust in the people helping you do it.
The Big Sleep
Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, The Big Sleep stars Humphrey Bogart as Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by an elderly man, General Sherwood (Charles Waldron), to deal with his daughter Carmen’s (Martha Vickers) “gambling debts”, and whatever those may in truth be, as there’s a strong hint of blackmail in the air. Marlowe, who introduces himself as being 38 – because of which I actually snort-laughed: Bogart was about ten years older than that at the time of filming, and looked at least another decade on top. Like I said in my introduction earlier, those are some real city miles on Bogey – soon finds that there’s much more going on with this family than it first appears, including the other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), and her ties to the gangster, Eddie Mars, and the mysterious disappearance of the General’s former employee, Sean Regan.
There’s also the murder of the General’s chauffeur, and the murder of the pornographer, Arthur Geiger, and the murder of… well, there are a good few murders, and I’m sure I’ll shock you by telling you that they’re all somehow connected. So, Marlowe must traipse around Los Angeles and the surrounding area, gathering facts, making connections, avoiding one wayward Sherwood daughter while beginning a relationship with the other, and trying not to get killed many, many times. A noir detective’s lot is a hard one, to be sure.
One of the reasons I was looking forward so much to watching The Big Sleep (after I realised I hadn’t, as I thought, seen it and was in fact thinking of The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart plays Dashiel Hammett’s private detective, and not Raymond Chandler’s) was that it is a noted influence on The Big Lebowski, previously noted on this podcast as my favourite film.
General Sherwood, confined to his wheelchair and with the wayward daughter whose lifestyle he disapproves of, certainly brings to mind the big Lebowski (he may even have the same blanket), but Marlowe bears no resemblance to The Dude, most particularly as he’s actually competent. Oh, on a tangent arising from a nagging thought while I wrote this, and of no importance, especially to this review: do you think The Big Lebowski is like a film equivalent of The Legend of Zelda where a substantial number of people think that The Dude is the big Lebowski, as many people think Link is called Zelda? I’m not saying that these are the thoughts that keep me up at night or anything, though they are the types of thoughts I tend to have while I’m up at night anyway. I digress.
Those are really the only overt similarities, though, and that’s probably just as well as I was able to soon stop being distracted by looking for the influences and started just enjoying the film instead.
The Big Sleep’s plot is convoluted, and is considered by many to be confusing at points, and while I wasn’t confused it’s hard to deny that as a valid criticism, as more than once Marlowe seems to be suddenly operating with new information or deductions there was no hint of before. Much of that is likely due to the film’s production history: it was shot in 1944, but its release put on hold until after the end of World War II, and by its release in 1946 it had been recut and new scenes shot in order to play up the Bogey and Bacall romance due to audience fascination with its real-life counterpart.
And for the most part I’m OK with that, as I really enjoy the chemistry between them, though it’s the character of Carmen that’s actually the most sexual and provocative (apparently much of Martha Vickers’ performance was cut so as not to overshadow Bacall). Even without that chemistry, though, I think I’d enjoy this as Bogart is just a fascinating actor to watch, and few could deliver a smart-arse line like he could, and Chandler’s book, adapted by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, gives him plenty of opportunity to do that.
It’s the dialogue, and Bogart’s delivery of it, that provides most of the impetus for The Big Sleep, and that papers over a lot of the cracks in the erratic narrative, and I absolutely buy Bogart’s basic honesty, ability and, later in the piece, guilt, making his interpretation of Marlowe a joy to watch. It’s only in the very last scene that the lacking story really becomes an issue for me, leaving me emitting a loud, “hmmm” in response to the film’s lacklustre conclusion. Still, I recommend The Big Sleep, making this the last of the exactly 50% of these films I have any time for.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Based on the 1949 stage musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sees a pair of showgirls, Marilyn Monroe’s ditsy, gold-digging Lorelei Lee and her best friend, Jane Russell’s acerbic Dorothy Shaw head off on a cruise ship to France for a continental marriage between Lorelei and Tommy Noonan’s Gus Esmond, who in the parlance of our times, is a total simp. However, Gus’ father objects to this marriage, for he is not booty blind, and hires a private eye, Elliott Reid’s Ernie Malone to observe and provide proof that Lorelei is more concerned with the size of a man’s wallet than their heart.
True to form, Lorelei is soon batting her lashes at Charles Coburn’s Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, a diamond mine owner, and his wife’s diamond tiara, meaning the only possible wrinkle in Malone’s investigation will come from the fact that he’s falling in love with Dorothy. She can use this fact, and the power of showtunes, to dig Lorelei out of a tiara theft charge in Paris, and overcome Esmond Snr’s objections to Lorelei and Esmond Jnr’s relationship.
That’s a perhaps overly condensed plot recap, but as is common in this sort of thing the narrative is a fairly minimal framework from which to hang the musical numbers and sections of comic banter. Which is also the reason I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time on this film, as in general I don’t like musicals and this style of comedy, and in this particular instance, I didn’t like the musical numbers or the comic elements, so this is very much a film diverging from my tastes on enough levels as to render my opinion of it valueless.
I am not going to deny the iconicnessicity of the work, in particular of course that there Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number of which you may have a passing familiarity. The production values are on entirely point and the performances are exactly nailing what they appear to be intended to do. I have absolutely no reason to suspect that an audience more inclined to like this sort of thing would not very much like this, as its stellar reputation would suggest. However, my wheelhouse is very much on the other side of town, and simply cannot sanction this buffoonery.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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