Still in my early teens, before the love for films had taken its firm roots, I already had a keen interest in Westerns. Those days, one of the networks used to have on Saturdays, near lunchtime, much to the chagrin of my family, a session where Westerns were broadcast; generally cut down to fit the 2-hour slot with millions of advertisements, badly dubbed. They were, nevertheless, generally Westerns of good quality.
It was one of those Saturdays early afternoon that I watched on my Grandmother’s old TV set, for the first time, El Dorado. I had a blast, it was one of the best Westerns I had seen: the action was solid, the story was good, the film was funny without being a comedy. I filed the name somewhere in my head, and watched it again a few times. Then I recorded it on VHS; it became one of my early favorite Westerns, along with The Magnificent Seven.
Eventually, reading about it on a newspaper, I learned that the basic story of El Dorado was filmed 3 times, and the original one was Rio Bravo. I recorded that one as well, and while I didn’t love it as much as I did El Dorado, it still was great. (Eventually I hunted down the third one, Rio Lobo, but was not majorly impressed.) By then I was able to understand about directors; not what they actually do, but that there is such a thing.
I learned that the same team had made yet another Western, Red River, this time with a different story. Another favorite. Howard Hawks became a household name, one that I early on connected to Westerns.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover how wrong I was: Hawks is probably one of the most versatile directors to ever work, a relatively unheralded master of the craft. He did it all, and all he did well: westerns, comedy, dramas, adventures, noir.
El Dorado and Rio Bravo both remain favorites of mine to this day, near the best of the genre. El Dorado is more purely entertaining and colorful, while Rio Bravo is a more rounded movie overall, richer in its characterization. I’ll gladly watch them back-to-back.
His screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire) are all among the best of the genre, due to the solid hand he had with his invariably excellent cast. If the sure-fire dialogue of those films are mostly due to the writing (he still knew how to pick the right ones), the actors’ delivery is due to his directing.
Good acting was common in his movies. John Ford, not a slouch himself by any measure, famously said “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act” after seeing John Wayne’s acting in Red River. (He would verify that first hand, of course, when he directed Wayne in two other great performances in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers.)
Furthermore, Hawks almost single-handedly created one of the greatest (on and off) screen couples: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was already a star, perhaps the greatest of the time, but Bacall was never as spunky as in those first couple of roles in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep is his crown jewel. Few films noir are this good and none surpasses it. Again, a cast in ship-shape is used to tell a complex story. (So complex, it is said, not even the writer knows what happened.)
Hawks was, simply put, a great craftsman and a masterful storyteller, able to tell any kind of story without bells and whistles, except the ones his cast would bring to the screen.
Mr Hawks, thank you!
See also what I wrote about: