When Howard Hawks came to visit the Chicago Film Festival in 1968, they asked Charles Flynn to get up on the stage and introduce him. And Flynn, who was helping to run Doc Films at the University of Chicago at the time, gave an introduction that was so simple in its eloquence that I remembered it the other day, when I learned Hawks had died.
"Howard Hawks makes movies about airplanes," Flynn said. "He makes movies about fast cars. He makes movies about men who do things: Soldiers, and cowboys, and private eyes, and hunters, and racing car drivers, and the men who built the pyramids. Mr. Hawks makes movies about men and women and sometimes the battles in those are bigger than the ones in his war movies. Mr. Hawks makes Westerns and war movies, comedies and dramas, backstage romances and melodramas, and he has been doing it since 1926. There is, in fact, almost no kind of movie that Mr. Hawks can not make, and has not made, and there is almost nobody at all who can make them better than he does."
It was a perfect introduction, as lean and spare and honest as a Howard Hawks movie - and without, as Hawks observed later, a lot of flowery crap about Art. Hawks never consciously aimed for art in his films, and was perhaps quietly amazed that people found it there. But they did. He was never as well known with the public as some of his contemporaries, like Hitchcock and DeMille and Ford. But if you loved movies, you lost a friend the other day.
Hawks directed some of the greatest entertainments ever made, and fundamentally shaped the way we perceive many of the great stars. Humphrey Bogart was partially the creation of Howard Hawks, In “The Big Sleep” (1946) and “To Have and Have Not” (in which Lauren Bacall told Bogey: "If you want anything, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you? You just pucker your lips and blow.").
Cary Grant was partially the creation of Hawks, in “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday” (which was “The Front Page,” rewritten by Hawks to give one of the male roles to Rosalind Russell).
John Wayne is another mythic presence created in several Hawks films. Marilyn Monroe was never more sexy or more vulnerable than in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum may have thought they knew how to play drunks - but they played their definitive drunks for Howard Hawks, in “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado”.
Those last two Westerns, made in 1959 and 1967 respectively, had a little something in common with Hawks' last film, “Rio Lobo”, made in 1970. They all had the same plot, about the out-of-town gunman who rides in and meets his old friend, the drunken sheriff, and teams up to help him clear out the bad guys. To Hawks, it didn't matter that the story was the same: It wasn't what happened that made a movie good, but the way people behaved toward each other, the way they looked and spoke and moved and lit a cigarette.
Onstage at the film festival, Hawks poked a little fun at himself over those three Westerns.
"I made “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne," he remembered. "It worked out pretty well and we both liked it, so a few years later we decided to make it again. Worked out pretty good that time, too. So now I'm preparing “Rio Lobo”. I called up Duke and asked him if he wanted to be in it. Sure, he said, he'd do it with me. I asked him if he wanted me to send the script over. 'Hell, Howard,' he said, 'I've already done the goddamned script two times'."
Now he'll never do it again. But Howard Winchester Hawks, who died Monday at the age of 81, had not retired. He was planning another Western up until a few weeks before his death. Wanted to get John Wayne to star in it. It was about… hell, you know what it was about.