Hawks: Master of Comedy

A retrospective of one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | December 2010 / January 2011

December’s retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum is devoted to Hollywood legend Howard Hawks. Awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1975 at the end of his long career, Hawks was described as "a master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema." This was almost an understatement.

Born in Indiana just before the turn of the century, Howard Hawks (1896–1977)  had stints as a race car driver, an aviator, and a designer in an aircraft factory, before moving to Hollywood in 1924. After a short sojourn in the stories department of a movie studio, he wrote his first screenplay, Tiger Love, in 1924, and directed his first film, The Road to Glory, in 1925.

The body of work Hawks then created over the next 45 years is fascinating in its depth and variety. There is hardly a Hollywood genre he didn’t master: war, crime, western, drama, comedy, and musical. The comedies Twentieth Century (1934) and His Girl Friday (1940), as well as the drama To Have and Have Not (1944) can certainly be counted among the best films ever made.

According to Hawks, his secret to success was having the best writers, but there is more to it than that. His days in the stories department, although dull and odious, proved invaluable: it gave him a profound insight into what made a good story and what didn’t.

Hawks’ casting instinct was also phenomenal. He put together pairs like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. And in 1944, with To Have and Have Not, he made the first film of perhaps the most famous screen couple ever, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Hawks’ style, with his fast dialogues, great writing, straight-forward camera angles, and strong women, was influential on much of Hollywood that followed. Commenting on Twentieth Century (1934) Hawks said, "I imagine the pace started out of the very first scene between Barrymore and Lombard. Carole walked in there and let fly at him, he responded and that set the key for the rest of the movie."

Hawks didn’t want to "annoy" the audience. He preferred what he called "the simplest camera in the world". He said, "The best thing to do is to tell the story as though you’re seeing it. Tell it from your eyes. Let the audience see exactly as they would if they were there. Just tell it normally."

The retrospectives at the Film Museum are an exciting chance to experience some of film’s most inspired directors. It was thus disappointing to see how few people came to see Griffith in November. Hopefully a good deal more will come to see the complete works of Howard Hawks in December.


Howard Hawks. Das Gesamtwerk

Dec. 1 to Jan. 6


Other articles from this issue