Classic List: The Women of Howard Hawks

Greetings, all and sundry. After finishing my three post ‘arc’ highlighting the career of Jack Lemmon, I’ve decided to delve and poke around a bit in the arena of Classics. And cast some light upon the easily known and often unsung heroines. Who plied their beauty, moxie and craft to make their often secondary roles in films more memorable. Almost always opposite a strong leading man. And under the deft and knowing touch of a director who knew how to get the best and more from his leads and entire casts.

The director in question is Howard Hawks. To whom action and comedy were second nature. And often front and center. Tools to used to misdirect, while weaving a slow smoldering romance in the bargain. With the women in question being just as strong, witty and clever as their leading men.

To that end, allow me to introduce:

The Women of Howard Hawks


Katharine Hepburn: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

This is the film where I like to think that Mr. Hawks began developing his ear for rapid fire dialogue from both ends of the spectrum. With Cary Grant as a harried, engaged Paleontologist, David. Who wants nothing more than to assemble the skeleton of his Brontosaurus with the aid of the Inter-Costal Clavicle. Secure a huge donation to his museum. Marry the monied, not so girl of his dreams and live happily ever after.

That is, until David happens across Katharine Hepburn‘s Susan. Who’s a bit scatter-brained and irresponsible and rarely explains anything directly. Preferring to go the long way around while trading tee shots at a local golf course. Leaving David completely flummoxed and unprepared for another chance meeting later that night. At a very glamorous party. Where Susan accrues a tear in her gown and a hasty escape to madcap, screwball situations. A pet leopard named ‘Baby’. A wily fox terrier named George, (Asta from ‘The Thin Man‘ series) who steals and buries the Inter-Costal Clavicle. Chance encounters with Susan’s eccentric relations and friends. And a late run in with the local constabulary, while a second leopard escapes from a traveling carnival and makes itself known.

Overall Consensus:

Yes, there is a lot going on in this comedic gem. A given, as the film clocks in at just 102 minutes. The trick is to just sit back and let the magic happen under the deft touch of a proven master. Playing in the sandboxes of visual and aural humor. Using Ms. Hepburn’s elegant delivery and speeding things up, just a skosh, in a verbal game of Ping Pong. Where the serve, meter of the near musical volley and the out of left field slammed finish is under Ms. Hepburn’s control. With an unusually flustered Mr. Grant trying to keep up. It may take a while to find the rhythm between pratfalls and flawlessly timed sight gags. But it is definitely worth the effort!

Jean Arthur: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Here’s a great plot idea. Take a half dozen men flying for a fledgling, just scraping to get by mail service that flies over and around the Andes across Bolivia. In sometimes less than airworthy craft. Plying their craft from a close to inaccessible base called Barranca to other shanty towns just as desperate and desolate. Have the motley crew led by self assured, sometimes scruffy, leather flying jacketed and hip holstered Cary Grant and feel the Testosterone swirl and flow.

Into this boys’ club insert not one, but two women. The first, Bonnie Lee. A stranded cabaret singer. Magnificently and wisely brought to life by Jean Arthur. Who is first intrigued by Grant’s mysterious Geoff Carter and his daredevil band of merry men. Then slowly grows to understand who Grant is. What he does and why he does it. And more importantly, how Geoff gets his subordinates to do what they do. Like taking a Ford Tri-Motor up beyond 20,000 feet to test a new Oxygen system while finding a less dangerous path through mountain peaks.

In other word, business as usual. Maintaining an even strain in less that spartan conditions that would send other lesser mortals screaming back home to mother. Yet, Bonnie toughs it out. Trading quips and barbs with Geoff as more is revealed. Even when Barnstorming pilot, Bat Mac Phearson shows up. Evading a checkered past that involved the death of Geoff’s best friend. Seeking a job and acceptance with his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth) in tow. A bad omen if there ever was one. Since Judy was once an old flame of Geoff’s. All the pilots refuse to fly with Bat. So Judy begs Geoff for a chance. Geoff cedes that Bat can fly, but only the most dangerous flights.

Bat starts to make good. Building some cred until fate intervenes. On a flight in the Tri~Motor, Bat tries to clear the Andes but needs to find another route. Right into a flock of birds that flies through the forward propeller and windshield and paralyzes the Co~pilot. The brother of the man that Bat had abandoned and killed. Bat hangs tough and brings the crippled plane back. At the cost of his co~pilot’s life, but redeeming himself in the eyes of his peers.

Overall Consensus:

One of the earliest and best of the type of film I like to describe as ‘Guy Flicks’. Focusing on the male cast members.Their abilities, faults and foibles. What makes them tick. Usually presented with a Herculean task where a woman may be either a help or a hindrance. In this film, the former is writ large. With Jean Arthur remaining completely feminine and beguiling while never coming close to taking on the ‘Mother’ or ‘Big Sister’ roles so predominant in films of this kind today. Also notable for a distinct lack of a cat fight between Bonnie and Judy. When more than a few key scenes could easily facilitate it.

Rosalind Russell: His Girl Friday (1940)

Hawks shifts gears upwards again in a fast paced, tatta-tat-tat of typewriter keys delivered ‘Battle of the Sexes’ comedy That pits its master of rapid patter, Cary Grant as editor, Walter Burns. Trying to keep up with events of the day amidst many inter office squabbles of The Morning Post. When freshly chapeaued Rosalind Russell shows up as his recently-divorced wife and best reporter, Hildy Johnson. Ready to turn in her resignation. Generally rub Walter’s face in her new found freedom and status with fiance and insurance man Bruce Baldwin. Steadfastly played by Ralph Bellamy.

A natural born schemer and conniver, Walter sees a situation that is tailor made for Hildy’s talents and nose for news. After weathering several machine gun delivered volleys. Walter dangles the bait ever so subtly. Convicted murderer, Earl Williams is due for execution and Walter wants Hildy to cover one last story. Hildy hesitates and Walter slyly slips away to have Bruce arrested over and over again. Keeping him out of the picture as he gives up and goes back to Albany and Hildy does what she does best. Asks rapid fire questions that leave many men flustered and stumbling and well in her dust.

Soon it is discovered that the Governor has issued a reprieve for Williams. But the local Mayor and Sheriff covet this execution for re-election and bribe the delivery man to go away until after the deed is done. Hildy and Walter follow leads and find the reprieve and an escaped Williams inside a roll-top desk in the press room of a local police precinct. Just in time to bring the curtain down on the crooked Mayor and Sheriff. And avoid a kidnapping charge for Walter.

All wrapped up in a Happy Ending. Almost. Walter asks Hildy to remarry him and spend their Honeymoon at Niagara Falls. On the way, they can cover a story about a strike in Albany.

Overall Consensus:

Not exactly a screwball comedy. More of a ‘What can possibly go wrong?’ comedy. Delivered by proven master, Grant. With the aid and assistance of Ms. Russell. Who had read the lines of Hildy Johnson for Mr. Hawks. Who liked her meter and quick delivery. Which created a re-write and made Hildy female, instead of male. Thus, a Classic was born.

This is another instance of Hawks heightening femininity. Near a wasted effort in Ms. Russell’s more than competent hands. Delivered in an opening salvo within seconds of her entrance in the Post’s City Desk and her first interdiction with Walter. Ms. Russell’s lines are lilting at first. Evolving quickly into a stepped on, verbal firefight. That ends with Walter easily ducking Hildy’s angrily thrown purse as his back is turned. A splendid bit of cinema well worth the price of admission.

The story just gets better once Hildy takes the bait and pursues the story. Looking like a million dollars in a different ensemble and hat as she quickly asks a second and third follow up question. When those she asks are stumbling with the first. Not only great examples of writing, timing and delivery, but superb glimpses into determined, yet subtle feminine wiles. Of a class and with style not seen in decades.

Barbara Stanwyck: Ball of Fire (1941)

Mr. Hawks takes a turn for the whimsical with an egg headed adaptation of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’. Led by tall, stiff and often stoic Gary Cooper as Professor Bertram Potts. Who, with the aid of his seven learned colleagues desires to assemble an Encyclopedia of Human Knowledge. With a special addendum to contemporary slang to be penned by Potts.

At a loss for where to begin, Potts ventured off to a local Burlesque and becomes enamored of Miss ‘Sugarpuss O’Shea, a dancer of notable talent brought saucily to life by Ms. Stanwyck. On again, off again girlfriend of crime boss, Joe Lilac. Played with an inflated ego and a touch of slime by Dana Andrews. Who uses the Burlesque as a front for his various nefarious enterprises.

It seems that Sugarpuss is just as intrigued by Professor Potts as he is smitten with her. As events quickly unfold, there is a falling out between Sugarpuss and Joe. And she winds up on the Professor’s doorstep looking for a place to lay low. Potts objects at first. Slightly less than Kathleen Howard’s very set in her ways, Miss Bragg, the Housekeeper. But sees what a breath of fresh air and wonderment she is for his mainly bachelor, content to be cloistered colleagues. Teaching them the latest colloquialisms between impromptu Conga lines. While Potts starts to fall in love and soon proposes to Sugarpuss.

Sugarpuss says yes. But as luck would have it. Joe finds out about Sugarpuss being AWOL and sends some of his boys to find her and bring her home. Seems that Joe has marriage on his mind as well, but more to keep his activities quiet than marital bliss. With Sugarpuss on her way. A few of Joes’ hired help keep the Professor and his merry men in check and at gunpoint until the nuptials are over.

Determined to find a solution, Professor Potts begins a roundabout lecture with his colleagues to distract their keepers. That involves scientific theory, a bit of double talk, a reflecting magnifying glass and the slender cord holding a large painting above the head of pistol wielding, Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea). Science wins the day and the Professor and his gang is off to save the day. Kind of, but yes.

Overall Consensus:

Ms. Stanwyck rules the day and the roost once she becomes the focus of attention. Easily taking Pott’s and his clowder of collegiate professors’ breath away with her insouciance and bold for its day, sexuality. Sugarpuss wows from a distance and close up. Turning a gaggle of aged egg heads into if not wide eyed boys, then not so clumsy teenagers.

A rare treat to watch, considering the treasure trove supporting Seven Dwarves. Familiar faces, shapes and sizes. With distinct, unique dictions and deliveries. From Oskar Homolka and S.Z. Sakall. To Richard Haydn and Aubrey Mather. All add something innocent and memorable. And Ms. Stanwyck has them all. Including Potts, wrapped around her little finger without even knowing it.

Joanne Dru: Red River (1948)

Take an iconic John Wayne Chisholm Trail Western. Add a quick on the trigger youngster who’s anxious to prove himself and put him under the Duke’s wing. Teach him everything there is to know about cattle, riding, horses and shooting. Send him off to college to return as Montgomery Clift. Just in time for the first major cattle drive from Texas to Kansas.

Fill out the hired hands for the drive with Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr., John Ireland and Harry Carey and his son. Add a thousand head of cattle, give or take. A few roving bands of Indians. A hand who has more than a sweet tooth for sugar. A cattle stampede. A cause for a flogging and a break up between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Who takes what cattle has been rounded up and head towards Abilene.

En route, a wagon train full of settlers in ambushed by Indians and Clift rides to the rescue. Staving off a second wave attack and then aiding Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). Gorgeous, worldly, with a spine of steel. Who doesn’t scream or panic when an arrow pierces her shoulder. Instantly intrigued by this handsome hero who removes the arrow and patches her up as the Indians retreat. Then using her discreet wiles, finds out more about Clift’s troubled Matt Garth. His life, dreams and tenuous relationship with his adoptive father, John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson.

Not even raising an eyebrow as Matt and the drive leaves and Dunson crosses her path a short time later. Going out her way to feed Dunson and pour some drinks. While secreting a derringer in the sling supporting her left arm. Dunson sees it and remains unimpressed as the ice is broken and Tess learns so much more.

Overall Consensus:

Red River is one of the rare films by Howard Hawks whose ending I thought was rather weak and could have stood some re-write and several more takes. That said, everything else is an expansive and wondrously executed example of what one should expect from a master.

The men are men. Sins, secrets, shortcomings and all. The few women in attendance are tough, because the environment demands it, but much more so in Tess Millay. Who can see through the rough exteriors of men and read them within moments of first meeting them. Where Tess is calm, curious and a bit demure with Matt Garth. As she looks through and weighs Matt’s unseen baggage and finds him worth her time.

Then turns the coin to cold, succinct and somewhat callous for her tete a tete with Wayne’s Tom Dunson. With a demeanor better suited for a saloon or brothel as she deals Black Jack single handed for Dunson as she decides whether or not to shoot him. Though it is there for only a few brief moments. It is great talent rising to the moment and pulling it off flawlessly!

Which leaves room for Dessert and….

Honorable Mention:

Margaret Sheridan: The Thing from Another World (1951)

In order to create a round half dozen in chronological order. I’ve tacked on this actress and film. Even if Mr. Hawks is noted as its producers. There’s too much of his trade craft and trademark fingerprints all over this offering to think that was all he added.

The story circles around a group of Quonset Hut bound scientists who discover something has crashed to Earth near their station at the North Pole. A cargo plane and its crew arrive to explore further and bring back another something frozen in a long block of ice. That thaws and releases the Thing inside. Who has a taste for human blood and sprouts seed pods that can create more Things.

Nearly invisible in this pond of Testosterone and superior gray matter is Ms. Sheridan‘s Science Assistant and stenographer, Nikki. For whom there are few secrets. An extremely good listener who occasionally offers off-hand comments and advice that are bankable. As well as taking note of details that others quickly miss.

Easily holding her own amongst the Brainiacs and Poindexters of Polar Expedition-6. While never dallying in the realm of panic and ‘Scream Queen’.


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Well, what do you think of the women of Howark Hawks? Do share your thoughts about this list in the comments.