Howard Hawks

Howard Winchester Hawks

b. May 30 1896, Goshen, Indiana.
d. December 26 1977, Palm Springs, California.

articles in Senses
web resources

Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy and well-connected Midwestern family who migrated to Southern California in the halcyon days of the early 1900s. He attended Throop Polytechnic Institute (which later became the California Institute of Technology) before heading to the East to attend the exclusive prep school Phillips Academy and then matriculate as an engineering student at Cornell University. According to biographer Todd McCarthy these educational experiences were crucial to the formation of Hawks’ studied persona as a patrician outdoorsman and practical man. Hawks learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service during the Great War, a stint which only temporarily interrupted a nascent career as a production assistant for some of the most notable members of the first generation of Hollywood film directors: Cecil B. DeMille, Allan Dwan, and Marshall Neilan. Hawks also cultivated friendships with such key figures as Victor Fleming, then a cinematographer for Dwan, and producer Irving Thalberg.

Working steadily as a producer and scenarist in the first half of the 1920s at Paramount, Hawks moved up the ranks to begin directing at the Fox studio in 1926. For the most part, Hawks subsequently acted as his own producer, only rarely entering into agreements with more powerful studio executives, and only then committing for a limited period. By sheer force of will and personality, Hawks was able to retain a great deal of autonomy in the studio system. He frequently rewrote screenplays, improvised and filmed sequences on the spot without the previous approval of the Motion Picture Producers Association censorship authorities (the Hays Office), and dictated casting. In effect, the auteur theorists had an easier job elevating Hawks to the pantheon in the 1950s and 1960s than they did with virtually any other director (Hitchcock excepted). Hawks lived a long, physically active life, enjoyed his lofty critical stature, and gave interviews which cannily contributed to his legendary status. He was still planning films, including a remake of the 1928 A Girl in Every Port (to star John Wayne), at the time of his death in 1977 after complications from a fall at his home in Palm Springs.

I Was a Male War Bride

What is especially noteworthy about Hawks is the sheer range of films he made. He worked in virtually every conceivable genre but, more remarkably, he left his characteristic mark on so many of them. Far from being hemmed in by genre conventions, Hawks was able to impress upon these genre films his own personal worldview. It is essentially comic, rather than tragic, existential rather than religious, and irreverent rather than earnestly sentimental. Among the genres Hawks enriched with his contributions: the Western (Red River [1948], Rio Bravo [1959], El Dorado [1967]); the screwball comedy (Twentieth Century [1934], Bringing Up Baby [1938], His Girl Friday [1940], Man’s Favorite Sport? [1963]); film noir (The Big Sleep [1946]); the historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs [1955]); the musical comedy (A Song is Born [1948], Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]); science fiction and horror (The Thing [1951]); the combat film (Air Force [1943], The Dawn Patrol [1930]); the biopic (Sergeant York [1941]); the adventure film (The Big Sky [1952], Hatari! [1962]); the gangster film (Scarface [1932]); the racing film (The Crowd Roars [1932], Red Line 7000 [1965]); the prison film (The Criminal Code [1931]); the aviation film (Ceiling Zero [1936], Only Angels Have Wings [1939]). This generic diversity was matched by other significant contemporaries (Ford and Hitchcock did indeed make films other than Westerns and thrillers, respectively), but Hawks benefited from being able to avoid ‘typing’ himself as one kind of director, and therefore was able to move across genres. Irregardless of what genre he was working in, Hawks played around with gender conventions without ever absolutely undermining them, so that (to take just one example) the representation of ‘effeminate’ men occurred in films as generically different as Scarface and Bringing Up Baby. Yet gender play enabled Hawks to give his films the same kind of wry tonality.

This carnivalesque world of inversion and role reversal is most obviously expressed by the large number of nicknamed characters in many of his most characteristically ‘Hawksian’ works. There is little or no reverence for the traditional family in Hawks’ work; even names given to characters at birth have little permanence. Some of the most distinctive films Hawks made just kinda lope along in an episodic way (Hatari!, El Dorado, and The Big Sky to name just three), and the seeming ease and informality of the story-telling is reinforced by a regular folksy or playfully sexy renaming of characters. Also, nicknames point to the primacy of the group over the individual; the value of male bonding through rivalry or through rite of passage; the elevation of male communities validated by codes of ethics and professionalism; the potential for women to gain access to male groups in unconventional ways; and the articulation of mystique-laden alternative forms of social and sexual arrangements outside of Hollywood’s idealisation of the nuclear family. These are the traits of Hawks’ work which are almost universally noted by film critics. Hawks, as a director who also had a hand in most of the screenplays of his films, created a separate world (one deracinated from history, politics, class) populated by male characters called, in chronological order of their appearance in 40 years of films, Spike, Salami, Speed, Buddy, Spud, Pipes, Dizzy, Jake, Texas, Smiley, Buzz, Baldy, Poppa, Bat, Kid, Pusher, Skip, Stooky, Cricket, Steve, Frenchy, Doghouse Reilly, Cherry, Skeely, Beeky, Chance, Dude, Stumpy, Colorado, Pockets, Chips, and Mississippi. And even more memorably, there are women called Tommy, Texas, Slim, Fen, Nikki, Feathers, Brandy, Dallas, Easy, Tex, Gaby, and Maudie. These colourful nicknames are the product of an inventive Adamic creator whose characters reinvent themselves, or who are reinvented in collaboration with other self-fashioned characters, and often in amused and amusing conflict.

Recognising nicknames in his films enables us to also recognise how much Hawks’ films refuse or counteract, as Robin Wood wrote in 1981, the dominant ideology espoused by most Hollywood studio product. That is to say, as Wood puts it: “capitalism, the right to ownership; the home, the family, the monogamous couple; patriarchy. . .” (1) Between men, nicknaming is frequently the overt articulation of complex and fraught processes of male bonding, enabling the integration of an inexperienced male character into a group by his more experienced, and previously integrated, elders. In effect, the renaming serves as a kind of baptism into a masculinist world which would otherwise denigrate his real name, and hence identity, as ‘effeminate’-as happens with Alan Bourdillon Traherne (James Caan) in El Dorado. Traherne’s name provokes comic incredulity and ridicule, so his renaming as “Mississippi” by Cole Thornton (John Wayne) and Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) provides a step in his rite of passage as a man. Nicknames also enable men to express a depth of feeling for each other (including the homoerotic) in ways otherwise unavailable or socially unacceptable.

Only Angels Have Wings

In Only Angels Have Wings, the greatest of Hawks’ aviation films, Cary Grant’s “Poppa” is the boss of the much older Kid (Thomas Mitchell), whose adoration of his taciturn employer exemplifies the frequent role inversions or role reversals in Hawks’ films. It is probably likely that Hawks learned the value of nicknaming in his aviation career during the First World War-the renaming among aviators is still a testament to the men’s desire to inhabit carefully constructed quasi-mythic romantic narratives. In aviation, nicknames are an essential component of the mystique of flight. And Hawks’ films most directly centred upon aviation (Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings, The Thing, Air Force) are also the films that have the greatest abundance of nicknames. But the glamour inhering in nicknames in what are essentially male romance narratives translates to other masculinist genres, especially the Western. Rio Bravo, for example, contains a small group of flawed individuals who earn their redemption through group effort and the rejection of individual self-reliance. The rejection of given Christian names and the exclusive use of nicknames (Chance, Dude, Colorado, Stumpy) by this small band of misfits and underdogs exemplifies a necessary process of collective self-invention into an effective and cohesively self-contained force for good.


Certainly women are nicknamed in Hawks’ films to indicate that they, too, have gained acceptance by men in groups on masculinist terms-they shed their conventional gender identities as passive, domestic, and feminine to become ‘Hawksian women’ who are involved in male formations and institutions in something more than just peripheral roles. The Hawksian woman’s nickname signifies her status as a person permitted to join the men, if not on equal terms, then at least on terms that grant her something other than traditionally subordinate status. For example, Hatari!‘s Anna Maria D’Allessandro (Elsa Martinelli) spares the Americans at the Kenyan animal farm the challenge of twisting their clumsy tongues around her ‘foreign’ name and she ingratiates herself with them by telling them that it’s just fine to call her “Dallas.” The film depends on her becoming an integrated part of the group dominated by Sean Mercer (John Wayne). After some typically Hawksian slapstick humour at her expense, she does. In The Thing, we don’t even know Nikki’s (Margaret Sheridan) real Christian name-she’s got a nickname based on her surname, which befits a woman who can drink the square-jawed hero (Kenneth Tobey) under the table and best him at badinage. She plays an integral part in the operation of the Arctic base. In To Have and Have Not (1944) Marie (Lauren Bacall), for example, earns recognition for her cool stoicism in the face of danger in Vichy Martinique when Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) renames her “Slim,” while she reciprocates by dubbing him “Steve.” As Hawks critics often note, “Slim” was the director’s own nickname for his second wife, Nancy Gross, and Hawks’ films never seem more personal than when they have ‘fun,’ that prized Hawksian virtue, with renaming. And Nikki’s name reminds us how much Hawks mentored and cast female actors, like Bacall and Margaret Sheridan, who could be remade by Hawks into fantasy versions of ideal women like his second wife. And if Hawks’ worldview was, in essence, a comic and carnivalesque one which revelled in gender/sex inversion, the informality, but importance, of nicknaming characters attest to a director’s vision that disdained existential tragedy, conformity to institutions and authorities, and empty formality in social relations.

To Have and Have Not

Hawks’ distinctiveness as a filmmaker is apparent when comparing the Steve and Slim of To Have and Have Not with the Harry Morgan and Marie (renamed Lucy) in Michael Curtiz’s version of Hemingway’s novel in The Breaking Point (1950). A straighter rendition of the literary source, Curtiz’s film has none of the ‘fun’ of Hawks’ insolent, innuendo-laced classic, and glum Harry and Lucy are stuck with those names. It’s a dour film noir, with a more frustrated, thwarted Harry Morgan enacted with more existential pain by John Garfield. Lucy is a sexless housewife whose one attempt to remake herself by dying her hair blonde is a domestic catastrophe. While To Have and Have Not hews closely to Hawks’ own characteristic plain vanilla style (eye-level camera privileging dense formations of actors in the frame), Curtiz’s film is frequently composed of characteristically expressionistic close-ups of individuals, shot from a low angle with wide-angle lenses, making Harry’s conflicts torturously claustrophobic. “A man alone ain’t got no chance,” he intones repeatedly in his delirium at the end of the film. True enough, but Hawks’ male protagonists understand that without going through such isolated agony. And, most notably, Curtiz’s film abides by standard Hollywood ideological imperatives by making Harry and Lucy married parents of two noisy, demanding little girls. While Bogart and Bacall’s characters seem more likely to ignore social norms about marriage and reproduction, in a typically Hawksian disregard for them, Garfield and his apron-clad drudge are required to remain together, even after Harry has lost his boat and his arm in order to provide for his family’s constant demands for rent and “treats” for the girls. Curtiz’s film firmly anchors the hero in the 1950s American family, premising a future redeemed by Harry’s acceptance of running his father-in-law’s lettuce farm and giving up the pipe-dream of being an independent fishing boat captain. His amputated arm is symbolic of Harry’s social and sexual neutering in a typically bleak resolution for film noir; for Garfield’s Harry, there is nothing but entrapment. To Have and Have Not, by stark contrast, ends with no such insistence on settled domesticity-Slim wiggles her way out of the dive she’s performed in, and Harry takes pride and pleasure in her status as a public performer and alluring object of other men’s desire. There’s no suggestion in Hawks’ film that Harry would give up his boat to settle for the dubious comforts of domesticity with wife and kids.

Therefore, if To Have and Have Not can stand as a prototypical Hawksian work, it’s easy to pose it in antithesis to the work of many, if not most, American film directors. Hawks created a remarkably consistent popular body of work which promised freedom from constraints posed by organised religion, traditional family structures, and the vicissitudes of history and politics, or even nationalistic myth-making. It’s a body of work that has been accused of ahistorical and adolescent escapism, but Hawks’ fans rejoice in his oeuvre‘s remarkable avoidance of Hollywood’s religiosity, bathos, flag-waving, and sentimentality.

Howard Hawks


Films directed by Hawks:

The Road to Glory (1926) (and Story, Prod)

Fig Leaves (1926) (and Story, Prod)

The Cradle Snatchers (1927)

Paid to Love (1927) (and Prod)

A Girl in Every Port (1928) (and Story, Prod)

Fazil (1928)

The Air Circus (1928) (primarily a silent film, with some sound sequences, directed by Lewis Seiler)

Trent’s Last Case (1929)

The Dawn Patrol (1930) (and Story [uncredited], Co-scr)

The Criminal Code (1931) (and Co-prod)

Scarface (subtitled: Shame of a Nation) (1932) (and Co-Prod)

The Crowd Roars (1932) (and Story)

Tiger Shark (1932)

Today We Live (1933) (and Prod)

The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) (uncredited Dir, completed by W.S. Van Dyke)

Viva Villa! (1934) (Co-scr and uncredited Dir; completed by Jack Conway)

Twentieth Century (1934) (and Prod)

Bringing Up Baby

Barbary Coast (1935)

Ceiling Zero (1936) (and Co-Prod)

The Road to Glory (1936)

Come and Get It (1936, film completed by William Wyler)

Bringing Up Baby (1938) (and Prod)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) (and Story, Prod)

His Girl Friday (1940) (and Prod)

The Outlaw (1940) (uncredited; completed by Howard Hughes)

Sergeant York (1941)

Ball of Fire (1941)

Air Force (1943) (and Co-Prod)

Corvette K-225 (1943) (film credited to Richard Rosson; Co-scr, Prod and Dir Supervision)

To Have and Have Not (1944) (and Prod)

The Big Sleep (1946) (and Prod)

Red River (1948) (and Prod)

Red River

A Song is Born (1948)

I Was a Male War Bride (UK title: You Can’t Sleep Here) (1949)

The Thing (subtitled: From Another World) (1951) (film credited to Christian Nyby; Co-scr, Prod, and Dir Supervision)

The Big Sky (1952) (and Prod)

O. Henry’s Full House (1952) (episode: “The Ransom of Red Chief”)

Monkey Business (1952)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) (musical numbers directed by Jack Cole)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (and Prod)

Rio Bravo (1959) (and Prod)

Hatari! (1962) (and Prod)

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1963) (and Prod)

Red Line 7000 (1965) (and Prod)

El Dorado (1967) (and Prod)

Rio Lobo (1970) (and Prod)


The Little Princess (1917) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Props and uncredited Co-dir)

In Again, Out Again (1917) Dir: John Emerson (Asst Dir)

His Night Out (1918) (Asst Dir)

Go and Get It (1920) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

Dinty (1920) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

The Forbidden Thing (1920) Dir: Allan Dwan (Asst Dir)

A Perfect Crime (1921) Dir: Allan Dwan (Asst Dir)

Man-Woman Marriage (1921) Dir: Allen Holubar (Asst Dir)

Bob Hampton of Placer (1921) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

A Broken Doll (1921) Dir: Allan Dwan (Asst Dir)

Bits of Life (1921) Dir: Marshall Neilan) (Asst Dir)

The Lotus Eater (1921) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

Penrod (1922) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

Fools First (1922) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

Hurricane’s Gal (1922) Dir: Allen Holubar (Asst Dir)

Minnie (1923) Dir: Marshall Neilan (Asst Dir)

Slander the Woman (1923) Dir: Allen Holubar (Asst Dir)

Quicksands (1923) Dir: Jack Conway (Story, Scr, Prod)

Tiger Love (1924) Dir: George Melford (Scr)

The Dressmaker from Paris(1925) Dir: Paul Bern (Co-story)

Honesty-the Best Policy (1926) Dir: Chester Bennett (Story)

Select Bibliography

Apra, Adriano and Patrizia Pistagnesi, eds., Il Cinema di Howard Hawks. Venice: La Biennale di Venizia, 1981.

Belton, John, The Hollywood Professionals (Vol.3): Hawks, Borzage, Ulmer. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1974.

Bogdanovich, Peter, The Cinema of Howard Hawks. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962.

Bogdanovich, Peter, Who the Devil Made It. New York: Knopf, 1997: 244-378.

Glili, Jean A, Howard Hawks: Cinema d’Aujourd’hui. Paris: Editions Seghers, 1971.

Hillier, Jim and Wollen, Peter, eds., Howard Hawks, American Artist. London: BFI Publishing, 1996.

Liandart-Guigues, Suzanne, Red River. Trans. Nick Coates. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.

McBride, Joseph, ed., Focus on Howard Hawks. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

McBride, Joseph, Hawks on Hawks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

McCarthy, Todd, Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Mast, Gerald, Howard Hawks, Storyteller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Missiaen, Jean-Claude, Howard Hawks. Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1966.

Poague, Leland, Howard Hawks. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Sarris, Andrew, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet:” the American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998: 262-81.

Thomson, David, The Big Sleep. London: BFI Publishing, 1997.

Wood, Robin, Howard Hawks. (rev ed.) London: BFI Publishing, 1983.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

A Girl in Every Port by David Boxwell

I Was a Male War Bride by Adrian Danks

Scarface by Michael Cohen

Red River by Adrian Miles

The Big Sleep by Andrew Slattery

Under the Cover of Darkness: Expressionistic Experimentation in Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code by Christopher Weedman

Male Irresponsibility and (Temporary) Redemption: Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars by Tony Williams

Hawksian Girls Meet Weimar Cinema at 25th Cinema Ritrovato by Frederico Passi

American Triptych: Vidor, Hawks and Ford by Ted Gallagher

Hatari! and the Hollywood Safari Picture by Michael J. Anderson

Web Resources

Compiled by Michelle Carey

Howard Hawks 1896-1977
A good overview of Hawks’ films highlighting the various literary adaptations he undertook.

Behind the Camera – Howard Hawks
A good – though uncritical – overview with some links.

Deep Focus: Howard Hawks
Brief outline of his life and films. Features some great quotations by Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette on Hawks’ cinema.

Howard Hawks – [Director’s Chair] Scene 360
Good overview with some nice colour reproductions of film posters and some links.

What Makes a Star? Howard Hawks Knew Best of All
An obituary by Robin Brantley, incorporating an interview with the man himself just months before his death.

Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood
First chapter from Todd McCarthy’s book, available online.

Shooting From the Hip
Review of McCarthy’s book by Dennis Drabelle.

Reel Classics: The Big Sleep
Colourful site with great pictures, cast and crew overview, articles and links.

Film Adaption: His Girl Friday
A brief look at the adaptation of the novel The Front Page into this classic screwball comedy.

There’s Something About Harry: To Have and Have Not as Novel and Film
Ed Krzemienski’s detailed essay on Hemingway’s book and its cinematic adaptation by Hawks.

10 Shades of Noir: The Big Sleep
Kevin Jack Hagopian’s entry in Image‘s 10 Shades of Noir issue.

Howard Hawks’ Casino Royale (huh?)
At one time, the legendary director thought about adapting Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel for the big screen. Bill Koenig speculates on what would it have been like.


  1. Robin Wood, Howard Hawks. London: BFI Publishing, 1983: 175.

About The Author

David Boxwell teaches film and literature at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado and has also written film commentary for Bright Lights Film Journal.

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