Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Unusually Progressive Women of Howard Hawks

In my cinema studies classes I've had to watch a lot of movies. There's been some really great ones, and other times ones that aren't so great. I've frequently found myself forced to watch popular movies that I really can't stand (I really did not like Raging Bull, even though I don't have anything in particular against Scorsese, and feel that The Elephant Man should have won those Oscars). On the other hand, with all the bad stuff, there is usually some good to be found, and one such opportunity came up recently. This same class forced me to watch Playtime and Tout Va Bien; but I also got exposed to some great movies like A Man Escaped. I've decided here to look at one of my more positive experiences of the class, which was to examine the work of a specific auteur. The man in question was Howard Hawks.

I was certainly no stranger to Howard Hawks before I took this class. In fact I'd somewhat accidentally built up a small collection of his movies (by "accidentally", I mean I obtained them either as gifts or for other reasons and only afterwards realized they were by the same guy): The Thing From Another World (which I'd mainly purchased because I'm a huge fan of Carpenter's The Thing), Bringing Up Baby, Red River, (both of which I received as gifts from family), The Big Sleep (the result of a short-lived attempt to explore the realm of film noir), and Rio Bravo (because I caught a small portion on TV once and really wanted to see the rest of it). I'd also previously seen the film His Girl Friday for another class. Naturally, I'd developed some respect for this guy already, but examining him in my class did allow me to understand him a little better.

The three movies of his we saw in the class were His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and Rio Bravo, all great movies that I had some familiarity with. There definitely were some patterns I could see in those films alone, many of which extended into the other films I'd also seen, including The Thing From Another World (of which he is only credited as the producer, though there's some dispute over how much influence he and the credited director Christian Nyby actually had over the movie)

One thing that's always fascinated me about Howard Hawks is his female characters, which were remarkably progressive given he was working primarily in Hollywood while the Studio System was still in place. A trademark in his female characters is that they have a tendency to "intrude" upon what would normally be an all-male group, but eventually work their way to being "one of the guys". In other words, Hawks women were usually equal to the men.

The first time I saw His Girl Friday I was a little bothered by Hildy Johnson's attitude of wanting to settle down and be "a woman", since given the time period and her current position that basically entailed giving up her rights. It was only later on I realized that the idea of a strong, sharp-witted, and intelligent woman running a newspaper, being their best reporter, and being treated as 100% equal by her (male) colleagues was pretty impressive for a movie released in 1940. Even better is that the movie seems to know this, with a minor running joke in the men placing bets on how long it's going to take before Hildy returns to the paper and the fact that she ultimately sticks to her career as an ace reporter. (although on the condition of re-marrying her boss and getting a proper honeymoon this time)

There is actually this interesting sort of dynamic that often emerges with the female leads in Hawks' movies. They almost always have a romantic relationship with the protagonist, but its not exactly love at first sight... at least not entirely. You see, women in Hawks' movies are hardly submissive. Hildy Johnson is a good example of one of Hawks' smart and sharp-witted female leads, as is Nikki Nicholson in The Thing From Another World, Feathers in Rio Bravo, and to a lesser extent Susan in Bringing Up Baby. In every case there is a sense of mutual attraction early on, but at the same time both the man and woman actually have to earn each other.

We can see this sort of dynamic play out throughout many, if not in fact, all of his movies. However, to bring out a straight forward example, this is definitely present in Bringing Up Baby. Katherine Hepburn's character of Susan is a lot of fun, and it is clear there is some attraction between her and Cary Grant (even if he's reluctant to admit it), but they have to go through a lot before they can be together. Susan herself is also a very intelligent (if extremely clumsy) young woman who has a tendency to constantly improvise her way out of trouble (and frequently distract the local sheriff from his job by way of casual chatter), and Cary Grant's character of David also has to adapt to keep up behind her every step of the way despite his very reclusive and bookish personality.

Nikki in The Thing From Another World is an interesting case as well. Like most of Hawks' female characters, she is already one of the guys right from the start, even wearing pants for most of the film. There is a sense of mutual attraction between her and the protagonist Captain Pat Hendry, but as usual they have to earn it. The part that I find especially interesting (even if the poster may suggest otherwise) is that she always manages to stay calm, never simply expecting Hendry to save her (she even gets a moment near the end of the film to help everyone when she is able to notice something crucial because she wasn't involved with an argument between some of the men). The one time she does raise her voice, it's at the very end and because she's trying to alert Hendry to a serious problem that threatens everyone present (which is also resolved pretty quickly).

I remember the first time I saw Rio Bravo, I half-expected Feathers to show up with a rifle in the middle of the final showdown (especially after the unlikely arrival of Stumpy and Carlos, Colorado even jokes about it). She didn't, and she only once ended up being taken (and even then was never really rescued so much as released when Chance complied with the demands of her captors), and in fact even managed to save Sheriff Chance's life by throwing a flower pot through a window (the noise providing enough of a distraction to allow Colorado to throw Chance his rifle).

Given Hawks was working largely in the era of the Studio System and within the confines of Hollywood, it is impressive that he found such a unique image for the time period (this character type even became known as the "Hawksian woman"). Whether he was doing this consciously or not I cannot say. All I can comment on is how progressive his films could be.

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