Howard Hawks (1896–1977), in his forty-four year career, was arguably the most consistently successful of all directors in satisfying the commercial demands of the Hollywood studio system while simultaneously maintaining a high level of personal expression in his films. One might say he was the “auteur’s auteur.” It helped a great deal that he was proficient in so many different genres.
The modern gangster film essentially began with Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), starring George Bancroft, but the advent of sound solidified the genre’s popularity. Warner Brothers, especially, treated us to screeching sirens and rhythmic tommy guns, scoring big hits with Edward G. Robinson in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930) and James Cagney in William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931). Much of the flak that Hawks took for Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was due to the intrinsic likability of his underworld characters, regardless of how brutal they were or how bloody their end. Hawks very much admired professionalism and dedication to one’s work. In this instance, the occupation was crime, and Hawks was accused of glamorizing his underworld protagonists. Some of this, of course, was inevitable given the mythologizing nature of the film medium. Similar criticism could be directed at the three predecessors mentioned above, and one could argue that this sympathy for the bad guy is even more pronounced today in films like Ridley Scott’s American Gangster with Denzel Washington (2007) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with Johnny Depp (2009). (When I lived in Chicago, what had been the headquarters of Al Capone, the real Scarface, was just down the block, and I think the neighborhood took a certain perverse pride in this notoriety.)
It’s ironic, disconcerting, and, in today’s parlance, politically incorrect that the non-ethnic LeRoy and Wellman and the ultra-WASP from Indiana, Hawks, made signature films about Italian and Irish hoodlums. It is probably more ironic and offensive that the Italian mobsters were played by Jews born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Paul Muni (1895–1967) was, in fact, a veteran of the Yiddish Art Theater in New York. His first trip to Hollywood had been unsuccessful, and Scarface marked a kind of triumphant return to the movies. Muni quickly became the serious movie actor—at the expense of several compatriots who were perhaps more gifted at meeting the demands of the cinema—winning Oscars for The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. This is not to say that he was a bad actor. He was highly effective in those roles, as well as in Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. However, one must consider that the 1930s also brought us James Stewart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Ronald Colman, Charles Boyer, Spencer Tracy, and others who had, I think, a wider range than Muni.
As he almost always did during his prime, Hawks assembled a superb cast. This included George Raft (for whom this was a breakthrough role), Karen Morley, and Ann Dvorak. Ben Hecht, who had written the original story for Underworld and who knew his gangsters, brought his special brand of humor to the script. (Hecht was later to work with Hawks on adapting his play The Front Page, [cowritten with Charles MacArthur] to become His Girl Friday ). Lee Garmes, Sternberg’s great cinematographer, lent Scarface a stylish and striking visual quality that is rare in Hawks’s films. The director would go virtually unrecognized by the Hollywood establishment for nearly another decade before being nominated for an Oscar for the relatively minor Sergeant York.
This has been a particularly bleak week for auteurism. Last year, MoMA presented a short series on the American contribution to the resurgent British cinema of the 1960s. However, this was not intended to dismiss the native contributions of Brits. One of the most hopeful signs at the time was the work of Clive Donner (1926–2010), whose career after The Caretaker (The Guest), Nothing but the Best, and What’s New Pussycat? never reached the heights for which it seemed destined. The latter two films (together with the American Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) pretty much defined “Swinging London,” but Donner’s death makes that seem a long time ago.
Even more vexing is the loss of Claude Chabrol (1930–2010). One of the original auteur critics around Andre Bazin at Cahiers du Cinéma, Chabrol wrote an important book on Alfred Hitchcock with Eric Rohmer, who died last year. As a prolific director of mostly anti-bourgeois crime films, he never achieved the high international profile of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Nonetheless, he made some wonderful movies. Most notable perhaps were his collaborations with his then wife, the ravishing Stephane Audran (including Les Bonne Femme, Les Biches, La Femme Infidele, Le Boucher, and La Rupture). Of almost equal interest are the many films he made after that with Isabelle Huppert.
Finally, I do want to call your attention to a special evening screening on Monday, September 27, at 7:30 p.m. We will be showing two very rare Cecil B. DeMille silents from the collection of George Eastman House: The Kindling (1915) and The Golden Chance (1916). The evening will be introduced by Scott Eyman, author of the brand new Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. De Mille. It’s a super book, and Scott will be signing copies beginning at 6:30 p.m.