Giving Howard Hawks the label of film auteur was a bit of revisionist history initiated by the New Wave Cinema of France during the late 1940s into the 50s. Championed by directors Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the French directors were seeking to justify their own individualism as an answer to the lifting of the quota on American Films after World War II, which led to a flood of big budget Hollywood films into French movie houses. The French directors unable to compete with the flash and panache of Hollywood, pointed out that individualism made their films stronger. The French anointed John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Hawks as the patron saints of the auteurs. Said Godard,
The great filmmakers always tie themselves down by complying with the rules of the game. I have not done so because I am just a minor filmmaker. Take, for example, the films of Howard Hawks, and in particular Rio Bravo. That is a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception, but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can passed unnoticed without disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all the others. Hawks is the greater because he has succeeded in fitting all that he holds most dear into a well-worn subject." (Jastro online)
The auteur theory was officially defined by Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc in Bazin's periodical Cahiers du cinema, (1951). The auteur theory states that a film becomes a true work of art when it becomes the realization of the vision of one man, the director, whose personal style frames the content of the film. This personal touches can be found in all of a director's work, and this effectively stamps it, so that like with a Picasso, or a Dali, the viewer can recognize the style of the director in the finished product. Jacques Rivette, another member of the French New Wave said of Hawks:
If Hawks incarnates the classic American cinema, if he has brought nobility to every genre, then it is because, in each case, he has found that particular genre's essential quality and grandeur, and blended his personal themes with those the American tradition had already enriched and made profound." (Jastro online)
After the fact, it's been said that Hawks was amused and even flattered that others were seeing his films as works of art. However, Hawks being labeled an auteur, is a bit ironic, as the thing that made him an artist was the fact that he eschewed labels his entire career.
Back when Hawks was a young man and Hollywood was even younger, Hawks had gone to school to become an engineer. His start in films came with his doing some work for Mary Pickford's film company as a set hand back before the advent of talkies. How he got noticed says much about the young man who would go on to direct more than 40 films including an eleven picture run of what we would call blockbusters today. Hawks had confidence in his creativity and ability, so one day during a shoot, the crew was in need of a set and the set artist was unavailable. Hawks spoke right up and volunteered to create the set, even though his only remotely similar experience was studying architecture in school. From there he went on to writing scripts and then took a seat in the director's chair. In his earliest films, Hawks tried several trick techniques... But no sooner had he tried than he abandoned them. He felt that simple expression is preferable to all manner of complexity and he came, for the most part, to keep his camera at eye level. Anything else, unless it was required for emphasis, tended to be a distraction and therefore interfered." (Tuska 96)
Hawks refused to be limited by labels, he refused to succumb to functional fixity. His most serious films have bits of humor and he was not adverse to turning a drama into a comedy or for that matter into a musical. During his career, though he got a "feel-good" award for lifetime achievement, he received few nominations and no Oscars during his career. Yet, he was one of the few directors who, productive and successful before the Second World War, remained commercially and artistically successful after the war. And when it comes to crossing genres his success to date is unparalleled. He was equally at home in comedy, westerns, aviation films and war dramas.
Hawks' films today are just as endearing as when they were first released. This is due largely to the fact that he was first off a fabulist looking to speak about universal truths of human nature, apart from the world in which they live; and secondly, because rather than being story-driven, his films start and end with the characters that inhabit them. Plots were almost extraneous to Hawks. In speaking about the Big Sleep, he repeatedly said that he never did understand the story.
Convinced that if he remained a contract director, he would not be able to make them as he wanted. Hawks left the studios behind to become a freelance director. "Henceforth he would contract to individuals or to studios to make one picture or several after his own fashion on terms which would allow him to have control over stories and casting." (Tuska 103)
The fact that Hawks had an extraordinary talent for creating money-makers allowed him to retain artistic freedom that no one else had. "Since this freedom also meant that he would have to make a living on what his films earned by way of profits, it made him as keenly conscious of costs and grosses as any film distributor." (Tuska 103)
Like Flannery O'connor talking about her method of writing in Mysteries and Manners, Hawks liked to put two characters together and just see how they interacted. He didn't asked the camera to do much and was certainly not prone to an excess of editing, but he did ask an awful lot of his actors. In To Have or Have Not, he took the worlds most brash actor, Humphrey Bogart and introduced him to an even brasher female lead, the very young Lauren Bacall, who controls the action by walking out on Bogie whenever she wants, matching her sarcasm against his cynicism.
Hawks would get inside the head of his actors. He would attempt to get the new kids on the block to stand up to the stabled stars and would encourage the old timers to knock the kids down a peg or two. This is seen clearly at work with John Wayne and new comer Montgomery Clift in Red River.
As a western director the more witty Hawks holds his own with the more sentimental John Ford. However, it is probably in comedy where Hawks' greatest genius showed itself. Hawks is often given credit for evolving the screwball comedy. Most analysts suggest that 1934 should be considered as the beginning of the screwball genre because of the appearance of three films. (Gehring 109) Those films were It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, all of which did very well at the box office.
This genre usually introduces a screwball male lead who is quite vulnerable and prone to frustration, often has high society trappings, and usually involves ridiculous turns of events that are filled with misunderstandings that are romantically resolved. The male lead, as created by Clark Gable and then perfected by Cary Grant is often shown as being quite childlike and though heroic is often in need of caring for. Cary Grant's absentminded professor in Bringing Up Baby, despite being a genius finds himself in one ridiculous situation after another.
Some other commonalties to Hawks' screwball comedies include a highly developed use of dialogue and gender-bending that's equal to that of Shakespeare. Though Hawks was known for allowing his characters to talk with their eyes, the dialogue in Hawks' film is as crisp and sharp and impolite as any every scripted in Hollywood. Considering the writers at his disposal -- William Faulkner, Ben Hecht, and Raymond Chandler, the dialog should have been top drawer. Hawks got the most out of his writers by sitting down and chatting with them, often over a drink or two or six, and would then leave them alone to do their work. However as soon as the movie went into production, the script would begin to evolve through Hawks' rewrites and the actors' open invitation to improvise. Hawks didn't want his actors to be polite. Up to that time, actors had been quite polite about letting fellow actors finish their lines. Hawks encouraged them to run over each others lines, to even talk at the same time. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn execute it perfectly in Bringing up Baby, showing how both their characters are obliviously traveling in parallel universes.
Hawks' use of gender-bending took various forms. In My Girl Friday, he took…