Friday, July 2, 2010

The Music of Howard Hawks

When you watch Howard Hawks movies you begin to notice patterns repeating, variations on themes, cover versions of previous scenes. One of these repeated patterns is the musical number. Time and again a Hawks movie will just stop in its tracks for a song. And each time there's the lovely feeling of careless enjoyment, an immersion in rapt mood and private glances that could happily go on forever.
As his career matured there evolved a belief that all scenes were independent moments, were discrete performances (like songs), that a film could be made up of a string of these moments with only the merest fig-leaf of plot or narrative drive as an excuse for it all.
In fact by the end of his career he wasn't even bothering to come up with new plots, simply recycling old ones, riffing on the same scenes, remaking Rio Bravo not once but twice, firstly as El Dorado and again as Rio Lobo. Plot didn't matter, narrative was a lie, the moment was everything.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Jean Arthur defines the archtypal Hawksian heroine. 'Grown up yet?' Grant asks her. 'Hope so,' she replies, drinking whiskey and playing piano like a pro. Don't you love that thing she does with her arms before she starts to play? And Grant yelling PEA-NUT! I mean seriously, isn't it agony when they cut away from this mid-song? It looks like some party starting and you want to stay, want it to go on all night.

In Ball of Fire (1941) nightclub singer Sugarpuss O'Shea performs Drum Boogie while shy professor Gary Cooper watches on. In a way, it's pretty standard. Many films of the period had nightclub scenes as an excuse for the heroine to sing, but notice how the song is more a showcase for drummer Gene Krupa than it is for Stanwyck. Is Krupa part of the narrative in any way? No, not at all. And then we get the coda, the matchbox riff on the same song, everyone singing along in a tight circle, a hushed, spotlit moment with no purpose in the film except the sweet pleasure of its own existence.

By To Have And Have Not (1944) Hawks was in open revolt against narrative, ignoring the original Hemingway story and finding any excuse to get Hoagy Carmichael and his piano into the film. Notice the casual way this song seems to evolve out of nothing, as if Bacall has conjured it up as an excuse to escape the creep she's with as well as a way of flirting with the mysterious stranger across the bar. Notice that knowing glance his way as she sings 'the sad and lonely one'. This is a girl who's had her heart broken, who knows all about the blues. Come and get me if you like, she's saying, just don't expect it to be easy.

Later in the same film, and Bacall is at it again, communcating things in song she's to wary to say in reality. 'Love comes along, casting a spell' she croons seductively. 'Will it sing you a song, will it say a farewell? Who can tell?' It's a tease and a plea; I want you/I don't care, I love you/I don't care, you can have me/I don't care. Flirtation is at the heart of it, that lovely balance between yes and no, that place where everything is possible and only the moment matters. In other words, to have and have not. You get the feeling Hawks only decided to make the film so he could use that title.

And then there's this scene from The Big Sleep (1946) which does pretty much the same thing, Bacall at the piano once more, surrounded by adoring young men, while Bogie leans at the door, sexy waitress by his side. They flirt wordlessly through good-natured, see-if-I-care glances while she sings a deceptively upbeat song about 'a real sad tomato, a busted valentine.' Suddenly the stuck-up rich girl is revealed as a hep cat with a broken heart.

And finally Rio Bravo (1959) and Dean Martin's time-struck ode to the cowboy life. It's a moment that takes you away from everything else in the film. Do they look like they're trapped in a jailhouse with people outside intent on killing them? Not for a second. What baddies exactly? Or for that matter, what film? 'It's time for a cowboy to dream,' Dino sings, and so they do. 'Real pretty,' old Stumpy says, echoing Hawks's favourite credo, 'go on, sing some more'.

1 comment:

  1. Pure class. Really enjoyed these - thanks!

    From his Wikipedia entry:

    Hawks's own definition of what constitutes a "good movie" is revealing of his no-nonsense style: "Three great scenes, no bad ones." Hawks also defined a good director as "someone who doesn't annoy you".