"I tried to make a strange man, humorous but vicious, out of Villa, as he was in real life, but Conway's version had Wallace Beery playing Santa Claus."- Howard Hawks on Viva Villa!
Viva Villa! (1934) - Scene
With his superior manner and inflated ego, Howard Hawks managed to anger many living people during his long career. Reviewing all the mishaps
that happened while he was working on “Viva Villa!” one has to wonder whether he also got on the wrong side of a ghost.
Was the spirit of Pancho Villa working against Hawks?
Whether we chalk it up to malignant supernatural forces, karma, coincidence, or just an extraordinary string of bad luck, the director’s attempts to bring
this biographical tale to the screen strained his nerves and his patience to the breaking point.
Things started to wrong for Hawks in December of 1932 when his brother-in-law Irving Thalberg suffered his first heart attack. Howard had counted on
Thalberg to serve as a buffer between him and the abrasive meddling management style of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. As Thalberg recuperated
in Europe, Mayer replaced him with his own son-in-law, David O. Selznick. Much to his dismay, Hawks was now working for two of his least favorite
Director: Jack Conway and Howard Hawks (uncredited) Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Uncredited: Howard Hawks, James Kevin McGuinness and Howard Emmett Rogers, (based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O.B. Stade) Music: Herbert Stothart
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke, James Wong Howe and Gabriel Figueroa
Editor: George Amy
Art Director: Harry Oliver
Viva Villa! - 1934 (Original Poster)
Henry B. Walthall
Released: April 10, 1934 Running time 115 minutes
Fortunately, one of his favorite people, screenwriter Ben Hecht, was hired to write the screenplay. Working with Hecht, Hawks imagined a movie which would satirize the overwrought historical pictures of the era. It would be a rugged, boisterous, irreverent adventure.
His nemesis, Selznick, had other ideas. Selznick reached out to various factions of the Mexican government, asking them to approve the script. Each faction had its own political agenda and its own view of history. The clear vision of the director and the writer was soon muddied by too many fingerprints on the script.
With an ever-evolving script on his hands, Hawks headed to the hinterlands of Mexico to begin filming. The studio chose Wallace Beery to play the title role and rising star Lee Tracy to play the hard-drinking reporter who befriends Villa and reports his exploits.
Setting up camp about two-hundred miles outside of Mexico City, the cast and crew stepped into a world quite different from Hollywood. With sparse provisions available in Depression ravaged Mexico, the crew was soon subsisting on oranges and brandy. Some scenes required hundreds of extras and the assembled crowd was made up of some pretty tough characters. Gun fights were common and one extra is said to have shot himself in the head in front of everyone.
“There were people shot every day when we were making the movie,” Hawks recalled, “It was crazy in those days.”
The madness surrounding the making of “Viva Villa!” got turned up a notch on November 19, 1933. Hiring Lee Tracy to play a hard-drinking reporter seemed appropriate to some of his friends. Tracy was a hard-drinking man. Stuck in a dusty village in rural Mexico, he began drinking even more. On November 19, the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, his drinking set off an international incident.
Reports differ on what actually occurred that day. When Josephus Daniels, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, reported the matter to the State Department, he told it this way:
“Tracy appeared on a balcony of the Hotel Regis, unclad and using very profane and insulting language at the moment when the military cadets marching in the parade of November 19th were passing in front of the hotel.”
Charles G. Clarke, the cinematographer on the picture, claims that Tracy was just standing on the balcony cheering the parade when someone in the crowd made an obscene gesture at him and Tracy merely responded in kind. Clarke claims the local paper blew things up the next day to make it seem as if the actor had insulted Mexico, Mexicans in general and the Mexican flag in particular.
Others, including Hawks, have Tracy urinating on the cadets as they marched by his balcony. Whatever the actual events were, Lee Tracy was arrested, deported, fired from the picture and banished from MGM forever by Louis B. Mayer.
Losing one of his lead actors quickly became one of the least of Howard Hawks’ problems. When he returned to Hollywood on November 22, Mayer demanded that he issue a statement telling the world that Tracy had been “impossible to control” on the set. Hawks refused.
In later years, Hawks would tell the tale of how he pushed Mayer up against a wall, told him “to go to hell,” and quit on the spot. As Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy points out, the facts don’t quite line up with Howard’s story. The director continued working in an office on the MGM lot for about ten weeks after he stopped directing “Viva Villa!” If he had actually manhandled the short-fused Louis B. Mayer, he would have been removed from the lot immediately and, like Tracy, banished.
Whether Hawks was fired or he quit, Jack Conway was brought in to finish the picture. Stuart Erwin was brought in to fill Tracy’s part and Ben Hecht was hired to rewrite the second half of the movie to reduce the reporter’s role.
Some of Hawks location footage appears in the finished movie. There might have been more if Villa’s ghost hadn’t added one last twist to the tale. A plane carrying about twenty thousand feet of negatives from the Hawks shoot crashed and burned after the pilot bailed out near El Paso, Texas. Some film historians consider this a “highly suspicious accident.”
Despite all its troubles, “Viva Villa!” did go on to become the highest grossing picture of 1934. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and nominated for best screenplay. Hawks, however, remained upset that he never got to make the picture that he and Hecht had first conceived.
“It could have been one hell of a picture.” Hawks said, “I tried to make a strange man, humorous but vicious out of Villa, as he was in real life, but Conway’s version had Wallace Beery playing Santa Claus.” If Pancho Villa’s ghost was actually responsible for Howard Hawks’ problems making this movie, you can’t blame him for preferring the Santa Claus version of his life.
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.