Despite a reputation as a womanizer, Howard Hawks would marry three times. He was married to Athole Shearer, sister of actress Norma Shearer, from 1928 to 1940. His marriage to socialite Nancy “Slim” Gross ran from 1941 to 1949. It is often said that Hawks modeled Lauren Bacall’s persona in “To Have and Have Not” on the personality of his second wife. His final marriage, to actress Dee Hartford, lasted from 1953 to 1959.
Athole was the mother of his daughter Barbara and his son David. Slim gave birth to his second daughter, a successful interior designer with the memorable name of Kitty Hawks.
In 1954, Dee became the mother of Howard’s son Gregg.
As a pilot, race car driver, writer, producer, and director, Howard Winchester Hawks worked hard to live up to his grandfather C.W. Howard’s early assessment of his abilities. He always strove to be the best and went out of his way to prove that he could do anything he set his mind to.
HOWARD HAWKS MOVIES Hollywood's Grey Fox
“There are two kinds of mythomaniacs: The ones who are that way because they have never done anything, and the ones who have done so much they can never be satisfed with anything. Howard Hawks is the prototype of the second category.” - Robert Capa
May 30, 1896 was a stormy and violent day in Goshen, Indiana. A major low pressure system had been hammering the Midwestern United States for days. Just a few days earlier, it had spawned a tornado in St. Louis that had killed 255 people.
Although, Goshen remained tornado free on May 30, death darkened the day. During a disturbance at August Fausch’s saloon in the rougher side of Goshen, Marshall Rigney shot and killed Dick Simmons.
Meanwhile, on the better side of town, in an opulent house on the corner of Fifth and Jefferson, Mrs. Helen Howard Hawks was giving birth to her first child; a baby boy who would be named Howard Winchester Hawks.
The boy’s mother was the 24-year old daughter of C.W. Howard, the founder of Howard Paper Company and one of Wisconsin’s leading industrialists. The boy’s father, Frank Winchester Hawks, was a member of Goshen’s most prominent family; a family that had a hand in virtually every major business in town.
Goshen Milling Company,one of many business owned by Hawks and Howards.
Hawks Family (1912) Left to right: William, Kenneth, Helen, Helen Howard, Howard, Grace, Frank Winchester.
Neenah, Wisconsin House, Frank Hawks built in 1906.
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the young Howard Hawks was treated like a prince. After his family moved to Neenah, Wisconsin in 1898, his maternal grandfather indulged his every whim. He grew used to getting what he wanted. His beloved grandfather C.W. frequently told him that he was the best and they he could do anything. Howard saw no reason to doubt those words.
Between 1898 and 1906, Howard’s mother gave birth to four more children and the strain of childbirth took a severe toll on her health. In an attempt to aid her recovery, the family chose to avoid the harsh Wisconsin winters and relocated to Pasadena, California for the season. They repeated this migration the following year, and by 1910, Hawks was permanently settled in California.
Nine year old Howard Hawks (1905)
Young Howard was not destined to enjoy the sunny California climate for long. At 16, he was sent to New Hampshire to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and majored in mechanical engineering.
On a visit home to Pasadena in 1916, he met one of the people who would become one of the major influences on his life; Victor Fleming. Thirteen years older than Hawks, Fleming was everything that Howard wanted to be. Fleming had been a mechanic for racing legend Barney Oldfield and had himself barnstormed his way across the country driving race cars. In addition to his racing exploits, Fleming was also a pilot.Before long, Hawks was seriously involved with racing cars and flying planes.
Victor Fleming was also the man who got Howard Hawks his first job in the movie industry. Around the time he met Hawks, Fleming was working as the director of photography on a Douglas Fairbanks film called “In Again - Out Again.” Evidence suggests that Victor Fleming was responsible for Hawks getting a summer job working in the props department.
“In Again - Out Again” was the first movie where Douglas Fairbanks was a producer as well as an actor. One day, when the movie’s art director was out of town, Fairbanks realized he needed a modern set in a hurry. With his limited architectural training, Hawks volunteered his services.
Fairbanks was impressed with the set and the young man who had created it. He invited him back to do further work at the studio whenever his school schedule permitted.
After graduating from Cornell, Hawks joined the U.S. Army to help fight World War I. He served as a lieutenant in the Signal Corps and later joined the Army Air Corps, serving in France.
After the Armistice, he took some time for some rich boy fun, and to enjoy the risk-taking lifestyle that he had so admired when he first met Victor Fleming. He worked as an aviator and raced automobiles professionally. Working in race car garages, he put his mechanical engineering knowledge to work designing race cars and later working on planes at an aircraft factory. Hawks claims to have built a car that won Indianapolis.
Hawks returned to Hollywood, reenergized by his real world experiences.
He was soon employed in a variety of production jobs ranging from writing scripts to editing film. As he learned his craft he took on the roles of casting director, script supervisor, assistant director, and producer. The desire to direct began to consume him.
In September of 1924, he quit his job as production editor at Paramount to work with Irving Thalberg, “the boy wonder” at MGM, and Hawks' eventual brother-in-law through marriage. Thalberg told him that if he worked under him as story executive for a year, he would be given the chance to direct.
Howard and Kenneth in WWI uniform
When that promise was broken, Hawks took his talents to Fox. In 1926, they gave him the chance to direct his first film, “The Road to Glory.” He would go on to direct eight silent movies for Fox in the next three years, his final Fox feature of this period, “Trent’s Last Case,” was released only briefly in England.
Road To Glory - 1926 (Original Poster)
Trents Last Case - 1929 (Film Still)
Fig Leaves - 1926 (Original Poster)
Hawks hit his stride as a director in the 30's, easily adapting to the new sound medium. He soon embodied the image of the modern director; a tall, silver haired man of action, confident of his powers in his working life and his personal life. The entertainment press nicknamed him “The Grey Fox of Hollywood.” whose friends now included people like Howard Hughes and Ernest Hemingway. He brought William Faulkner to Hollywood after purchasing one of Faulkner's short stories for the screen. He co-founded Hollywood's first motorcycle gang.
Howard Hughes (1905 - 1976)
Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)
William Faulkner (1897 - 1962)
With the advent of sound, Howard was not the only one of the Hawks brothers on a roll.
His younger brother Kenneth was establishing a reputation as a rising star in directing circles. Married to film star Mary Astor, Ken was already well known in Hollywood. Having supervised several movies at Fox and done work as an editor and story writer, he was promoted to director in 1929.
He made his solo directional debut in “Big Time,” which featured the quick-paced dialog style that would later become a hallmark of his older brother’s movies.
The next project on director Kenneth Hawks’s schedule was a melodrama concerning a pilot who either fell or jumped to his death when attempting to cross the English Channel in 1928. While filming an aerial sequence for this film, Howard’s brother Ken was killed when two of the stunt planes collided.
Howard had been closer to his brother Ken than he had to any other individual in his life. Although he distanced himself from the emotional impact of this event in interviews he gave thirty years later, it is hard to overestimate the loss he felt at the time. Some trace the genesis of his remote, sometimes cold, personality to the agony of losing the person he had protected since they were children. While none can truly say what scars Ken’s loss left on his brother’s soul, we are certain of the impact it had on his appearance. Already prematurely graying at thirty-three, his hair turned entirely grey shortly after Kenneth’s death.
As if seeking solace in work, Howard embarked on the most prolific period of his directing career. Over the next five years, he directed a dozen major films including the gangster masterpiece, “Scarface”, and the screwball comedy classic “Twentieth Century”, both co-written by Ben Hecht, the firstof Hawks' many associations with America's most distinguished writers.
When Howard Hughes decided to make "Scarface" he pursued Howard Hawks, the man he believed to be the best director in Hollywood. This was an exciting opportunity for Hawks, working on his first sound film, and without interference from the studios. In declaring his independence from the studio system and their binding contracts, he eventually directed money making films for every major studio in town.
Scarface - Official Trailer (1932)
With the arrival of 1936, Howard Hawks had three pictures in release, an income equal to that of any director in Hollywood, and a new baby on the way. On the surface, his life seemed nearly perfect. In reality, the fissures he had created through his own selfishness, stubbornness, and bad behavior were about to combine with various bad circumstances to create an earthquake in his existence.
His marriage was unstable when his wife, Athole Shearer, sister of actress Norma Shearer (who was married to Irving Thalberg), announced that she was pregnant. How much of this was caused by her bipolar disorder and how much was caused by his affairs with younger women is difficult to say. His stepson Peter had just turned ten, and David, his first child, had just turned six. In addition to maintaining a Hollywood lifestyle, with all the trimmings, Hawks also remained an active outdoorsman, golfer, aviator, and racing enthusiast.
To complicate matters, as his income had soared throughout the decade, Hawks had developed an obsessive gambling problem. He owed vast quantities of money to various bookies and shady characters.
In a financial bind, Hawks lost his ability to make the movies he wanted to make and was forced to seek a big paycheck.
Enter producer Samuel Goldwyn who was probably second only to Louis B. Mayer on the list of people Howard Hawks never wanted to work for again. When Goldwyn offered him $3500 a week to direct a film based on the Edna Ferber novel “Come and Get It,” Hawks was in no position to decline the offer.
Since the novel was based on the early days of the Wisconsin lumber and paper industry, the author considered the grandson of C.W. Howard to be an ideal choice. Like Sam Goldwyn, she would live to regret that opinion.
In typical Hawks fashion, he began reworking the story; changing a key element here, imagining an additional scene there, hiring skinny Walter Brennan to play the part of Ferber’s “hulking Swede Swan Bostrom,” the “strongest man in the North woods,” and totally ignoring the author’s ecological message.
Athole Shearer (Photo from late 1920’s)
Samuel Goldwyn (Producer) (1879 - 1974)
Goldwyn was recovering from surgery while Hawks was transforming the Ferber novel into a Howard Hawks movie. When he recovered and had a chance to see what his director had filmed, he was horrified. He immediately dashed off an apologetic note to Edna Ferber and shut down production. In an attempt to salvage the project, he brought in a new writer to revise the final scenes and brought in a reluctant William Wyler to direct the rest of the movie. Still, Hawks' fingerprints are everywhere on the film, especially in theprototypical barroom brawl and the action highlights of lumberjacks at work.
To Goldwyn’s chagrin, “Come and Get It” performed rather poorly at the box office. In an interesting side note, Hawks ended up with the last laugh. His unusual choice of Walter Brennan was vindicated at the Academy Award ceremonies when Brennan walked off with the first Oscar ever awarded for “best supporting actor.” The film is also notable as the finest screen performance of Frances Farmer, the troubled actress portrayed by Jessica Lange in the hit movie of 1982.
Hawks’s next venture also lost money in its initial release. The now classic comedy “Bringing Up Baby” brought Hawks the headaches of working with a leopard, a dog, and a dramatic actress who required extensive comedic training. The picture went over budget and was delivered late. Although he had invested many hours helping develop the script for his next RKO project, “Gunga Din,” the studio cancelled his contract and gave the director’s job to George Stevens.
To add more layers to his misery, underworld figure Ben Kaufman and bookie Donald Miller were suing him for unpaid gambling debts and his wife was institutionalized for her psychiatric problems.
At the age of 42, Howard Winchester Hawks had reason to doubt his grandfather C.W.’s words of praise and his world seemed dark.
On August 30, 1938, a light appeared from out of the gloom. That light was to inspire the most creatively vibrant period of his career. Her name was Nancy Raye Gross. She was 21-years old and her friends called her Slim.
Victor Fleming Director/Cinematographer/ Producer(1889-1949)
Despite their age difference and Howard’s marital status, the couple was soon a hot item in Hollywood. Although it eventually took him three years to get a divorce from Athole, Hawks knew he was destined to marry Slim as soon as their third date.
Their relationship seemed to bring out qualities in Howard Hawks that had not been seen in his previous work. The men and women in his films were better balanced and more human, most notably in the film biography of real life war hero Sgt. Alvin York, in an Oscar nominated performance by Gary Cooper, and the number one box office champ of 1941.
Starting with “Only Angels Have Wings,” Hawks began a golden era of film making. Each movie he made during his time with Slim was met with unprecedented commercial and critical success. The list resonates with movies that are now widely considered among the best movies of all time, and includes such classics as “His Girl Friday,” “Sergeant York,” “Ball of Fire,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep,” and “Red River.” He continued to work with Hollywood's biggest and brightest stars such as John Wayne, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck, and he provided substantial career boosts to Rita Hayworth and Montgomery Clift.
He continued working with prominent writers in the 40s, and he began a working relationship with a new female writer, Leigh Brackett, who starting with "The Big Sleep" worked with Hawks to the end of his career, collaborating on his final six films. Leigh Brackett's credits also include "The Empire Strikes Back," widely considered the best of the Star Wars movies.
Louis Armstrong Musician, Composer (1901-1971)
But by 1945 the romantic fire between Hawks and his second wife had burned down to embers, largely due to Howard’s continuing affairs with starlets and models. Shortly after Slim gave birth to their daughter Kitty, she moved out of their home.
Knowing another expensive divorce was on the horizon, Hawks again found himself in need of a quick money fix.
He had mixed emotions when Sam Goldwyn decided to forgive his experience with “Come and Get It” and offered him $250,000 to direct Danny Kaye in a jazzy remake of “Ball of Fire.” It seemed like a bad idea from the start; he had no desire to work under Goldwyn again, he had no interest in the idea, and soon discovered that he didn’t really like Danny Kaye or his co-star Virginia Mayo. Then again, it was hard to say no to $250,000. Hawks found artistic compensation working with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. It was also a chance to try something new. It was Hawks' first film in color.
Upon its release, “A Song is Born” earned a bevy of nasty reviews but it drew movie fans in droves. Since “Red River” had been held back from release due to numerous legal and logistical problems, it was just now being seen in theatres. While "Red River" was Montgomery Clift's first movie, his second movie, "The Search", had already been released.
In the first week of November 1948, “A Song is Born” was the number-one box-office attraction in the country and “Red River” came in at number two. Then in 1949, the Hawks comedy “I Was a Male War Bride” was the number-three box-office attraction of the year.
Red River -1948 Arguably the greatest western ever made.
Red River - Trailer (One of Hawks best movies)
With an unprecedented ten straight box-office hits to his credit, Hawks formed a new production company, Winchester Pictures, and signed on with RKO, now being run by his old friend Howard Hughes. It was here that he made the groundbreaking science fiction classic “The Thing from Another World” and the period adventure “The Big Sky” with Kirk Douglas, providing an early action hero role for Kirk.
As Howard Hughes was rapidly running the once proud RKO studio into the ground, Howard Hawks decided to join forces with Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, reuniting with Cary Grant for "Monkey Business" where he first worked with Marilyn Monroe, and then for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the film that made her a superstar.
His next project allowed him once again to try something new. With "Land of the Pharaohs" Hawks' idea was to make an intelligent historical epic. Working in Cinemascope for the first and only time, and literally employing a cast of thousands, there is no shortage of spectacle. He put his engineering background to excellent use in filming how a pyramid might have been built. Unfortunately Hawks puzzled over how an ancient Egyptian talked and acted, choosing a mostly British cast, and the resulting dialogue and characters are uncharacteristically weak. It turned out to be the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career, and an anomaly in his careerfor a variety of reasons.
Hawks traveled to Europe and did not make another movie for almost four years. He thought out the balance of his career, and concluded that he needed to put the emphasis back on the characters.
Return To Hollywood
Dee Hartford - Actress Howard Hawks 3rd wife (1928 - )
He returned to the States late in 1956, having married for the third time and had another son, he was eager to begin working again as he entered the seventh decade of his life.
There had been many changes in the American entertainment landscape during his absence. One of the most significant developments was the immense popularity of television westerns.
Howard Hawks decided his next film would be a western, but when he approached Warner Brothers with the idea, Jack Warner wasn’t very enthusiastic. When Hawks mentioned that he planned to have John Wayne star in the movie, Warner changed his mind.
Howard Hawks contemplates his next move
Released in 1959, “Rio Bravo” was a success from the moment it hit the silver screen. Many critics consider it one of the best westerns ever made and Howard Hawks’ last masterpiece. Hawks would continue to direct for another decade creating five additional films. While these do not rate among Hawks' very best, they all are still highly entertaining, each with their own unique charms and rewards.
Jack Warner co-founded Warner Brothers Pictures (1892-1978)
Hawks with son Gregg
After 1970’s “Rio Lobo,” Howard Hawks retired from filmmaking yet remained a Hollywood legend. Even after he received his honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1974, industry insiders continued to tell tales of his battles with studio executives, his adventurous life, and his numerous affairs with beautiful women.
Hawks retired to Palm Springs in the California desert, and continued to develop more filmprojects, though nothing came of them. His last public appearance was in October 1977 for a film festival of 14 of his best works by the Director's Guild of America. Hawks passed away on December 27, 1977 after being hospitalized for falling over his 100 pound dog and hitting his head. He returned home briefly, and the official cause of death was listed as heart disease. His death was completely over-shadowed in the media, as Charlie Chaplin died the day before.
Frances Farmer sings the tune Love Me Tender later made famous by Elvis, in Come and Get It (1936)
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.