Hollywood's Grey Fox
Creating Movie Stars
Howard Hawks could smell talent through walls, an unparalleled talent he exploited across 7 decades in movies.
Many other actors benefited greatly from appearing in a Hawks film.  Ann Dvorak, as Cesca in Scarface, had a 20 year career, mostly in starring roles, and George Raft’s sagging acting career was lifted after his coin toss as Guino. Raft’s career as a movie star lasted until his final film, the astonishing Mae West comeback, Sextette (1977). Ticket buyers of the day liked them together, leading to nine buddy flicks together, the best being Angels With Dirty Faces (1939). Howard Hawks said the finest actress he worked with was Frances Farmer, and her star shines brightest in Come and Get It (1936). James Arness had a few uncredited scenes when he was cast in the title role of The Thing (1950). Joan Collins got her first international exposure when she appeared in Land of the Pharaohs (1955), and Star Trek’s 21st century gay activist, George Takei (Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series), is one of the pit crew with James Caan in Red Line 7000 (1965).
No other film director ever worked with such a wide array of star talent as Howard Hawks, usually in their best known and best loved films. John Ford famously said after seeing John Wayne in Red River “I never knew the sonofabitch could act,” and Bringing Up Baby is Katharine Hepburn's most beloved film for 21st century audiences.
John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart were all established stars when they first worked with Hawks. Hawks’ one true discovery is Lauren Bacall, starting her legendary career when he first gave a screen test to the cover girl model. Other major stars making their film debut in a Hawks film are Paul Muni and Montgomery Clift. After being discovered on the New York stage, Hawks worked with Muni to create an unforgettable screen character, Scarface (1932), leading to a very distinguished, Oscar winning career that lasted until 1959. Montgomery Clift’s first film was Red River (1948), but in the time it took to edit and complete, his second film, The Search, was in theatres first.
Frequently Hawks took established film actors and turned them into iconic movie stars, beginning with Carole Lombard. Carole was already in over two dozen films, all unmemorable, before being paired opposite silent screen legend John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (1934). Rita Hayworth also had spent five undistinguished years in Hollywood before her big break, making the most of the second female lead opposite Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).   Marilyn Monroe was also second female lead opposite Cary in Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952), and then with her next film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Marilyn became an enduring superstar of unprecedented popularity.
Walter Brennan had also been in dozens of films (does anyone remember his appearance in Bride of Frankenstein?) before being cast as Old Atrocity in Barbary Coast (1935). In his next film with Hawks, Come and Get It (1936), Walter won the first Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Swan.  Walter’s other roles in Hawks movies are Pastor Pile in Sergeant York (1941), Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944), Nadine Groot in Red River (1948), and Stumpy in Rio Bravo (1959). Walter was a beloved character actor and star in his own right until the early 70s, with most of his milestones among his 6 Hawks films.
Also benefitting from a Hawks boost are Angie Dickinson and James Caan. Angie had five years of mediocrity in film and television before appearing opposite John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks thought Angie couldn’t pick a good script, stalling her career until she became tv’s Police Woman (1974-78). James Caan, too, had just a few supporting roles until Hawks cast him in Red Line 7000 (1965). Although the film was a rare Hawks failure, Hawks cast him in his next film, the much more successful El Dorado (1966) with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Caan fit right into the Hawks team, leading to a major career to this day, whose highlights include The Godfather and Misery (with Lauren Bacall as his book publisher).
It wasn’t just that he knew how to find talent, maybe more significantly, he knew how to use it. He saw hidden qualities that others could not see including the actors themselves. Howard Hawks had the special touch when it came to creating movie stars.
In his own words, Hawks discusses his discovery of Walter Brennan:
They said, “Ah but hell, he’s just an extra.” I said, “Look, if you think that he’s good, bring him in, but do one thing for me. Give me some pages of dialogue and get him in costume so I don’t have to see him two or three times, and when he knows the dialogue bring him in here.” And he brought in Walter Brennan. And I laughed the minute I looked at him. And I said, “Mr. Brennan, they got some lines for you to read?” and he said yeah. I said, “D’ya know ‘em” and he said yeah. “Well, let’s you and I read ‘em. I’ll read one part and you read the other” and he said, “With or without teeth?” I said - started laughing - “Without.” He turned around, took his teeth out, put ‘em in his pocket, turned around, started talkin’. I hired him; he was supposed to work three days; I kept him six weeks, and he got nominated for an Academy Award.
Paul Muni
September 22, 1895 - August 25, 1967
Carole Lombard
October 6, 1908 - January 16, 1942
Rita Hayworth
October 17, 1918 - May 14, 1987
Montgomery Clift
October 17, 1920 - July 23, 1966
Marilyn Monroe
June 1, 1926 - August 5, 1962
Walter Brennan
July 25, 1894 - September 21, 1974
James Caan
March 26, 1940 - Present
Lauren Bacall
September 16, 1924 - August 12, 2014
Angie Dickinson
September 30, 1931 - Present
Francis Farmer
September 19, 1913 - August 1, 1970
Joan Collins
May 23, 1933 - Present
James Arness
May 26, 1923 - June 3, 2011
Howard Hawks with Angie Dickinson
on the set of Rio Bravo. (1959)
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Chief Editor: Ted Canada
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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.
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