Howard Hawks is one of my favourite classic era American film directors. I love how the main focus of his films is always the characters. He really lets us see his characters personalities, and he lets us get a good sense of what they are enduring as the film goes along.
Howard shows us his characters strengths, their flaws, and their quirks. In his films he makes his characters come across to us as very real people, and we find that we can connect to them in some way. I especially love that in his films men and women are depicted as being equals. This screen depiction is very refreshing to see.
His films also show us that men can have moments where they are vulnerable, and more importantly, that it is perfectly fine for them to be vulnerable. Howard Hawks shows us that men don’t have to be tough guys every second of every day. He also shows us that women are not delicate and fragile beings to be protected. Hawks shows us what we women know already, that we can be as tough, daring and capable as any man can be.
I especially love the female characters found in Howard Hawks films. Known as Hawksian Women, these female characters can match the male characters every step of the way.
Howards’s female characters are strong, tough, witty, determined, sexy and opinionated gals.
They can verbally spar with men with great ease. They are also very confident and can easily become one of the boys as and when required.
I also like that the Hawksian women retain their femininity and that they do not become overly masculine, this is in sharp contrast to some of the strong female characters found in James Cameron’s films. In Cameron’s films women such as Vasquez in Aliens and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, often become more masculine in order to appear tougher.
Hawksian women carry both female and male qualities within them, but they never have to grow big muscles and act all macho to prove that they can be one of the boys. Hawksian women are accepted and admired by the men they know. The men admire their courage, and also love their sense of adventure and boldness.
Hawk’s films also gave some of the finest actresses of the classic film era a chance to deliver performances which rank amongst their greatest and most unforgettable film work. These performances are also usually the first that spring to mind when thinking of these actresses.
Although there were many other tough and smart female characters found in other films in the classic era, such female characters were always a regular feature in Howard Hawks films.
Who can forget Jean Arthur being one of the lads in Only Angels Have Wings? Lauren Bacall as the tough and vulnerable Slim in To Have and Have Not? Rosalind Russell as the fast talking newspaper reporter in His Girl Friday? Charlene Holt and Michele Carey as two very different women in terms of how they dress and make a living, but both being Hawksian women in El Dorado? Barbara Stanwyck as the saucy and wisecracking dancer in Ball Of Fire? Ann Sheridan as the wisecracking Army Lieutenant in I Was A Male War Bride?
I love that in Howard’s films even very minor female characters make quite an impact. Two of of my favourite minor Hawksian women can be found in The Big Sleep(1946).
The first is Dorothy Malone as the woman who works in the bookshop.
She steals every second of the scene she is in with Bogie.We see right away that she is intelligent, observant, focused, sexy, and that she is more than up for something to break up the ordinary rhythm of her working day.
The banter between her and Bogie is first rate and very risque. Their banter, coupled with the way they eye each other up and down, really makes you wonder how this scene ever made it past the censors.
I also love how Bogie calls her pal. In so many cases the Hawksian woman is accepted as a friend by men. Hawksian Women become one of the gang, and there is often an emotional connection that develops between men and a Hawksian Woman long before a relationship turns even remotely sexual. I think that Hawksian women represent what marriage and relationships are ideally meant to be all about; friendship, equality, intimacy and sexual desire.
My other favourite minor character in this film is the taxi driver played by Joy Barlow. I love the way she delivers her lines during the back and forth banter between her character and Marlowe’s.
The taxi driver also stands out because she is a woman doing a job traditionally done by a man. I think that she represents the millions of women who found their independence during WW2, and who wouldn’t give up working after the men arrived back home.
Undoubtedly the quintessential Hawksian woman is Lauren Bacall. Lauren was discovered by Howard’s second wife, Nancy “Slim” Keith, who saw Lauren’s photo in a magazine and showed it to Howard. He then cast Lauren alongside Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.
Lauren’s character in this is called Slim, and Bogie’s is called Steve. In real life those names were the nicknames that Howard and Nancy called one another by.
Nancy was the Hawksian woman for Howard in real life, and Lauren was the perfect Hawksian woman in his films.
Lauren conveys all of the necessary Hawksian qualities in her performances as Slim in To Have and Have Not and as Vivian in The Big Sleep. It is really hard for me to imagine any other actress playing those characters in way that Lauren did.
Sadly the appearance of the Hawksian Woman on screen declined in the late 50’s and early 60’s. In the 80’s and 90’s some female characters emerged who did have all of those Hawksian qualities. Characters like Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Melanie in One Fine Day, Laura Holt in Remington Steele(TV series) and Jennifer Hart in Hart To Hart(TV series) helped keep the Hawksian Woman alive in film. Going further back in time, I would also class Nora Charles in The Thin Man films, and Tess Harding in Woman Of The Year to be Hawksian Women.
I love watching Howard Hawks films and seeing all of those smart, strong, inspirational, sexy, funny and fiercely independent women. So many of these characters could serve as role models, as they are women who go after what they want and won’t be held back in the process, women who can work alongside men and fit in with them, without sacrificing their femininity in the process, and women who are smart and determined.
My favourite Hawksian women are the following.
Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings. I love how fun loving and bubbly she is. I also love how she overcomes her shock and anger at how the men in this film deal with grief. It isn’t easy for her to change to their way of dealing with grief and loss, but she gives it a go and she becomes a valued and beloved member of the group of pilots and ground crew.
Slim in To Have and Have Not. I love how she is a survivor, she has been on her own for so long and hasn’t had the best life, but she takes care of herself just fine. She is certainly tough, but she is also deeply vulnerable and can be easily hurt. When she meets Steve she can let her guard down, he knows she is tough, smart and tough talking, but he also sees what is beneath all that and knows what she has been through and tries to help her see she isn’t alone any more.
The bookshop lady in The Big Sleep. Smart, observant, and sexy. I also really love that she is a character who wears glasses, as there are so few female characters I’ve come across in films of this time period who wear them. I always get so mad when things get physical between them and Bogie makes her take them off! I’m like, dude what’s wrong if she has to wear glasses? LOL
What are your thoughts on Hawksian Women? Who are your favourite female characters in Howard Hawks films?