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LEGENDS OF HOLLYWOOD

Not just pretty faces

LACMA celebrates director Howard Hawks' complex female characters, who were by turns charming and tough, conniving and tender.

August 13, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The late, great director Howard Hawks was a girl's best friend. Or let's make that an actress' best friend. Though he made a lot of macho films such as "Red River" and the 1932 "Scarface," Hawks excelled in presenting a new type of woman on screen, a gal who could hold her own with any man and had as many dimensions and problems as the male of the species.

Known as "Hawksian women," these characters could range from a ditzy blond like Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" to a screwball heroine like Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" or a tough but tender dame such as Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not." In fact, critic James Agee wrote about Bacall -- a Hawks discovery -- that she was "the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while."

Currently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department is paying tribute to Hawks and the ladies in his life with the festival "Balls of Fire: Women in the Films of Howard Hawks." The festival began last weekend but continues over the next two weekends.

Here's a look at some of the great Hawks movies and the women who inhabited them and brought them to life.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
'Ball of Fire' -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar about Howard Hawks incorrectly identified Steve Cochran as Barbara Stanwyck's mobster boyfriend in "Ball of Fire." Dana Andrews actually played that role. Cochran played that role in the musical remake, "A Song Is Born."

"His Girl Friday" (1940)

Hawksian woman: Rosalind Russell as Hildegarde "Hildy" Johnson, a fast-talking, no-nonsense reporter who is the ex-wife of the cutthroat, manic Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the editor of the Chicago Morning Post.

Premise: Hildy has come to tell Walter that she is engaged to another man, the milquetoast Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), and she's going to quit her job.

Characteristics: "His Girl Friday" is a remake of the classic Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play and movie, "The Front Page," where Hildy Johnson was actually a man's role. So there's good reason why Russell's Hildy can stand toe to toe with any of the guys in the city room and match Walter's machine-gun one-liners with aplomb and ease.

Attire: As close to a man's suit as a woman could wear in 1940 -- tailored, striped suits, functional hairstyle and hats. If pants were allowed at the paper, Hildy would have worn them proudly.

Memorable quote: Hildy to Walter: "If I ever lay my two eyes on your again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours till it rings like a Chinese gong!"

"To Have and Have Not"

(1944)

Hawksian woman: Lauren Bacall as Slim (Marie Browning), a gorgeous, smoldering young woman.

Premise: Very loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway story, "To Have and Have Not" finds Slim stranded in 1940 on the Vichy-controlled French colony of Martinique, where she meets macho adventurer Harry (Humphrey Bogart) and wraps him around her little finger.

Characteristics: Despite Slim's youth -- Bacall was 18 when she started the film -- she is poised, sophisticated and opportunistic, has a whiskey-soaked voice that's even deeper than Bogie's, and smokes cigarettes like nobody's business.

Attire: Tailored suits, sultry robes and long, straight hair.

Memorable quotes: Slim to Harry: "You don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow."

"Bringing Up Baby"

(1938)

Hawksian woman: Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance, a carefree, giggly socialite who always gets what she wants. What she does have is a pet leopard named Baby who responds to the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

Premise: A rather stuffy professor of zoology, David Huxley (Cary Grant), is scheduled to marry his secretary as soon as he is able to finish assembling the bones of a giant dinosaur for a museum exhibit. But his perfect life is turned upside down when he meets Susan who decides that he is the guy for her. Thanks to Susan's madcap machinations, David loses his fiancee, a precious dinosaur bone and a million-dollar grant to the museum and lands in jail. But perseverance wins out and Susan gets what she wants.

Characteristics: Just like the majority of screwball heroines of the 1930s, Susan may come across as a mindless flibbertigibbet, but when she sets her mind to something, she is unshakable and will do anything in her power to reach her objective.

Attire: Typical madcap heiress clothes: stylish hats, flouncy dresses with ties, fancy robes and couture evening gowns.

Memorable quotes: Susan in jail with David: "Anyway, David, when they find out who we are they will let us out."

David: "When they find out who you are they'll pad the cell."

"Ball of Fire" (1941)

Hawksian woman: Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a slang-talking nightclub singer.

Premise: In this clever update of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," co-written by Billy Wilder, Sugarpuss hides out from her mob boyfriend (Steve Cochran) at the home of seven shy professors who are working on a massive encyclopedia. While there, she falls in love with Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), a gangly professor who is researching slang.

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