Howard Hawks Biography


Birthday: May 30, 1896 (Gemini)

Born In: Goshen, Indiana, United States

Howard Winchester Hawks, popularly known as Howard Hawks, was one of the greatest American directors, whose career spanned from the ‘silent’ era through the ‘talkies’, to the early 1970s when the directors emerged as ‘auteur’. Even though his films were well-liked by the masses and featured the leading actors of the American film industry, his work was seldom appreciated by the Academy of Motion Picture. He is remembered as the maker of some of the best Hollywood films, yet he never won an Oscar for Best Director; he was nominated only once—in 1941 for ‘Sergeant York’. The Academy finally made up for the mistake in 1974, by granting him an honorary Academy Award. He was able to enforce his signature style on every possible genre like westerns, comedies, epics, film noir, etc. In all, he made 33 talkies without ever signing up with a studio. Nevertheless, he did source almost his entire cast from carefully selected studio talent. He defined a good film as having “three great scenes, no bad ones” and a good director as “someone who doesn't annoy you”. He is undeniably one of America's greatest directors, along with his friends, John Ford and Orson Welles.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Howard Winchester Hawks

Died At Age: 81


Spouse/Ex-: Athole Shearer (m. 1928; div. 1940), Dee Hartford (m. 1953; div. 1960), Slim Keith (m. 1941; div. 1949)

father: Frank W. Hawks

mother: Helen Hawks

Born Country: United States

Directors Screenwriters

Died on: December 26, 1977

place of death: Palm Springs, California, United States

Cause of Death: Accidental Fall

U.S. State: Indiana

More Facts

education: Cornell University, Phillips Exeter Academy

Childhood & Early Life
Howard Hawks was born on 30 May 1896, in Goshen, Indiana, U.S.A. He was the eldest child of Frank W. Hawks and Helen Hawks (née Howard). Frank belonged to Goshen's most well-known family whereas Helen’s father, C.W. Howard was a leading businessman of Wisconsin.
In 1898, the family moved to Neenah, Wisconsin, where Frank began working as a secretary/treasurer for his father-in-law's paper company. It was here that Howard enjoyed princely treatment from his grandfather.
Soon, Frank and Helen had four more children, Kenneth Neil Hawks (born 1899), William Bellinger Hawks (born 1901), Grace Louise Hawks (born 1903) and Helen Bernice Hawks (born 1906). However, multiple childbirths made Helen very ill.
1906 onwards, the family began to spend their winters in Pasadena, California to aid Helen’s recovery. By 1910, they permanently shifted to Pasadena.
C.W. Howard continued to pamper his grandson; in 1916, he bought Howard Hanks a Mercer race car and arranged flying lessons for him in order to acquire a pilot's license.
From 1910 to 1912, Howard attended Pasadena High School; he was average in studies and in sports.
In 1912, the family moved to Glendora, California where he studied for a year at the Citrus Union High School. From 1913 to 1914, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
In 1914, he returned to Glendora and graduated from Pasadena High School. He then joined Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he studied Mechanical Engineering.
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In the summer of 1916, while racing the Mercer car his grandfather had gifted him, he became friends with Victor Fleming, a former auto mechanic and a cinematographer,.
Fleming helped him get his first job in the film industry, as a prop boy for Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Pictures).
He eventually worked on some more Hollywood projects like DeMille's ‘The Little American’ (1917), and Marshall Neilan’s ‘The Little Princess’ (1917) and ‘Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley’ (1918).
The United States entered the First World War in April 1917. Like other students, Howard too left the University to join the armed forces. During the war, he served as a Lieutenant in the Signal Corps and later joined the Army Air Corps.
After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, he was discharged from his duties. He worked as an aviator, car racer, and racing car designer for some time, before deciding to build a career in Hollywood.
Before long, he moved to Hollywood and used his family's affluence to lend money to studio head Jack L. Warner. After the loan had been repaid, Warner hired him as a producer to manage the making of a new series of comedies. Though lucrative, he soon left the series to form his own production company, ‘Associated Producers’.
The company was a joint venture between Hawks, Allan Dwan, Marshall Neilan and Allen Holubar. From 1920 and 1923, the group made 14 films after which they gradually broke up. It was during this time that he decided to take up direction.
Meanwhile, he met Irving Thalberg, the Vice-President of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In 1923, Thalberg recommended Hawks to Famous Players President, Jesse Lasky, who was in search of a new production editor for his studio.
Thus, Hawks was hired and made responsible for the story of over forty productions, including several literary adaptations by Joseph Conrad, Jack London and Zane Grey. His first official screenplay credit was in ‘Tiger Love’ in 1924.
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He continued with Famous Players-Lasky for almost two years, and sometimes edited films like ‘Heritage of the Desert’ (1924). In 1924, he renewed his annual contract with the studio.
Nevertheless, he broke his contract and became a story editor for Thalberg at MGM. An understanding was made that he would be made director within a year. In 1925, Thalberg faltered to keep the promise and Hawks broke his contract with MGM.
In October 1925, Sol Wurtzel from Fox Film Corporation welcomed him to join as a director. In the next three years, he directed eight films for Fox. His contract with Fox expired in May 1929.
Thereafter, he never signed a long-standing agreement with a major studio. However, he continued as an independent producer-director for the rest of life.
By the early 1930s, ‘talkies’ took over the silent films. As a result, many actors and directors found themselves jobless. Hollywood studios were increasingly hiring stage talents who were more appropriate for sound films.
In this situation, Hawks found himself in a precarious position. After several months of unemployment, he renewed his career with his first sound film ‘The Dawn Patrol’ in 1930. He eventually also directed films like ‘The Criminal Code’ (1931), ‘Today We Live’ (1933), etc.
In 1934, he directed his first screwball comedy, ‘Twentieth Century’. Together with Frank Capra's ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), the film is considered to be a perfect example of the genre. Through the 1930s, he directed several other successful films like ‘Barbary Coast’ (1935), ‘Bringing up Baby’ (1938) etc. Through the 1930s, he directed several other successful films like ‘Barbary Coast’ (1935), ‘Bringing up Baby’ (1938) etc.
In 1940, he returned to screwball comedy with ‘His Girl Friday’. The following year, he made ‘Sergeant York’ starring Gary Cooper. The film was a huge commercial success and earned him his only Oscar nomination.
Later in 1941, he directed Cooper again in ‘Ball of Fire’. He also commenced work on the Howard Hughes produced film ‘The Outlaw’. Later, scenes directed by him were completely re-done by Hughes, owing to some disagreements. He was uncredited as director in the final version.
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In 1943, he made a World War II film, ‘Air Force’. Next, he made two films with popular Hollywood couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—‘To Have and Have Not’ (1944) based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway and ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946) based on a detective novel by Raymond Chandler.
In 1948, he directed and produced ‘Red River’, featuring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Later that year, he remade his earlier film ‘Ball of Fire’ as ‘A Song Is Born’.
In 1951, he produced a science fiction film, ‘The Thing from Another World’. The film, directed by Christian Nyby, had strong semblance to Hawk’s signature style.
In 1952, he directed the Western ‘The Big Sky’, featuring Kirk Douglas. Later that same year, he also directed his final screwball comedy, ‘Monkey Business’.
In 1953, he directed ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. It is considered as his only female ‘buddy’ genre film.
In 1955, he produced and directed ‘Land of the Pharaohs’, a peplum film about ancient Egypt. In 1959, he made ‘Rio Bravo’, starring John Wayne. In 1962, he directed Wayne again in ‘Hatari!’ a film set in Africa.
In 1964, he made his final comedy, ‘Man's Favourite Sport?’ In 1966, he directed ‘El Dorado’ and in 1970, he made his last film ‘Rio Lobo’, a western starring Wayne.
Major Works
In 1938, he directed a screwball comedy for Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures, ‘Bringing up Baby’, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. The film was initially unsuccessful but gradually came to be considered as a masterpiece.
In 1941, he made ‘Sergeant York’, starring Gary Cooper as a peace loving farmer who becomes a celebrated World War I soldier. The film was commercially successful and earned him his only Academy award nomination for Best Director.
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In 1959, Hawks produced and directed a Western, ‘Rio Bravo’, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan as four lawmen protecting a local prison where a criminal awaiting trial is lodged.
Awards & Achievements
He was nominated only once for Academy Award - Best Director in 1942, for ‘Sergeant York’.
He received his only Oscar in 1975 as an Honorary Award.
He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1708 Vine Street, for his priceless contribution to Hollywood cinema.
Personal Life & Legacy
Howard Hawks was thrice married. First, he married actress Athole Shearer in 1928. The couple had two children, Barbara and David. They got divorced in 1940.
He married socialite Slim Keith in 1941. Together, they had a daughter, Kitty. The couple divorced in 1949.
His third marriage was with television actress Dee Hartford in 1953. The couple divorced in 1960.
He died on December 26, 1977, at the age of 81, due to complications from falling over his dog several weeks earlier at his home in Palm Springs, California.
Greatly admired by most directors, his style influenced noted filmmakers like Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino.

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