Though Howard Hawks is one of the most prolific, influential and revered Hollywood directors of the Golden Era, this book, by Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, is the first attempt at a straightforward biography. As the author's introduction makes clear, there are a number of possible reasons for this: An intensely guarded, emotionally unforthcoming man, Hawks did his best to keep his private life as private as possible during the Louella Parsons/Hedda Hopper era. Perhaps more importantly, Hawks' personality does not immediately appear to be imprinted upon his work, a fact that may explain his failure to join the first rank of fame. While common elements and concerns can be located throughout Hawks' work—something McCarthy does a good job of illustrating—there is not, as might easily be said of peers such as Welles, Hitchcock and DeMille, a distinctive Hawksian stylistic feel or favored genre. While thematically similar when examined closely, nothing immediately links Bringing Up Baby, Scarface, Red River, His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rio Bravo, aside from their being a handful of Hollywood's most famous films. Scrupulous and informative, McCarthy's volume should help compensate for years of neglect, even if questions are left unavoidably unanswered. The author has assembled what seems like all the available facts, and has done a good job of offering insights into Hawks' character by way of them. Unfortunately, because of his subject's private nature (he kept no diary and wrote few letters) and tendency to tell highly entertaining, self-aggrandizing and factually suspect stories of his career, the real Hawks proves elusive. In light of this, it's no surprise that most of the book is constructed around fascinating behind-the-scenes accounts of Hawks' films—from the director's beginnings in the silent era through his inevitable, but very late, decline in the '60s—sandwiching events from the director's private life between and around his filming schedules. In fact, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox Of Hollywood seems at times to be merely a film-by-film chronicle; though covering nearly four years, a chapter concerning Hawks' semi-retirement in the mid-'50s is one of the biography's shortest, and much of it is a discussion of unrealized projects. This, however, may say more about the man than any speculative psychoanalysis ever could. Maybe most importantly, McCarthy nicely details Hawks' unconventional, almost improvisatory style of collaborative filmmaking. Though difficult to believe, Hawks and his writers, who frequently included famed and colorful figures like William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecht and Jules Furthman, often made it up as they went along. It is through the meticulous reconstruction of such details that, despite its apparently unknowable center, McCarthy's book admirably sheds light on one of the movies' most important, enigmatic figures.
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