I have always been intrigued by what may be called the prehistory of cinema and animation studies. It is not uncommon to look back on the history of film criticism and history to look mainly at books and magazines, of which there were precious few dealing with film in the US through the 1950s. However, an active, if rather fugitive film culture did exist around the film society movement and, in animation, around festivals, as well as at archival/museum screenings. It is a culture which helped laid the groundwork for the establishment of cinema studies in the United States, heralded by the founding of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies in 1959.
I thought of this when I saw David Bordwell’s posting last month on Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) (see above), which he considers a classic piece of filmmaking; while I’m not as enamored of this version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page, but his description of how the film and Hawks’ reputation was snatched from obscurity did catch my attention. In it, he makes some rather reasonable claims, which I think need to be qualified.
For instance, Bordwell claims that,
Hawks the Artist is a creation of the 1960s. Before that, American film historians almost completely ignored him. Andrew Sarris often reminds us that he’s absent from Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939), but he’s also missing from Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art (1957), the most popular survey history of its day. Apart from press releases and reviews of individual films, there were few discussions of Hawks in American newspapers and magazines. The most famous piece is probably Manny Farber’s “Underground Movies” of 1957, which treats Hawks along with other hard-boiled directors like Wellman and Mann.
From the start, Hawks was more appreciated in France. There film historians acknowledged A Girl in Every Port (1928), in part because of the presence of Louise Brooks, and they usually flagged Scarface (1932) as well, which they could see and Americans couldn’t.
He feels that Hawks’ modern reputation started with “Jacques Rivette’s ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks’ in Cahiers du cinéma in 1953.” That may very well be the case, but to say that Hawks was ignored by American film historians is only partly true. I say this not to contradict Bordwell’s review of Hawks literature in the United States, but to point out that he ignores the very real reputation Hawks had among the cadre of historians and film fans that centered around the all-important Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society in New York.
The Huff Society, where I started going to when I was in high school around 1956, was run by William K. (“Bill”) Everson, a British high school dropout who was already on his way to becoming one of America’s most important film collectors; he ended up a professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, wrote several popular books on film history, and was involved with preparing a number of silent films for TV broadcast.
The type of people who attended the Huff Society’s screenings was a mixed bag, ranging from the teenaged Leonard Maltin to intellectual-in-waiting Susan Sontag (often accompanied by film critic and historian Carlos Clarens), and sometimes even Andrew Sarris. The Society was part of small but active film society scene in New York that also included Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16, Gideon Bachmann’s Group for Film Study (which published the pioneering Cinemages journal), and campus groups, such as one at Fordham University, in addition to screenings at the Museum of Modern Art.
Though my collection of Huff Society program notes, which included occasional critical filmographies of directors such as Lewis Milestone (who made the first screen version of The Front Page), was lost some time ago, I am certain they included more than a few Hawks films. No, Everson did not screen Scarface, but the film was certainly admired by many in attendance, along with films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Crowd Roars (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) , some of which were occasionally screened. (Remember, the early 50s saw the wholesale release of Hollywood’s pre-1948 backlog to TV, which allowed Everson to program many of these films.)
It is understandable that Bordwell would overlook what might seem like fugitive contributions to film scholarship, but they were an important part of my cinematic education. And I think there are perhaps a few others who might also agree.