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The Religious Affiliation of Director
Howard Hawks


Howard Hawks was a Christian Scientist from at least as early as age 15, and probably for many years prior to that. His mother was a devout Christian Scientist -- she was a convert to the Church of Christ, Scientist -- and Howard was officially registered his religion as Christian Science when he attended Exeter as a senior in high school.

It is difficult to say whether or not Howard Hawks was active in Christian Science during his film career, or even during his college years. He certainly did not speak publically about this topic and he was not generally known as a Christian Scientist. When his sister was ill with tuberculosis, he and his two brothers all opposed their mother's decision to not seek medical treatment at a hospital.

On the other hand, the very first feature film that Hawks' directed (The Road to Glory, 1926) explicitly promoted Christian Science teachings, including healing through reliance on prayer and the unreliability of contemporary non-religious medical practices. The film did not mention Christian Science by name, but could easily be viewed as a de facto tract for the faith. After this directorial debut, Hawks never again made a film that was so clearly message-oriented -- not about Christian Science beliefs and not about any other topic.

Our best estimate of Howard Hawks' relationship to Christian Science -- the faith he was raised in -- was that his upbringing had a profound impact on him throughout his life, and was in part responsible for shaping his unusual, distinctive philosophy as a filmmaker. Yet even early in his career he had apparently drifted from formal church participation. Furthermore, the ways his religious upbringing shaped his thinking and his career were not always as direct or predictable as with his The Road to Glory.

When Howard Hawks was still an infant, his parents moved from his native Goshen (which was dominated by the family of Howard's father) to Neenah, Wisconsin, where the family of Howard's mother lived. Howard Hawks' maternal grandfather, C. W. Howard, was also wealthy, and spoiled Howard. Howard's mother was from a Presbyterian family. As far as religious influences go, Howard was probably exposed primarily to Presbyterianism while he was a young child living in Neenah. This was apparently before Howard's mother became a Christian Scientist.

From: Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Grove Press: New York, NY (1997), page 29:

By the turn of the century [the year 1900], when Howard Hawks was four years old, Neenah, Wisconsin [where he lived], was a town dominanted by fourteen churches, including the First Presbyterian, to which the Howards [the family of Howard Hawks' mother] belonged. There were more churches than there were paper mills, hotels, and restaurants.
Howard Hawks' family first moved from Neenah, Wisconsin to Pasadena, California in the winter of 1906-1907. They went there when the doctor of Howard Hawks' mother (Helen Howard Hawks) recommened the move so that Wisconsin's harsh winter weather would not worsen her ailing health (McCarthy, page 31). It was probably in Pasadena that Helen Hawks and her children became Christian Scientists.

McCarthy, page 33:

C. W. Howard [Howard Hawks' maternal grandfather] died... on January 6, 1916, at the age of seventy...

The story of C. W. Howard has a bizarre postscript. Some years later, after his daughter Helen [Howard's mother] had become a confirmed, perhaps even fanatic, Christian Scientist and adherent of cremation, she returned to Neenah. She had her father, mother, and brother Neil dug up and cremated (in Milwaukee, as no one closer by would do it). After mixing the ashes in an urn, she went out to Riverside Park and threw it in the river, where it was discovered decades later, with the names and dates still legible, by scuba divers.

McCarthy, page 36:
In May 1911 [when Howard Hawks was 15 years old], the most horrible of tragedies hit the Hawks family, the first of three to befall the children of Frank and Helen Hawks [Howard's parents]. On May 4, Helen Bernice, their youngest child, then five years and four months old, ate a bad piece of fruit and suddenly died. The casue of death was officially listd as acute enteritis, but it seems likely that the fruit, described as "unripe" on her death certificate, was actually somehow infected or poisoned. In accordance with her Christian Scientist beliefs, the girls' devastated mother [Howard's mother] instructed the funeral director to crremate the remains, and the ashes were interred at Mt. View Cemetery two days later. Typically, the family kept its grief subdued and as controlled as possible, and what happened to Helen was rarely spoken about subsequently.
After his junior year of high school while living in Pasadena, Howard Hawks' parents enrolled him in Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, "the most prestigious prep school in the United States" (McCarthy, page 36). From: McCarthy, page 37:
Opened in 1783, Philllips Exeter had long been the most elite of secondary schools; among its alumni at the time were eight senators, twenty state representatives, twelve state governors, one associate justice of the Supreme Court, and hundreds of other successful men of academia, the law, medicine, and religion...

Attendance at chapel was required of all students, and Hawks, as one of only three registered Christian Scientists at the entire school, was assigned to the menial position of church monitor for the Christian Scientist contingent.

At least three years before Howard Hawks' first marriage (to Athole Shearer in 1928), Hawks had an affair with Joan Crawford. Crawford would many years later become a convert to Christian Science, but at the time she was not yet a Christian Scientist. It is certain that Hawks and Crawford did not meet through their church. There is no information in McCarthy's biography of Hawks about whether or not Hawks was active in Christian Science after he began his career in Hollywood, or even during his college years. McCarthy, page 63:
Hawks worked with dozens of writers, met many of the stars, and had an affair with at least one of them, the newly arrived Joan Crawford. But by late 1925, he could tell nothing was about to change for him at the thriving studio [MGM].
Joseph McBride's book Hawks on Hawks consists almost entirely of interviews conducted with Howard Hawks. Surprisingly, the book reveals essentially nothing about the filmmaker's religious background, religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs, aside form his approach to filmmaking. Hawks' brief account of his childhood reveals nothing on this subject, but given this unusual total lack of discussion about religious topics, it seems likely that Hawks was not an active member of any particular denomination. The interviewer may have not asked the right kinds of questions to elucidate this type of information.

Or Hawks may simply have not contemplated such subjects sufficiently to discuss them. In this book Hawks makes clear his disdain for making any kind of "statement" in his films (page 154). McBride states that Hawks possessed a "relatively unquestioning personality."

From: Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press: Berkeley, California (1982), page 10:

[Interviewer:] Could you tell me about your family and your early years?

[Hawks:] We moved from Indiana to Neenah, Wisconsin, when I was about two years old. My father, my grandfather, and my uncle all had paper mills. Then due to my mother's health we came to California when I was ten years old. We lived in Pasadena. My father was vice-president of a hotel company that owned a bunch of the big hotels up in San Francisco. and then we had an orange grove in Glendora. I went to some high school in Glendora and to a fine school in Pasadena called Throop [California Institute of Technology, or Cal Tech] that taught woodworking and metalworking; it was where anybody went who was going to study engineering. I went to Exeter to prep school and then to Cornell University.

McCarthy, pages 6-7:
Howard Hawks was born to wealth and privilege. The oldest of five children, he was told he could do anything he wanted to do and was pampered and endlessly spoiled by his maternal grandfather [who was Presbyterian]. As a very young man he was among the first Americans to race cars and fly planes. It was his grandparents, and not his genteel parents, who hadd boldly sought opportunity in the Midwest and built the family fortune on both sides.

...What drove him to achieve [as a film director] was an insistent, overpowering will to independence. What enabled him to do it was a potent mixture of arrogance, intelligence, wealth, antiauthoritarianism, skill at intimindation, impudence, and willingness to walk away. Few were able to play the studio heads better than Hawks; he could be as cagey as they were, and even though they were the absolute bosses in Hollywood, Hawks represented the refined, accomplished, well-mannered, Ivy League, blue-blooded WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] whose acceptance was craved.

McCarthy, pages 8-9:
For his part, Hawks intended to be an engineer. He did read widely, but he was never drawn toward music, drama, creative writing, or newspaper work. The impulse toward artistic self-expressoin seemed not to be there. But when, in his own way, he stumbled into movies, when he began to see how vividly moving images could convey fantasies of action and accomplishment and distilled, idealized renditions of human behavior, he began to understand what he might be able to do... Hawks, then, was an intuitive, rather than an intentional, artist, in the sense that he did not set out to make statements about life, the condition of mankind, politics, war, history, or social conditions. Although he thought very highly of himself, Hawks... always positioned himself as a craftsman.
McCarthy, page 16:
Even if Hawks had lived a hundred years, he would never have sat down to write his memoirs. For him, the interview format represented the ideal means to relate his anecdotes and embellish his own stature... The impediments he placed in the way of a biographer stemmed more from negligence than intention: by casually leaving his collection of papers, scripts, and photographs in his garage, he put them at the mercy of the elements, which got to them, initially and massively in the early 1950s, then again in the 1970s, destroying much o whatever he had put aside. The remainder, which had been lovingly inventoried and stored at Brigham Young University [owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], simply because the archivist there, James D'Arc [a Latter-day Saint], was the first person to ask for it, represents a tantalizing but highly fragmentary glimpse intot he entirety of Hawks's life and career.
Howard Hawks was born in Goshen, Indiana on 30 May 1896. Goshen had been largely founded by the Hawks family sixty years earlier. Howard Hawks was born into the city's most prominent family. The Hawks owned nearly all of the principle businesses and employers in town (McCarthy, page 18-19). From: McCarthy, page 19:
Having been in the area for precisely sixty years before Howard was born, the Hawkses were among the founding families of the Elkhart County area, and they played the critical imaginative and economic role in putting Goshen on the map. But the family had been in North America for more than 260 years before the birth of its most famous member [i.e., Howard Hawks].

Early in 1630, ten years after the original Pilgrims [English religious separatists who sailed from Europe] landed in Plymouth, the brothers John and Adam Hawks were among a Massachusetts Bay Company expedition of six hundred settlers to the New World...

An excerpt from the introductory essay discussing Hawks and his philosophies, from: McBride, Hawks on Hawks, pages 2-3:
If Hawks is, as Jacques Rivette wrote in the first major essay on Hawks's work, "the only American director who knows how to draw a moral" ("The Genius of Howard Hawks," Focus on Howard Hawks, p. 73), the morality of his characters is not a matter of their adherence to abstract social or ethical precepts but an existential morality, a function of their behavior towards each other. A typical plot mechanism in a Hawks film is the struggle of a flawed character (e.g., Richard Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings, Walter Brennan in To Have and Have Not, Dean Martin in Rio Bravo) to prove himself worthy of respect by the rest of the group, by overcoming tendencies to disloyalty, cowardice, physical disability, or immaturity. Not even the strongest characters in Hawks's films can function effectively outside the group: though John Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance stoically tries to reject the help of friends all the way through Rio Bravo, his ultimate survival depend on their intercession in his behalf. Though Hawks's characters often act in positions of social responsibility, they typically maintain an aloof, isolated group identities within the general society, which enters into the stories only tangentially, as a hostile force challenging the unity of the group and its self-sustaining value system.

Despite the underlying seriousness of Hawks's concerns, his films rarely express their themes in a solemn or heavy-handed manner. Indeed, it is a much remarked-upon paradox of his work that his dramatic films are often even funnier than his actual comedies. All his films have a large component of playful humor, reflecting Hawks's enjoyment of good fellowship, the pleasures he takes in seeing a job well done, and the importance he places on balancing professional danger with recuperative relaxation. His sense of humor is more than just a function of his desire to be entertaining: it is an essential part of his view of human existence. Comedy and tragedy are interrelated in his work, the drama often coming form a character overcoming tendencies to ridiculousness, and the comedy typically arising from the descent of a dignified person into absurdity. Hawks expresses his morality through his comic perspective: when a Hawks character behaves either with undue self-importance or with a lack of self-respect, he exposes himself to mockery. Hawks's guiding principle, as Molly Haskell defined it in her excellent essay on the director in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, is "the picture of man poised, comically or heroically, against an antagonistic nature, a nothingness as devoid of meaning as Samuel Beckett's, but determined not the less to act out his destiny, toassert mind against mindlessness" (p. 474).

Hawks's work can be faultd for its narrowness of thematic range, in contrast to the breadth of vision one finds in the work fo Renoir or Ford or Rossellini, and the lack of thematic development in his work over such a long career is evidence of a self-centered, relatively unquestioning personality. But if these limitations prevent Hawks from reaching the highest level of cinematic greatness, they must also be recognized as essential elements in his artistic strength. Like his utilitarian style, which avoids superfluous flourishes to concentrate on presenting a scene in the clearest and most economical way, Hawks's thematic simplicity enabled him to concentrate on nuances of human behavior with a rare degree of richness and complexity...

Manny Farber, the first American critic to write perceptively on Hawks, wrote in "Howard Hawks," his 1969 overview of Hawks's career:

No artist is less suited to a discussion of profound themes than Hawks, whose attraction to strutting braggarts, boyishly cynical dialogue, and melodramaic fiction always rests on his poetic sense of action. It would be impossible to find anything profound in Rosalind russell's Hildy (in His Girl Friday)...
When Hawks was confronted with questions about his intentions in creating such-and-such a scene, he would almost invariably reply with an anecdote illuminating how he created the scene rather than what it was supposed to mean. He often expressed surprise and amusement at the things people were finding in his work, at the deep levels of meaning and symbolism critics were unearthing in what seemed to him to be "just good stories." But while he was inclined to be sarcastic about the more arcane critical pieces written on him, he was obviously pleased to find that the care and energy he had devoted to his work were finally being appreciated. He often told his young questioners, "You fellows know more about my work than I do."
Howard Hawks explains why he did not like High Noon (a film he did not make), from: McBride, Hawks on Hawks, page 130:
Rio Bravo was made [by Hawks] because I didn't like a picture called High Noon I saw High Noon at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, "Not particularly." I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, "How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they've got?" The fellow would probably say no, and he'd say, "Well, then I'd just have to take care of you." And that scene was in Rio Bravo.
Howard Hawks planned and did pre-production work on a Vietnam War film, but the film was never made. McBride, Hawks on Hawks, page 154:
What was the plot?

I'm going to use it [the plot], but not in Vietnam.

Did it make any statement about the war?

I've never made a statement. Our job [as filmmakers] is to make entertainment. I don't give a damn about taking sides.

In a situation like that, though, wouldn't it be hard NOT to make some kind of statement? Because it was such an emotional subject, it's hard not to take sides in some ways even if you're just making a story about two guys. There are bound to be implications.

Oh, I don't know. You see, I don't look at it that way. They've gotten so that you can't have a Jewish comic because you're making fun of the Jews. You can't have an Irish comic because you're making fun of the Irish. There's more goddam minorities. Nasser banned a picture called Land of the Pharaohs because he said it made it seem as though a Jew designed the pyramids. It's hard enough to make movies without getting into all that stuff.

Silverman, page 176:
On May 20, 1952, [Stanley] Donen married for a second time; his bride was the Fox starlet Marion Marshall [a Mormon actress]. He was twenty-eight; she was six years younger. Typically for a Beverly Hills marital union, there was a multitude of interconnections. The Donens wed at the home of Marshall's agent, Jules Goldstone, who had also represented Elizabeth Taylor [a previous girlfriend of Donen's]. Marshall had been the companion of the director Howard Hawks, whose wife, the model Nancy "Slim" Hawks, had left Hawks for the agent-producer Leland Hayward, who had been Gene Kelly's agent. Hayward divorced his previous wife, the actress Margaret Sullavan, to marry "Slim." Marion Marshall gave up her career when she married Donen, and they had two sons...

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