No filmmaker loved ripping off their own work more than Howard Hawks. And if your oeuvre is riddled with all-timers like “Bringing Up Baby,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “His Girl Friday” and “Ball of Fire,” you might copy yourself, too.
Hawks’ most egregious act of self-theft has its roots in “Rio Bravo,” which is widely and correctly considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. The film that Quentin Tarantino calls the greatest “hangout” movie stars John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance, who teams up with his alcoholic former colleague (Dean Martin), a hotshot young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson), and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) to keep the outlaw brother of a wealthy local rancher in stir until the federal authorities can ride into town and take him into custody.
In an interview in the 1997 book, “Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s,” scriptwriter Leigh Brackett shared that Hawks’ predilection for repetition wasn’t just a big-picture practice. He loved to recycle effective action beats, like a shot of a bad guy getting ejected from a house (in “The Big Sleep”) or a saloon (in “El Dorado”), which then cuts to a shot of a door being torn to pieces by bullets. How did Brackett feel about Hawks going back to the well?
Living on the (lack of a) difference
Leigh Brackett also revealed in “Backstory 2” that, when it came to Hawks’ copycat nature, she went along to get along:
“I have been at swords’ points with [Hawks] many a time because I don’t like doing a thing over again, and he does. I remember one day he and John Wayne and I were sitting in the office, and he said we’ll do such and such a thing. I said: ‘But Howard, you did it in ‘Rio Bravo.’ You don’t want to do this over again.’ He said: ‘Why not?’ And John Wayne, all six feet four of him, looked down and said: ‘If it was good once it’ll be just as good again.’ I know when I’m outgunned, so I did it. But I just don’t like repeating myself. However, I’m wrong about half the time.”
It worked better in the solid “El Dorado” than it did in the wholly unnecessary “Rio Lobo.” Much better. But while Hawks made more than a few bad movies post “Rio Bravo,” they’re still agreeable. Basically, you’re watching a bunch of old friends hang out and go through the motions because, well, they enjoy it and they figure we enjoy watching them play the hits. Sinatra was forgetting the words to “My Way” late in his career, but no one left an engagement with the Chairman of the Board feeling cheated. You went to be in the presence of greatness, no matter how faded.
That’s Hawks’ late-career work, and I’m much more tolerant of it now that I’m about to turn 50 than I was in my 20s. We’re all charged up about a fifth Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford even though it looks like a CG-stuffed fan flick. But as long as it’s not a 300-pound Elvis Presley laboring through a late-night Las Vegas set, what’s the harm?