“A game-legged old man and a drunk. That all you got?”
Directed by Howard Hawks . 1958
“When I’m getting serious about a girt, I show her Rio Bravo”
said Quentin Tarantino, “and she better fucking like it.”
Many call it Howard Hawks’ masterpiece. I’m not so sure about that but it is, as Tarantino also said of Hawks, “just too damn enjoyable.” As Sheriff JohnWayne and his motleycrew of a drunk, a gimp and a kid take on John Russell’s Burdette gang as (in all Hawksian plots) guys prove themselves to be real pros to other guys or, as Tony Paley put it in The Guardian, “gain or renew their self-respect or strive for redemption.”
Back from a four year lay off in Europe’s pleasure points (after hisliteral epic flop, Land of the Pharoahs, 1954) and about to become agrandfather, Hawks boasted of“a fresh attitude”to film-making. “I got bored,” he said,“and decided I might as well be doing what I know best.”
Oh really. He’d only made two Westerns at this point, Red River, 1946,being vastly superior to The Big Sky, 1951 - yet during the final six movies he came home for, three were oaters.Of more precisely, one - he would just remake it. Twice. “If anything is good, I hang on to it.”
Including, apparently, his title. It had been the first handle for John Ford and John Wayne’s Rio Grande in 1950.
Jack Warner, who still held the key to Warner Bros, was none too keen on a Western. Horse-operas were a dime a dozen on TV at the time, including Gunsmoke, making a star of Hawks’ find for The Thing seven years before: James Arness. (Bravo sports various TV folk: Ward Bond, John Russell, Ricky Nelson).
Warner, however, still offered Hawks Desert Guns, which later became Gold of the Seven Saints (with Roger Moore; every Bond has gone West). Hawks passed and called up John Wayne. Duke had not had a hit Western since John Ford’smasterpiece, The Searchers, in 1956 - a great one to go out, if necessary. Wayne’s work since then had been listless. Hawks had been out of the frame for (nearly) too long.
They both needed a good Western.
So they made one.
The entire project stemmed from Hawks “visceral abhorrence” (said Todd McCarthy) of High Noon. (He wasn’t taken with 3.10 To Yuma either, but then who was). Wayne had politely picked up the absent Gary Cooper’s Oscar for him on May 19, 1953. Didn’t mean [pause] he approved [pause]) of the film. In fact, he had true gall to say: “And now, I’m gonna find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper.”
Huh? But he’d refused it . Worse, he called it “”the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”
“What a piece of you-know-what that was,” Wayne told Chicago critic Roger Ebert.“I think it was popular because of the music... Here’s a town full of people who’ve ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fightin’ off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal [sic] asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.” (Exactly what Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly did, after saving the town).
“Gary Cooper ran around,” added Hawks, “like a chicken with his head off asking for help.He was a joke. He wasn’t a sheriff; he wasn’t a pro. And finally his Quaker wife had to save his guts.”Sheriff Wayne didn’t seek help, simply making do with the moths attracted to his flame.Or frame.
So Hawks and Wayne - because Duke was quickly aboard (until the final script, the sheriff was always named: John Wayne) would be the opposite. Professional.
“We did everything the exact opposite
of what annoyed me in High Noon
and it worked and people liked it.”
People liked High Noon, too, and not just for Tex Ritter’s song.
Hawks set two of his favourite writers to work.The Big Sleep’s Jules Furthman (grumpy enough for Stumpy’s lines) and Leigh Brackett. Their first treatments, called El Paso Red and Bull By The Tail, read like To Have and Have NotGoes West... They followed the Hawksian rules. “Everybody has seen every plot twenty times, so... Character over plot. Attitude. Personalties. Few close-ups. No flashbacks. And never make a statement.”
Nicknames are important on planet Hawks. His richly drawn characters, noted Tony Paley, “are on familiar terms with each other and, just as importantly, the audience feels close to and is rooting for them.”Characters called Cherry, Chips, Easy, Fishbone, French, Mississsippi Speed, Spike, Whitey, and of course, Lauren Bacall’s Slim, named after the then Mrs Hawks.... who found her.
This year’s new models were were Chance, Dude, Colorado and Stumpy....
Chance . “Hey,” said Wayne, “that’s a good name you got for me - Chance.” “Wal,” said Hawks, ”she was a damn good-looking girl.” Chance was the nickname of the lady Hawks met in Eruope and who stayed with him until his death in 1977 : the Chanel model Chance de Widstedt. It became the sheriff’s given name. He’s John T Chance.In one draft, he was Clint, although Eastwood had not yet begun moseying in on Duke’s territory. Rawhide only began the following year. By the 70s, though, he was snatching Two Mules For Sister Sara and Dirty Harry from Wayne.
In case Duke would or could not play “John Wayne,” Hawks had a short list of potential replacements: Sterling Hayden, Gregory Peck, and the old rivals - Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster for the embattled sheriff and/or his drunken bum of a deputy.
No matter, Duke Wayne loved the script - and the name of Chance. He used it again for his Hellfighters hero in 1968. And Tennessee Williams delighted himself in Sweet Bird of Youth, first staged a year after Rio Bravo.... by calling his obnoxious gigolo hero, Chance Wayne.
Hawks was not alone in re-cycling...
Wayne turned up in Arizona with
his hat from Stagecoach (worn since ’39),
his Red River D belt buckle
and his Hondo pump-action rifle.
Let the games begin...
Dude . Hawks aimed to re-unite his 1948 Red River trio: Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan.Monty (who had been offered High Noon)had no wish to share another screen with either of them again. He was also not slow in realizing that Dude Borachon was based on Clift’s alcoholic Red River co-star and lover, John Ireland. Plus, of course, Monty was far too close to any alcoholic character. He talked about the script while making The Young Lions. His co-star heard all.Dean Martin.
Hawks then produced two lists... and Dino wasn’t on either of them. However, his pal, Frank Sinatra, topped the first (“Hey I know who’d be good”), followed by James Cagney, John Cassavetes, Edmond O’Brien, Rod Steiger, Richard Widmark. And John Ireland (to play himself... this was Hawks taking his legendary recycling - of plots, characters, dialogue, actors, leading ladies - too far).
Surprisingly, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy arrived only in the second list! This one covered all ages: Tony Curtis. Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford (from the dreaded 3.10 To Yuma), William Holden, Van Johnson (!), Burt Lancaster, Ray Milland (the screen’s best known drunk since The Lost Weekend, 1945). Like Clift, Tracy was too close to Dude for comfort...
Plus Robert Mitchum. He was also on the Colorado list and would play The Drunk, then called Sheriff JP Harrah, in the first Rio re-make, El Dorado. Wayne had also offered Bob Mitchum the Stewart Granger role in his next outing, North To Alaska, 1960. Five years earlier, producer John Wayne had sacked (and replaced) Bob in Blood Alley, 1955.
Another surprise - or compromise? - Hawks ruminating over two stars that he had rapidly disliked .Kirk Douglas, who had the temerity to steal Hawks’ lover (and leading lady), Elizabeth Thrett, during the Wyoming locations of The Big Sky, 1951.... and John Ireland, an unprofessional, alcoholic, lecher nailing Joanne Dru (she became his second wife, 1949-1957), Shelley Winters and Monty Clift during Red River. Ireland wired Hawks: “You gave me my one chance. please give me another. I won’t blow it.”
And here’s where Dean Martin jets back into the story, far from being bright eyed and bushy-tailed on a chartered flight from Las Vegas, after performing all night and grabbing, maybe, two hours sleep before the early morning meet his agent had fought to arrange with Hawks. Dino’s attitude - such a pro! - played so well with Hawks that an immediate deal was struck. “I knew that if he’d do all that, he’d work hard and we’d have no trouble because he’s such a personality.”
He told him to go get fitted up at the Wardrobe Department. He returned in what Hawks called a musical-comedy cowboy outfit. “No, get a drunken cowboy’s clothes. When he came back, he was wearing exactly what he wore in the film.” It sure worked. When head brother Jack Warner watched some rushes, he turned on Hawks. “You told me you got Dean Martin. Where is he?” “Him there - in the funny hat.” “That’s Dean Martin?!”
Colorado . The third gun, Colorado Ryan, was first seen as an older gu y- 21 of them including Tony Curtis and Mitchum again. And Lloyd Bridges (from the loathed High Noon), Jack Lemmon (whose first and only Western, Cowboy, had 1957, been a bum career move), Jack Palance (the fast gun in Shane, 1952), and because of the popularity of TV Westerns: The Rifleman and Maverick, aka Chuck Connors and James Garner.
Next, going younger than Mitchum or Palance, meant a once-in-a-lifetime break for the American football player Frank Gifford - testing opposite the succulent Angie Dickinson!
Also in line:, Rod Taylor, Stuart Whitman. And Michael Landon, then best known as a teenage werewolf. His day would come. On TV. In just three massive series: Bonanza,1959-1973, Little House on the Prairie, 1974-1983, Highway To Heaven, 1984-1989.
Actually, Hawks aimed for Elvis.
And Presley was extremely keen.
His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, of course, was not. Or not unless his boy got more money... and top billing.Above John Wayne?Oh yeah, no problem! The so-called “Colonel” also refused to allow his boy to make The Rainmaker, Bus Stop, The Defiant Ones, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Thus,Hollywood realised that Team Elvis (or Team Tom!) was not interested in any worthwhile movie career, and thus, available for bubblegum pap.
Hawks settled for a lesser rocker he had known him since his birth 18 years before, Ricky Nelson. He was a big TV star, with his titular folks, in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1952-1966). Hawks had him copy Monty Clift’s habit of rubbing his nose in mid-thought and the pop star brought an extra $2 million to the take. Pretty good. Just not as much as Elvis would have attracted...
On the list for Colorado and Stumpy - both ends of the age spectrum - was Lee Marvin. Alas, he never did work with Hawks. They weredue to make Monte Walsh - a notion ruined by Marvin arriving for their meeting, drunk as a skunk.
Stumpy . For each of their six films, Walter Brennan always asked Hawks the ritual question:
“With or without?”
“With or without what?”
Usually without, he won a record three supporting Oscars - in four years, 1936-1940 - mainly because extras were entitled to vote and always chose someone who had started as one of their legions.
Brennan was the obvious grumpy Stumpy but Hawks still pondered over Theodore Bikel and Lee J Cobb (also rivals for The Sands of the Kalahari, 1964; Bikel won), William Demarest (from Hawks’ A Girl In Every Port, circa 1927), Buddy Ebsen (to make his name - and millions - as head of The Beverly Hillbillies, TV, 1962-1971), Arthur Hunnicutt (who took over the Brennan role in the first re-make, El Dorado, 1965), Burl Ives, and the matrix for such grizzled galoots, the New York cowpoke George Francis “Gabby” Hayes.
Feathers . For once, The Grey Fox had no foxes under contract... As with his former pal, Howard Hughesa, Hawks’ pactees more usually becamehis lovers than his stars.
Hawks turned his gimlet eye on the new Hollywood field, from the blatant MariBlanchard and Sheree North to the subtle Jane Greer and silky smooth singer Julie London.There were more... Diane Brewster, Capucine, Rhonda Fleming, Beverly Garland, Martha Hyer (she had to wait seven years for another Duke (and Dean Martin) movie, The Sons of Katie Elder), Carolyn Jones, Piper Laurie, Janis Paige, Donna Reed.
Hawks’ assistant, Chris Nyby, kept talking a certain lady with never ending legs… Wayne also threw in a good word. He had, after all, hired her to be his wife in I Marred A Woman and for another of his Batjac productions, Gun The Man Down. She’d just finished China Gate for the maverick auteur. Samuel Fuller, and he was yelling at everyone, in his usual capitals, just how GREAT she was.
Her name was Angie Dickinson and...
Feathers was born
She was a typical Hawksian steal - from the gangster’s moll, Feathers McCoy, in Joseph von Sternberg’s Underworld, 1927. She also had a line based onLauren Bacall’s classic “It’s even better when you help” (about kissing Bogart) - “It’s better when two people do it.”
Angie shot a test with Frank Gifford playing Chance but felt she had no chance opposite top agent Charles Feldman’s find, the Wayne-tall French model Capucine. Hawks, however, didn’t like her accent. And survived making such a criticism... Not so director, Richard Fleischer, two years later, when Capucine won a Wayne movie, North To Alaska, and Fleischer felt she was not earthy enough for a hooker. Poor Fleischer read all the wrong newspapers and had no idea she was his producer Charles Feldman’s lover. Whoops! Result: Capucine was in the movie and Dick was not.
OK, Hawks and Wayne hated High Noon, so what did Gary Cooper think of Rio Bravo? “It’s so phoney, nobody believes in it. ”Deuce!
“We ended up with enough notes to make another movie,” said Hawks. “So we made another movie…” Or, the same one again, now called El Dorado, on the same Old Tuscon sets in Arziona in 1965. (Same again, in 1970, for the second re-tread, Rio Lobo, when Wayne asked: “Do I get to play the drunk?”). Duke headed another memorable quartet and had another memorable line - at least one...
“I’m lookin’ at a tin star with
... a drunk pinned on it.”
[Among other sources, this page owes much to Todd McCarthy’s brilliant bio, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood,
published by Grove Press,in 1997. It’s as enjoyable as any Hawks movie - I cannot praise it higher that that.]