Friday, August 21

The Directors: Henry Hathaway

I knew who he was when I was still a young kid because he directed Niagara, a movie that electrified me when I saw it in its initial release.  I was already paying attention to who directed the movies I saw.  And I made notes.  I learned to get pretty excited about his work mainly because he ventured into film noir and later in his career he steered a lot of westerns.  Need I say more?

I am not sure that Henry Hathaway was so cherished in Hollywood.  Maybe in some circles.  To some he had no discernible style (they should look again) and to most he was pretty difficult to get along with.  He chewed up actors.  The incompetent ones annoyed him and the haughty ones angered him no end.

He was a company man.  He never struck out on his own, never wanted to produce along with directing.  He first worked for Paramount but more famously for 20th Century Fox.  He was one of Zanuck's contract directors along with the likes of Otto Preminger, Henry King, Henry Koster and Joe Mankiewicz.  Contract directors were like contract stars... they did what they were told.  Hathaway was apparently satisfied with his station in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Never much honored by his peers, he was nominated just once for an Oscar but he didn't win.  But for my tastes he made some of the most entertaining movies of the 40s and 50s.  And the entertainment value of films pretty much trumps everything else for me. 

His work in noir took on a hue a bit different from some other directors of the genre. He made a few in a semi-documentary style, which I personally didn't care much for but the style was his.  He also was a very fine action director and one who had quite an eye for visual splendor (much as John Ford had for Monument Valley).  One can clearly see the style in his westerns.

Born in 1898 Sacramento, California, to a showbiz tribe (both parents were actors), he was christened Marquis Henri Leonard de Fiennes Hathaway and it matched his to-the-manor-born attitude that he freely exhibited.  I am speculating that his occasional big-headed, self-important stance (which he hated in others) was a result of being looked down on by the Tinseltown gentry... or maybe it was his birth name.

By the age of 10 he was working as a child actor in westerns by director Allan Dwan.  He kept at his youthful acting career until WWI came along and he was drafted.  After his discharge he got work as an assistant director to some of the great early directors.  He has always credited Victor (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) Fleming as setting him on a course for the director's chair.

He first took over the reins in 1932 in cheapie westerns, many of them starring a young Randolph Scott.  In 1935, Hathaway received much acclaim for his work on The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, a rousing adventure of a regiment stationed in the Northwest Frontier of then-British India.  It would be the start of a long professional relationship with Gary Cooper and would garner Hathaway his only Oscar nomination.  At Paramount he finished out the 30s with several more Cooper pictures and a few with the wooden George Raft. 

By 1940 he had begun his 15-year stretch at Fox.  One of the year's best crime flicks was the noir Johnny Apollo, about a good kid gone bad and starring Tyrone Power in the first of five films he would make with Hathaway.  Power was a fairly compliant actor and may be part of the reason he and Hathaway got on as well as they did.  The same year the two made the bloated fiction, Brigham Young, which did little for either of their careers.

In 1941 he made a sensitive drama about the Ozarks and its people called The Shepherd of the Hills with an equally sensitive performance by John Wayne.  The two, while they could really get into it on a set, would work together six more times.  Hathaway was one of the three directors most associated with Wayne's career (John Ford and Andrew McLaglen being the other two).

Later in 1941 and 1942 he worked twice with Gene Tierney and George Montgomery.  Sundown with Tierney was a war story in the North African desert that failed to ignite.  Montgomery teamed with Maureen O'Hara in 10 Gentlemen from West Point, about the Academy's earliest days.  It was a popular, pleasant diversion from what was really going on in the world and contained a terrific villainous performance from Laird Cregar.  Then Tierney and Montgomery teamed for China Girl about wartime espionage in Asia that didn't go over very well but I was captivated. (But then I was captivated by all films that starred Gene Tierney.)

Home in Indiana, a popular film but a true departure for this director, was a horse-racing story starring Jeanne Crain, Walter Brennan and Lon McAllister.  It was full of innocent cornball stuff that Hollywood liked to make to balance out the heartbreak of war.  McAllister was new to Hollywood, closeted and unsure of himself and suffered at the hands of his director.

The House on 92nd Street (1945), was one of those semi-documentary noirs.  It had a B cast (William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso) and concerned NYC Nazis trying to steal atomic bomb secrets and the FBI agents on their trail.  In his effort to provide realism, Hathaway used real FBI agents and other non-professionals in key scenes.  In 1948 he would make another docu-drama, Call Northside 777 with Jimmy Stewart as a reporter out to prove the innocence of a convicted killer. 

The Dark Corner (1946) was one of my favorite noirs of the decade but we will discuss it a bit later in detail.  Hathaway had a great year in 1947 with two films that became classics.  I have discussed the superb noir Kiss of Death in the postings on Victor Mature, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark and Mildred Dunnock.  It concerned a crook willing to turn state's evidence and a psychotic thug that will not stop needling him.  13 Rue Madeleine qualifies as one of the director's best... an adventure yarn but done in his familiar documentary style.  James Cagney played a top spy who has his hands full after he discovers one of his underlings is a double agent.  

Rawhide (1951) was a good black & white western featuring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward as captives at a stagecoach stop and the only one of the four films he made with the actress where blood wasn't drawn.  Next, James Mason outdid himself as German General Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951) with Jessica Tandy equally splendid as his wife.

The trouble between Hathaway and Hayward began with 1953s hokey White Witch Doctor about a nurse who brings medicine to some African tribes.  Filmed entirely in California, it used African footage from Hayward's own The Snows of Kilimanjaro when needed.  Both strongly resisted doing the film but they were Fox slaves and ultimately had to do what they were told or risk suspension.  Robert Mitchum didn't want to do it either nor did Hayward want to costar with him a second time.  They didn't get along so well in the previous year's The Lusty Men.  It was a helluva way to start a film.

Hayward, never the friendliest of actresses, went to her dressing room and would not speak to others unless the cameras were rolling.  Hathaway tried to reason with her, only to be met with stony silence or sarcasm.  He would publicly say she always had that stoic, coldly appraising look, as if to say "Prove it."  She was a belligerent bitch.  While her on-set antics are legendary, so were his.

The director & star of "Niagara"

He had a brief break from working with Hayward when he made the thriller Niagara (1953).  Discovering Marilyn Monroe was one of my happiest movie-going experiences and this is the film that brought her into worldwide consciousness.  MM, always looking for a daddy, responded well to Hathaway's toughness.  Watching Joseph Cotten murder his faithless wife, Monroe made me squirm in my seat.  I also discovered Jean Peters, who actually had more screen time than Monroe, and I set out to see all of her films.

Filmed in various Mexican jungle locations, Garden of Evil (1954) was a little pet project of Zanuck's because he thought the film would look gorgeous in Fox's new Cinemascope process.  He was right.  Again, Hayward and Hathaway were thrown together and again she didn't want to do the film.  This time she was in the throes of an ugly divorce (one of Hollywood's all-time juiciest) and she didn't want to be too far away from her children, who were not allowed to accompany her. 

Hayward left the set for a week when Hathaway, for some oddball reason, forbade her (and the entire crew) to drink coffee in the early morning and they got into a fierce argument over her 9 a.m. starting time.  She went to Mexico City and took her coffee cup with her.

Perhaps a moment of harmony on "Garden of Evil"

It was a great starring role for the feisty redhead.  She pays four strangers (Cooper, Widmark, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Manuel Mendoza) to join her into dangerous Indian country to retrieve her husband and a lot of gold.  Of course, it doesn't quite come out as planned.  Despite the A-list cast and all that Cinemascope, it turned out to be a B western but one I dearly loved.

I thought 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956), with Van Johnson and Vera Miles, was a decent thriller.  It concerned a blind playwright being stalked by a killer in a scenario the writer has set up.  In 1959 he joined Hayward for the last time in Woman Obsessed.  Another Hayward film I very much liked, it didn't perform so well.  It was about a farm widow who impulsively marries a man she hardly knows and the emotional drama that ensues.  The two only had minor scrapes on this one because Hathaway preferred to take aim at leading man, Stephen Boyd.

The director began the sixties with North to Alaska.  John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine in a comedy-western was right up my alley.  It performed well, too.  Hathaway was one of three directors who worked on the behemoth western, How the West Was Won.  He was responsible for the Rivers, Plains and Outlaws sections.  It was gorgeously filmed and compellingly told... as if you didn't know.

Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey are certainly responsible for my seeing the third version of Of Human Bondage (1964), a story I never much cared for.  Hathaway didn't care for the experience either, apparently.  While there were several directors, he was the one who would later say about Novak... I worked one day with her and I quit

With Wayne & Claudia Cardinale on "Circus World"

He must have still been irritable when he started work on Circus World (1964), because his shabby treatment of actor John Smith (notable for TV's Laramie) is well-documented.  Smith went on to say he believes Hathaway badmouthed him so severely that his career never really took off.

Hathaway had 10 more films of varying success to go before he retired.  The westerns The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and Nevada Smith (1966) were crowd-pleasers and True Grit (1969) was his last good film.  The latter, of course, contained Wayne's Oscar-winning, comedy performance, and was the film that would end their pairing.   Hathaway went uncredited as the director of (only) the outdoor, winter scenes in Airport (1970).  They were the best scenes of the whole silly affair.

To say that he didn't have a style is pure folly.  But he played to his audiences rather than the studios.  He knew most of his films performed well at the box office.  But he was always dogged by his dictatorial ways on film sets and his harshness with some actors.  It's interesting to note, however, how often he worked with some of those who gave as much as they got... Hayward, Novak, Harvey,  Wayne, Widmark, McQueen, for instance.  He said to be a good director, you've got to be a bastard.  I'm a bastard and I know it.

Henry Hathaway, good director, head wizard of a number of movies I remember with ever-present affection, died in 1985 in Los Angeles of a heart attack.  He was a month shy of his 87th birthday.

Next posting:
Paramount's Troubled Star



  1. For the rest of the story about Henry Hathaway I want to recommend Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood, which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield June or July 2016.

  2. Correction: The title of the new Henry Hathaway biography to be released by Rowman and Little field is Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director.