H Hathaway

Henry Hathaway


United States

Filmycks reviews:

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
14 Hours (1951)
Niagara (1953)

Hard man at home in Hollywood

By Michael J Roberts

'There's lots of nice guys walking around Hollywood but they're not eating.'
~ Henry Hathaway

Born into an acting family in California in 1898, albeit one connected to European royalty, it would seem only natural that a young man might find his way into the film business, just as Hollywood was conquering the world. He worked at many menial film-set jobs for Universal as a 14-year-old, (alongside the young John Ford) and for Allan Dwan and Fred Niblo before he graduated to Assistant Director for Joseph Von Sternberg and Frank Lloyd. The advent of sound saw studios remaking properties they’d done as silent and Hathaway was given a slate of quickie westerns to direct, all of them with up-and-coming cowboy actor Randolph Scott.

In 1934 Hathaway moved into the mainstream with a lightweight family film, Now and Forever, but it starred Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper and Shirley temple and did great business. It was the first of many films he would make starring Gary Cooper in an association that spanned 3 decades. He scored a huge hit with his next Cooper project, The Lives of The Bengal Lancers, a typical Hollywood studio conceit, and the effort was recognised with his only nomination for an Academy Award as Best Director. The taciturn director became one of Paramount’s most accomplished behind the camera talents and reeled off another Cooper hit in Peter Ibbetson, a fine drama with Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray in Trail Of The Lonesome Pine and a Mae West vehicle, Go West, Young Man.

Another Cooper film, Souls at Sea and an abandoned Marlene Dietrich/Charles Boyer piece called I Loved a Soldier, kept him busy, and a George Raft and Henry Fonda drama saw his time at Paramount come to an end as he headed to 20th Century Fox after a sidetrack project for Goldwyn, The Real Glory, again with Gary Cooper. Zanuck gave him the responsibility for Fox’s biggest star, Tyrone Power and Hathaway directed two worthwhile efforts, the proto-noir Johnny Apollo, and the quasi-western epic Brigham Young. A low-key John Wayne western at Paramount established an association that would pay dividends decades hence, before Hathaway settled into a series of nondescript programmers.

A somewhat gruff and old school ‘man’s man’, Hathaway found more solid ground in the burgeoning Film Noir genre, and soon was one of the most successful practitioners, delivering solid work and box office hits with The House on 92nd Street, The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death and 13 Rue Madelaine. With the exception of the last in this sequence, which starred James Cagney, Hathaway made do with mid-level stars like Victor Mature or virtual unknowns like Richard Widmark and showed he could provide results without mega watt star power.

The next half dozen years proved very fertile for the versatile Hathaway as he continued his fine form with the James Stewart starring Call Northside 777, and a whaling tale with Lionel Barrymore and Widmark, Down To The Sea in Ships. He reunited with Tyrone Power for the excellent period epic, The Black Rose and for a fine Dudley Nichols scripted western with Susan Hayward, Rawhide. They were separated by the very fine WWII drama, The Desert Fox starring James Mason and yet another brilliant Noir, the taut and tight Fourteen Hours. Hathaway also directed Marilyn Monroe in one of her finest acting efforts, starring against Joseph Cotton in the atmospheric thriller, Niagra.

'To be a good director, you've got to be a bastard. I'm a bastard and I know it.' ~ Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway had a reputation for being hard and difficult that he wore with some pride, yet he continually worked with the same actors on a regular basis. He finished his run of films with Tyrone Power with the Noir-ish, Diplomatic Courier, and made the excellent Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward and Richard Widmark. Prince Valiant was typical of the big screen period adventures then in fashion, with James Mason, Janet leigh and Sterling Hayden in an odd piece of casting, before Hathaway delivered more familiar fare with the Joseph Cotton/Van Johnson film Bottom of The Bottle and the Van Johnson/Vera Miles starring 23 Paces to Baker Street, filmed in London. 

1957 saw the director reteam with John Wayne for the unremarkable Legend of The Lost, but the association would prove the most significant one for the last part of his career, dominated as it was by Wayne related product. Hathaway backed off the pace in his latter years, but managed the fine Susan Hayward vehicle Woman Obsessed, as well as an Edward G. Robinson film Seven Thieves. His next 4 films were all John Wayne related, North To Alaska and the episodic How The West Was Won, where Hathaway directed 3 of the 5 vignettes, and John Ford and George Marshall the others. Circus World and The Sons of Katie Elder rounded out the set.

Hathaway then gave Steve McQueen a fine role in the fine modern western Nevada Smith, worked with Stewart Granger again in The Last Safari and made a rollicking western with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum in 5 Card Stud. The John Wayne association paid huge dividends in 1969 with True Grit, a big hit that finally won John Wayne an Oscar, but no recognition for the director. Hathaway finished his long career with a Richard Burton WWII film Raid on Rommel, a Gregory Peck western, and bizarrely, a Blaxploitation film called Hangup in 1974. By then he was a creature from another era and he passed away a dozen years later at the fair old age of 86.

Like Michael Curtiz and others, Henry Hathaway would never be the critic’s darling, and the word auteur would rarely if ever appear within the confines of the same sentence. This speaks to the limits of the auteur concept as much as to a man like Hathaway’s talent and neglects to account for the broadly collaborative nature of film in the studio era. Hathaway produced a body of fine work, and his best stands up with many of the great examples from his peers. He was one of the few American directors who gave the European emigrees a run for their money in Film Noir and he understood how to frame and pace an entertaining story. In the rung below Ford and Hawks certainly, there is a respectable place to insert Hathaway’s credit, right next to William Wellman et al. Henry Hathaway was a hard man and no cinematic poet, but a vivid entertainer and a storyteller from the old school.

Not bad after all.