One of the most influential yet perhaps most unsung film directors of the twentieth century was by birth a Hoosier. Howard Winchester Hawks did, in fact, direct The Twentieth Century –a 1934 movie starring his second cousin and Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. Bringing Up Baby, To Have and Have Not and Rio Bravo are other standouts in Hawks’ oeuvre. On a day in 1896 when the town sheriff shot and killed a man stirring up trouble at the local saloon, Howard Hawks was, by contrast, born into a patrician Goshen, Indiana family. Father Frank Hawks, who could trace his American roots to 1630, was heir to the Goshen Milling Company, whose impact on the town had been described as such–”No other concern in Goshen contributes more to the prosperity of Goshen.” The Hawks family dominated commerce in the town, from real estate to banking to furniture.
Hawks’ mother, the former Helen Howard, was the daughter of a paper magnate in Neenah, Wisconsin, where the family moved two years after Howard’s birth. Helen’s poor health subsequently prompted another move to Pasadena, California, where the family permanently settled in 1910. Hawks studied mechanical engineering at Cornell, and served in the Signal Corps and the Army Air Corps during World War One. The son of the first woman to drive a car in Neenah, Hawks also worked as a professional aviator and race car driver.
He got into the motion picture business on the production side, working his way up from running props and designing sets to directing and producing. Known for his films’ well-oiled dialogue, thematic simplicity and tough female characters, Hawks distinguished himself in many cinematic genres, from screwball comedies to films noirs to Westerns. He wrote screenplays for two films about the Indy 500, including The Crowd Roars (1932), which he also directed, and The Indianapolis Speedway (1939). The silver-haired thrice-married director who came to be known as “the Grey Fox of Hollywood ” is credited with having brought out the screen magic of Carole Lombard and Lauren Bacall. Though hailed by French critics in the 1950s as a prototype of the director-as-auteur, Hawks did not receive comparable accolades in Britain or the U.S. Nominated in 1941 for having directed Sergeant York, he did not receive an Academy Award until presented with an honorary Oscar in 1975.
An historical plaque installed on the front lawn of the Goshen Masonic Temple property marks the site of the Hawks family home at the corner of Fifth and Jefferson Streets in the Elkhart County seat. At 1708 Vine Street, a star recognizes Howard Hawks’ legacy in Hollywood.
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