Director Henry Hathaway, who died at 86 last week, was so unpretentious, both in person and on the screen, that it is easy to underestimate his place in screen history. Although he worked in the same Western and adventure genres that made Ford and Hawks legends, he rarely inspired the profound analyses accorded those two contemporaries.
Yet, that a lot of Hathaway holds up wonderfully well was amply demonstrated when he was honored last fall at the Telluride Film Festival. This is the man who directed, among countless other films, "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," "Peter Ibbetson," "The House on 92nd Street," "Call Northside 777" and, most famously, "Kiss of Death," in which Richard Widmark shoved that wheelchair-bound old lady down a staircase, and "True Grit," which brought John Wayne his only Oscar. He directed Wayne six times; Randolph Scott, eight; Gary Cooper, seven; Tyrone Power, five, and Widmark, four. He directed Mae West as well as Marilyn Monroe.
Hathaway set out to entertain in his films, but he could be more entertaining than any of them. He was an impressively large, good-looking man with a terrific sense of humor, a skilled craftsman and storyteller who took pride in his work but resisted speaking of it too seriously. All it takes is a clip from "Call Northside 777," for example, to bring back memories of the unbearable suspense of that 1947 film, in which reporter James Stewart desperately tries to prove a convicted killer is really innocent.
This film and a number of other important Hathaway films of the '40s, many of them produced by Louis De Rochemont, were done in a striking semi-documentary style, yet in discussing them he would not give them any more importance than any of his other films. Critics have suggested that their heavy reliance on actual locations reflected the demand for realism by a public that would no longer accept studio make-believe after being exposed to war. But the no-nonsense Hathaway had a simpler explanation.
"There are only so many stories," he explained, sitting behind his massive desk at Paramount back in the '60s. "In the days of the silents, after we made them all, we tried making them with as few titles as possible. When sound came in, we made them all over again. When color came in, we made them still another time. For something new, we made them like documentaries. And now they're making 'em dirty!"
Hathaway, whose career reached back to the very beginning of Hollywood, had one of the longest apprenticeships of the major film makers. The son of an actress and a theatrical manager, Hathaway was hired as a child actor in 1908 by the American Film Co., where he became a protege of the late director Allan Dwan. (When Dwan became the first recipient of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.'s Career Achievement Award, Hathaway recalled sitting on Dwan's knee.) Working his way up the ranks, he became an assistant director in 1919, most notably with Victor Fleming (another Dwan protege), Josef Von Sternberg, William K. Howard and Frank Lloyd. By 1932, he had become a full-fledged director of Westerns and by 1936 had directed "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," the first big-budget Western in three-strip Technicolor.
While it was always a pleasure to cross paths with Hathaway, he did have a reputation for being a stern taskmaster on the set. (Dennis Hopper has said that Hathaway blackballed him in the industry after "The Sons of Katie Elder"--yet Hathaway later hired him for "True Grit.") Over dinner at Telluride, Hathaway's elegant wife, Skip, asked mischievously, "You do do know Henry's a bastard, don't you?" But there were those who swore by Hathaway rather than at him. Signe Hasso, who starred in "The House on 92nd Street," adored him, just as she did another tough Hollywood pioneer, Cecil B. DeMille.
On the screen as in life, Hathaway had a great sense of style, and he and his wife, who is one of the keenest, wittiest observers of the Hollywood social scene, were at the center of Hollywood life in its most glittering era. The late Gertrude Astor, one of Universal's first stars, often recalled how poor both the Hathaway and Ford families were in the early days. Shrewd investments, however, were to make Hathaway a very wealthy man.
Breezy and open, Henry Hathaway was as quintessentially American as his movies. Ironically, however, Hathaway--which was actually his mother's maiden name--was by right a Belgian marquis, a hereditary title held by his paternal grandfather, who had been charged by his king to acquire the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands for Belgium. Failing to do so, he settled in San Francisco instead of returning home. Not surprisingly, Hathaway tended to keep his aristocratic lineage quiet. Can you imagine the director's credit on "True Grit" reading "Marquis Henri Leopold de Fiennes"?