Howard Hawks, the director of such classics as “Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday” and “Red River,” never was one to point his finger if one of his films failed. He always took the blame.
“He didn’t alibi it,” says the late filmmaker’s friend, director Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote about Hawks in his book “Who the Devil Made It.” “He said it was his fault. He didn’t make excuses.”
So Hawks, who died in 1977, probably wouldn’t mince the fact that some of his lesser films are featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s retrospective “Late Hawks.”
Take Hawks’ 1955 epic “Land of the Pharaohs,” which screens March 20.
“He wanted to do one of those big pre-biblical kind of movies because they were all the rage at the time,” Bogdanovich says. “He said to me, ‘We couldn’t figure out how a pharaoh talked.’ He never did solve it, and he just didn’t think the picture was any good.”
Still, says Bogdanovich, even lesser Hawks is noteworthy. “If you are interested in Howard Hawks and how his career evolved, they are all interesting.”
The three-weekend festival opens Friday with one of his strongest films, 1959’s sweeping western epic “Rio Bravo,” with frequent collaborator John Wayne, Angie Dickinson as the typical no-nonsense “Hawksian woman,” Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson.
“It’s because of ‘Land of the Pharaohs’ that ‘Rio Bravo’ is so good,” Bogdanovich maintains.
He says Hawks “decided to stop making pictures for a few years until he could figure out how things had gone wrong, because he had a couple of flops.” Because he had time on his hands, the filmmaker started watching television.
“Suddenly he was confronted with television series, which he saw the public tune in to every week to see the characters,” says Bogdanovich. “It wasn’t so much about the plot that kept the audience coming back every week. So he decided to make a western in which the plot was very simple, but it was the characters that counted. That is what ‘Rio Bravo’ became. It’s basically a very simple plot and a lot of character development.”
The retrospective also features Hawks’ last film, “Rio Lobo,” which was released to critical and commercial disappointment in 1970. It screens March 27 with another Hawks box-office failure, the 1965 car racing movie “Red Line 7000,” which stars James Caan.
“It didn’t work,” Bogdanovich says of “Rio Lobo,” which again stars Wayne.
“It was supposed to be John Wayne and another big star, but they didn’t have the money,” he says. “The studio decided John Wayne by himself or with somebody didn’t make any difference in terms of box office. So they went with Jorge Rivero, who was not a name. Then Jennifer O’Neill wouldn’t listen to Hawks. I saw him directing her, and he had just given up on her because he thought she was arrogant.”
Screening Saturday with his 1953 hit comedy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” starring Marilyn Monroe, is Hawks’ final screwball romantic comedy, 1964’s “Man’s Favorite Sport?,” with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss.
Prentiss enjoyed working with Hawks. “He would say to me, ‘I’m going to tell you something to do here and we won’t tell Rock,’ ” Prentiss recalls. “So it was a surprise. He was just the perfect director for an actor. Hawks just knew how to talk to actors. It was wonderful.”
The film was originally envisioned for another one of Hawks’ frequent collaborators, Cary Grant, who was nearing 60.
“At the last minute, Cary backed out of it because he didn’t want to work with that many young women,” Bogdanovich says. “He felt he would be like a dirty old man. Howard said to him, ‘How old was that girl I saw you with in Chasen’s the other night?’ Cary said, ‘She was 23, but that’s life, not the movies.’ ”
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and March 20-21 and March 27
Price: $10 general admission; $7 for museum members, seniors and students
Info: (323) 857-6010 or www.lacma.org