Henry Hathaway: True Grit
by Glenn Lovell
Telluride, Colo. — During his 40 years of making sprawling action pictures ‒ everything from “Lives of the Bengal Lancer” with Gary Cooper to the original “True Grit” with John Wayne ‒ director Henry Hathaway earned a reputation for being, in the words of one screenwriter, “probably the toughest son of a bitch in Hollywood.”
Gregory Peck, who appeared in Hathaway’s segments of the Cinerama Western “How the West Was Won,” was more diplomatic. “Henry is a most pleasant gentleman,” he deadpanned. “Except from 9 to 6, when he becomes a paranoiac.”
Hathaway, in one of his last interviews (he died in 1985 at age 86), chomped on his ubiquitous cigar and dismissed everything nasty ever written or said about him.
“I was never tough,” he told me at the Telluride Film Festival, where he received a long-overdue tribute with clips from “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” “Kiss of Death” and “Niagara.” “The actors who say those things earned a lot of money and used to arrive on the set unprepared. I wouldn’t tolerate that ‒ but I never swore at an actor in my life. I was sworn at many times, though.”
To illustrate, Hathaway recalled the young Lucille Ball (in “Dark Corner”) showing up for work without knowing her lines. An especially elaborate dolly shot had been planned around her dialogue. Hathaway blew up. “Go back to your dressing room,” he thundered. “When you know your lines, come back!”
The lesson wasn’t forgotten. “Twenty years later she walked up to me in a restaurant and said, ‘That was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.’ ”
Hathaway gave the SOB label more thought, then said, “I suppose it’s true. I could be a tyrant ‒ but usually with my film crews when they got noisy or disrespectful. I taught them respect for the actors. I beat it into them.”
Another Hathaway peeve was the “high and mighty” actor who thought he could get the job done without a director. Kim Novak, Hathaway recalled, gave that impression on the set of 1964’s “Of Human Bondage.” Hathaway worked on the film for two days, then walked.
“I remember arriving on the set and seeing Novak sitting at a table. I walked over to her to discuss the day’s scene. She said, ‘Put me on a cushion and put the camera up higher.’ I asked, ‘Aren’t you interested in what I have to say about scenes?’ She said, ‘No.’ That was it. I left. If she didn’t want to listen to me, I didn’t want to do the picture.’ ”
Hathaway relished the memory of a skirmish with Marlene Dietrich. “I can’t remember what the picture was called, but Dietrich was supposed to play a sloppy dame, a plain working girl who runs around in her apron. She showed up looking like a glamor girl. I asked her to get rid of the makeup. When she didn’t, I walked.”
Dietrich later realized she’d been unreasonable. “Get me Mr. Hathaway and we’ll finish the picture,” Hathaway mimicked. “I told her agent, ‘You tell her to go straight to hell! You tell her to shove it!’ The picture was never finished.”
Besides a highlights-from-Hathaway montage, Telluride screened two of the director’s 1930s productions: “To the Last Man,” a surprisingly downbeat Zane Grey adaptation, and “Peter Ibbetson,” a lyrical romantic fantasy some consider Hathaway’s only true classic. The selections, though admittedly obscure, were representative of a filmmaker whose career veered between gritty pseudo-documentaries (“Call Northside 777,” “The House on 92nd Street”) and rambunctious oaters (“North to Alaska,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “Nevada Smith”).
Hathaway’s defenders point to his tenacity and versatility. Frank Capra, a pussycat in comparison, referred to Hathaway as “one of our best ‘get it done’ directors; (he) takes no guff from anyone.” Hathaway’s detractors think of him as a more than competent craftsman who lacked the personal commitment ‒ and thematic stamp ‒ of a Howard Hawks or an Alfred Hitchcock. Hawks called him “the fellow who handles the camera better than anyone, but (he) has never made any particularly great pictures.”
Hathaway’s comeback: “I didn’t want to specialize like Hawks and Hitchcock. I made every kind of picture ‒ family pictures, Westerns, anything. I loved the sudden change in material; I encouraged it. It kept me on my toes.” Also, Hathaway was a pioneer in taking cast and crew on location, the more remote the better. “In the early days, when I made Westerns, I wasn’t allowed to work in the studio, I wasn’t allowed to take up space. Eventually, I came to prefer working outside the studio ‒ in Tripoli (‘Legend of the Lost’) or here in Colorado (‘True Grit’). The reality of being on location, I discovered, brought ingenuity and spontaneity from the actors.”
Above all, Hathaway prided himself on being Cooper’s and Tyrone Powers’ favorite director. His eyes glistened when he recalled how John Wayne, days away from death, called him to the hospital to “shoot the breeze about ‘True Grit.’”
Hathaway described Marilyn Monroe, his ill-fated honeymooner in “Niagara,” as “a great dame” who was “unfairly maligned.” Gary Cooper, his leading man in seven films, was “a gentleman and a beautiful looking man ‒ and a gentleman in adventures as something different.” Robert Duvall, his villain in ‘True Grit,” was “the most obnoxious actor I ever worked with.” Richard Basehart, the suicidal man on the ledge in Hathaway’s highly regarded “Fourteen Hours,” was “a strange boy. He didn’t make friends easily. He sort of lived the part; he looked somebody disturbed.”
Van Johnson, the blind sleuth in Hathaway’s “23 Paces to Baker Street,” remained a close friend, but “he was all wrong for ‘Baker Street.’ We needed a more masculine type for the role.” Glen Campbell, the rookie Texas Ranger in “True Grit,” was a “nice guy but lazy ‒ you’d have to wake him up to go to work.”
When I observed that Monroe was a bit of a tease in “Niagara,” Hathaway smiled mischievously. “You know her sexy walk in that picture? I gave her that walk, that kittenish sway.”
I asked if he had any plans to come out of retirement? His last picture was a 1974 blaxploitation caper called “Hangup” (aka “Super Dude”). “Are you kidding?” he laughed. “I made 66 movies, the early Westerns in seven and eight days. I’ll be 90 in a few years. I’m lucky if I can walk.” As for that last experience behind the camera, “Hangup,” Hathaway had successfully blotted it from memory. I reminded him of it. “Oh, Jesus Christ, that thing! I did it as a favor for a friend. That was a colored picture. It was no good ‒ a lousy story not well acted, not well directed, no well anything.”
Hathaway showed little interest in the new generation of filmmakers. “I don’t go to the movies anymore. I’ve seen so goddamn many. It’s just sort of a task now.”
Furthermore, the more “liberated” movies of the day turned him off. “‘True Grit’ had heroism. It was a fable. The western was the Aesop fable of our day. And we had the nerve to make the star bigger than life, like with Duke and Coop and McQueen … The pictures today go the opposite way: they’re too realistic, with swearing, vulgarity and nakedness. I don’t see them.”
The recipient of a tributes at French festivals in Deauville and Cherbourg, Hathaway had been all but forgotten in the U.S. “No, I haven’t been invited to many of these things,” he said. “But then, they don’t seem to have that many tributes for old directors in this country. What recognition I’ve been getting started with the Paris opening of ‘Peter Ibbetson,’ which, as a period romance, was a big departure for me. It ran for five years in one house in Paris. I guess the French are more romantic.”