Henry Hathaway once said there was a time when he would have welcomed being called an “accomplished technician” or “studio workhorse.” “But the more I think about it, the more I realize it makes me seem to be a genial hack.” Hathaway was indeed an accomplished director, and he worked long and well in the studio system, first at Paramount, then for twenty years at 20th Century Fox. But he was nobody’s hack.
I guess I’ve always been a little over-protective of Henry Hathaway. Several years ago I bought one of those big encyclopedias that claim to tell you “everything you need to know” about American movies (actually, that should’ve tipped me off — the really good ones don’t do that). This one — well, let’s just say it was published under the aegis of a very prestigious group of people. The first thing I did was to turn to the biographical section on directors to see what they said about Hathaway. He wasn’t listed. I scanned back and forth across the pages, just to make sure I wasn’t seeing what I thought I didn’t see. Then I closed the book and never opened it again; when the donation truck came around, into the bin it went.
Whoever compiled that book, I didn’t expect them to admire Hathaway as much as I do — I don’t suppose anyone does that. But I wasn’t going to let them act as if he never existed. Not if they wanted to take up space on my bookshelf.
I first became aware of Hathaway the night I saw How the West Was Won at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. I was just beginning to notice movie directors; I wasn’t one of those film-buff prodigies who could discourse on the Auteur Theory at an age when other kids were reading Fun with Dick and Jane. I knew about Cecil B. DeMille, and Alfred Hitchcock, but everybody knew who they were. And I knew about John Ford, one of the other credited directors on How the West Was Won. George Marshall, the third director, not so much (though I knew about Destry Rides Again, one of his pictures). But Hathaway’s name caught my eye for the simple reason that the program said he was born in Sacramento, where I lived.
Now that I knew his name, I began to notice that Henry Hathaway directed some movies that I’d always loved. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), which I saw on a reissue at the age of eight. North to Alaska (1960). And others that I’d seen on TV in the 1950s and early ’60s: Call Northside 777 (1948), Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), Fourteen Hours and The Desert Fox (both 1951). Others would later make the list: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), True Grit (1969). And, of course, How the West Was Won itself.
Hathaway was born in Sacramento (March 13, 1898), but it wasn’t exactly his home town; it was just where his actress mother happened to be on the point in her tour when his time came. (Traveling theater companies didn’t offer maternity leave in 1898.)
Henry Hathaway may well be the only hereditary Belgian nobleman who ever made it as a Hollywood movie director. His name at birth was Marquis Henri Leopold de Fiennes, a title he inherited through his father. Hathaway said his father’s name was Henry Rhody, but he appears to have been a bit of a theatrical jack of all trades — advance man, stage manager, actor — under the name Rhody Hathaway. Hathaway said his mother’s maiden name was Jean Weil, though other sources say she was born Marquise Lillie de Fiennes in Budapest in 1876. I’m inclined to take her son’s word on this point, but whatever the case, Mom acted under the name Jean Hathaway, and before long little Henri Leopold had taken it too. (Also, Henry’s paternal grandfather was supposed to secure the Hawaiian Islands for Belgium in the 1860s, and settled in San Francisco when the deal fell through. Considering how Belgium later administered its colonial holdings in Africa’s Congo, native Hawaiians might have cause to be grateful that Hathaway’s grandfather failed.)
Jean Hathaway seems to have been no ordinary woman. Only 22 when her son was born, by the time they both entered movies in 1911 or ’12, she had moved into “character parts” — somebody’s mother or aunt or older sister, or a villainess if one was called for. I don’t know how old she is in this picture, but it seems to me she’s more or less the same age as Henry in the picture below, taken on the set of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, when he was 37.
That’s Henry standing on the left, next to Nigel Bruce. (At the table are Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda and Fred Stone.) You can see that Henry certainly took after his mother.
In more ways than one. Rhody Hathaway seems not to have had the theater bug as severely as his wife — it’s never been the most stable career path, and it was downright perilous then. Henry’s father eventually left the biz and got into electronics — a more obviously burgeoning field in the 1910s and ’20s — working on an early x-ray machine. Jean continued to tour, occasionally getting stranded, in those pre-Equity days, when a company would go bankrupt on the road.
When this happened to her in 1911 in San Diego, leaving her broke with no way to get home, she cast about for some kind of job to earn train fare, and landed with the American Film Company in nearby La Mesa. Moviemaking was a footloose operation in those days, grinding out quickie one-reelers for the nickelodeons, but here was steady work in one place, so when she saw that it was going to pan out, she sent for Henry and his sister, who had been living with relatives in San Francisco.
Henry started out as a child actor — usually, he said, playing the kid in the opening scene who grows up to be the leading man. As he grew into his teens, he went to work at Universal, first as a laborer, then a prop man. (His last acting credit was in 1917, just before a short army stint stateside during World War I.) After mustering out of the army, he went back to movies as a prop man at Goldwyn Studios, then Paramount, where he worked as an assistant director throughout the 1920s, learning the craft under men like Josef von Sternberg and Victor Fleming. He graduated into directing in 1933, remaking silent Paramount westerns for sound — only on a lower budget, re-using footage from the silent versions wherever possible. (“I had to have the new leads costumed the same as the silent players.”)
Few directors had a career to compare with Henry Hathaway’s. He literally got in on the ground floor, before there was even a Hollywood as we know it today. He made his first movie in 1911, his last in 1974. He started out digging ditches and lugging equipment, and rose to directing huge projects with the biggest stars in the business. Along the way he pioneered sound, color and narrative Cinerama, the wonder of the age throughout the 1950s.
The performances he got from his actors are nothing to sneeze at either. He made a star of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) and landed an Oscar for John Wayne in True Grit. And Dorothy Lamour, that sweet, ever-befuddled foil for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, never gave a good dramatic performance for any other director, but she did it for Hathaway twice, in Spawn of the North (1938) and Johnny Apollo (1940).
I’ll have more to say about some of Henry Hathaway’s movies later on. For now, take this as an introduction to the man, something to plug the hole in that encyclopedia I mentioned earlier — just in case you happened to buy it from the thrift store I donated it to.