The Making of Howard Hawks ‘Sergeant York’

Todd McCarthy on Howard Hawk's movie "Sergeant York" (1941), the story of Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated soldiers in American history

by Todd McCarthy

It took Hawks no more than a week to land a new film, whereas it had taken its producer nearly twenty-two years to set it up. Sergeant York had been a passion of Jesse Lasky’s ever since he watched from his Fifth Avenue office window on May 22, 1919, as the war hero Alvin York was showered with confetti by the population of New York City; Howard Hawks simply stepped into the breach when his departure from The Outlaw freed him to fill it. Not only was Hawks ready for this inspirational story of a Tennessee mountain man who overcame his religious objections to serve in the army and become famous by capturing 132 German soldiers; with war spreading in Europe, the public was also ready for it. As Helen Buchalter of the Washington Daily News noted the day after the film’s dignitary-studded premiere in the nation’s capital on August 1, 1941, Sergeant York hit the screen “at the precise moment when the American frame of mind is ripe to receive it.” By becoming available at the critical moment, Hawks walked into the biggest hit of his career.

Lasky, of course, had given Hawks his first job in the industry, in the Famous Players–Lasky property department, during the twenty-year-old’s summer vacation from Cornell, and had employed him again at Paramount as a story executive before Hawks became a director. Upon witnessing the extraordinary outpouring of emotion for York in 1919, Lasky had spent the next two days trying to convince York to star in a motion picture version of his life story.

Lasky was not the only showman who tried to make hay from York’s sudden fame. Florenz Ziegfeld had wanted him to team up with Will Rogers in a folksy, inspirational sketch for his stage extravaganza, and Lee Shubert had offered to feature him in a revue. Despite his genuine need for money, York had categorically refused these and all other commercial proposals, stating, “Me, I don’t allow Uncle Sam’s uniform for sale.”

Ten years later, after the arrival of sound films, Lasky once again approached York and was again turned down. Squeezed out of his job at Paramount in 1932, the once great executive soon became a pathetically marginal figure in the industry, losing his house and falling heavily into debt. In the winter of 1939–40, with the outbreak of war in Europe, it occurred to Lasky that he might be able to prey upon York’s patriotic sentiments as a way of finally bringing him around. The producer received no replies to his numerous letters and wires, so in February 1940, Lasky flew to Nashville and made the three-hour drive to Pall Mall, Tennessee, to court the man in person. The recalcitrant York, who had recently opened a modest Bible school, reacted coolly, but at least he didn’t turn his guest down cold—partly because, for the first time, Lasky was not proposing that York play himself on-screen.

When Lasky returned two weeks later with a prepared contract, York wouldn’t sign. Undaunted, Lasky continued to cajole the principled man, and when he came back a third time with a simpler contract, York, citing the need to combat Hitler as the reason, finally signed it, on March 21, 1940, in the old state house in Nashville in the presence of Governor Prentiss Cooper. York would receive fifty thousand dollars and a sliding percentage of the gross starting at 4 percent after the picture grossed three million dollars and growing to 8 percent after nine million dollars, with proceeds going to the York Bible School. Lasky announced that the picture, which would probably be filmed in Technicolor for RKO release, would downplay the war theme and instead be a “document for fundamental Americanism.”

Still in financial straits, Lasky had to borrow in order to pay York the first half of his advance, as well as to wrap up control of three essential York-related properties: Sergeant York And His People, by Sam K. Cowan, Sergeant York: Last of The Long Hunters, by Tom Skeykill, and Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary, edited by Skeykill.

RKO quickly cooled on what executives envisioned would be an expensive production, so Lasky started his hunt for studio backing at the top. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was enthusiastic but, as he had done with David O. Selznick on Gone with the Wind, demanded a heavy price for his participation. Not wishing to lose control and a sizable share of any profits, Lasky weighed his other options, immediately ruling out Paramount, which had dumped him, as well as Universal, 20th Century–Fox, and Columbia, where various personality conflicts existed between him and top executives. With few possibilities left, he went to Warner Bros., where the ultrapatriotic Harry Warner prevailed upon his brother Jack to make the deal. The studio paid Lasky $40,000 for the written material, gave York his second $25,000, and agreed to an $88,500 producer’s salary as well as to paying Lasky 20 percent of the rentals after $1.6 million domestic and $150,000 foreign. After $2.5 million in rentals was reached, Lasky’s share would increase to 25 percent.

Delighted that his perseverance had paid off so handsomely, Lasky returned once more to Tennessee, this time in the company of the writers Harry Chandlee and Julien Josephson. A veteran screenwriter, Chandlee was chosen partly because he had spent part of his youth near the Tennessee-Virginia border and had written a 1915 picture, A Magdalene of the Hills, that evinced knowledge of mountain folk. For ten days, the Hollywood men interviewed locals, scoured back issues of newspapers, and talked with former Governor Roberts of Tennessee, who had performed the Yorks’ wedding ceremony. After exercising “considerable persuasion,” Lasky convinced York to give them a thorough look at the love letters York had written to his sweetheart, Gracie, while overseas. York himself entertained them by staging a down-home turkey shoot before their departure in late April.

Prodded by Warners’ and Lasky’s desire to begin production before year’s end, Chandlee and Abem Finkel, who replaced Josephson, handed in a 105-page, scene-by-scene treatment in mid-July. Studio enthusiasm for York was high; Robert Buckner, an intelligent writer and valued story editor, advised production chief Hal Wallis that the film could emerge as a Mr. Deeds Goes to War. Implicit in this view of the project was the expectation that Gary Cooper would play the lead. Cooper was the only actor Lasky could envision in the role, but landing him posed a major problem. Cooper was under contract to Sam Goldwyn, Lasky’s former brother-in-law, and the two men had been on bad terms for twenty-five years, since Lasky had pushed Goldwyn, then Samuel Goldfish, his treasurer and film salesman, out of his company. Furthermore, Goldwyn had just loaned Cooper to Warner Bros. for Meet John Doe, and Jack Warner was certain he wouldn’t be able to get him a second time, as he was then ranked as the number-five box-office name in America, after Gable, Garbo, Deanna Durbin, and Errol Flynn. Goldwyn, however, coveted Warners’ biggest star, Bette Davis, for his upcoming adaptation of The Little Foxes. Warner made it a policy never to loan Davis out, but he made his one and only exception in this case, and the two players were exchanged in a direct swap.

Unexpectedly, Cooper himself was against it. Approaching his fortieth birthday, he was wary of playing a famous and younger man (York was thirty-one at the time of his exploits) and was frankly scared of the demands the role would make on him. “In screen biographies,” the actor opined, “dealin’ with remote historical characters, some romantic leeway is okay. But York’s alive and I don’t think I can do justice to him. He’s too big for me … he covers too much territory.” Throwing a monkey wrench into their plans, he gave Warner Bros. and Lasky a flat “no” when first approached. Lasky kept working on him, however, and in August brought York to Hollywood for a brief visit to meet the actor, during which they spoke of virtually nothing but hunting. To generate publicity, Lasky variously announced that Cooper was the only movie star York liked or even knew about and that one of the conditions of his deal was that Cooper play him (the two looked not at all alike, and York sported a trim little moustache). Cooper began to weaken, later saying, “What got me to change my mind was York, who wanted me to do the picture. Even then I wasn’t convinced. When we met I realized we had a few things in common. We were both raised in the mountains—Tennessee for him, Montana for me—and we learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growin’ up.”

Warner Bros. announced Cooper for the lead in September. But still without a director or final script, the studio privately hedged its bets, considering both James Stewart and Henry Fonda, although neither was under contract to the studio; as late as November 15, Ronald Reagan did a screen test for the role.

A great deal of similar skirmishing went on concerning the appropriate director. In August, Lasky approached Goldwyn’s top director, William Wyler, but he was in New York preparing for The Little Foxes and, while claiming interest, begged off until he could see a finished screenplay. Wallis’s first choice was Victor Fleming, but he was already preparing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at MGM. Henry Hathaway was tied up at Paramount, Henry Koster had obligations at Universal, and after giving consideration to Norman Taurog and Henry King, Jack Warner personally wooed King Vidor in November, to no avail.

The hoped-for December 2 start date had come and gone when Lasky learned that Hawks was out of a job and available. Wallis, who had happily avoided working with Hawks in the five years since Ceiling Zero, reluctantly agreed to allow Lasky to offer the script to the director, principally because he knew that Hawks’s participation would virtually guarantee the willing cooperation of Gary Cooper, who was still hemming and hawing despite his commitment to the project. The initial problem, however, was that Hawks found the Chandlee-Finkel script “bad.” In his self-serving account of his initial meeting with Lasky, Hawks claimed to have told the producer, “Look, close your door, and tell the secretary no calls, and tell me why the hell you bought this story.” Lasky proceeded to relate the drama he wished to film, something Hawks found at total variance with the screenplay he had read. “Jesse,” Hawks said, “I’ll make the picture if it’s O.K. with you that I just do the story you told me.” Startled, Lasky immediately agreed.

The way Hawks always told it, he also promised to deliver Gary Cooper, even though, by this point, the star would have had serious problems backing out of his agreement. The story is worth relating, however, in that it illustrates both Hawks’s egocentrism and his obsession with getting the upper hand over studio executives in general, and Hal Wallis in particular. Hawks said, “I called Cooper, and I said, ‘I just talked to Lasky. Didn’t he give you your first job?’ Coop said yes. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘he’s broke, he’s got the shakes, he needs a shave, and he’s got a story that I don’t think would hurt you to do, or me.’ He said, ‘I’ll come over and talk to you.’ And he came over, and he said, ‘Where’s that new gun of yours?’ He didn’t want to talk about anything. Finally I said, ‘Look, Coop, we have to talk about this.’ He said, ‘What the hell is there to talk about? You know we’re gonna do it.’ So I said, ‘Well, come with me, and if I say “Isn’t that right, Mr. Cooper,” you say, “Yup.” So we went over and saw Hal Wallis, and I said, ‘We’ll do the picture for you if you stay out of our way and don’t interfere at all. Isn’t that right, Mr. Cooper?’ ‘Yup.’ ‘We’re gonna change the plot, the story around. Isn’t that right, Mr. Cooper?’ ‘Yup.’ ‘I’m gonna use Johnny Huston as a writer.’ Well, they had to say yes, and we started to work on it.”

Hawks’s deal, dated December 16, paid him $85,000 for twelve weeks’ work; with overages, he ended up receiving nearly $110,000 for directing Sergeant York. The picture was also to be billed as “A Howard Hawks Production,” even though Lasky and Wallis would be the producers of record, and Hawks demanded extra time to prepare a new script. To this end, he recruited thirty-four-year-old John Huston, who was then a fast-rising fair-haired boy among Warner Bros. screenwriters. Hawks had had a passing acquaintance with him since directing his father, Walter, on The Criminal Code and was pleased when Wallis teamed him with Howard Koch, the writer of the legendary Orson Welles radio broadcast The War Of The Worlds who had made a strong impression with his scripts for The Sea Hawk and The Letter in his first year in Hollywood. Working practically round-the-clock, including weekends, through Christmas and the New Year, the two writers delivered eighty-three pages of the rewrite by the end of the first week of January 1941, less than a month before the new start date of February 3.

Embittered over having been taken off the picture, writer Abem Finkel got hold of the new draft and fired off a nine-page memo to Wallis in which he attacked what was being done to his and Chandlee’s work: “I have, of course, long since despaired of protecting the script from the blundering stupidities of Messrs. Cooper, Hawks, Huston and Koch.” Finkel complained that the simple Tennessee mountain folk were being changed into “background color … for laughs,” that York was being shown drinking when he had actually quit in 1914, that it was now made to appear as if Gracie “came on” to York, and that Pastor Pile was being turned into a “hell and brimstone shoutin’ preacher” when, in fact, he had written to President Wilson defending York’s conscientious-objector status. “It is my considered opinion,” he wrote, “that you must be on your guard against any ‘bright idea’ on the part of Messrs. Hawks, Huston or Koch if you would avoid a helluva mess.”

Hawks never actually met York, but he sent him dozens of questions and received the answers on Dictaphone recordings. Overall he remained concerned about making such an extraordinary story—the only ostensibly biographical one he would ever attempt—believable to audiences. Alvin Cullom York was one of eleven children in a family of farmers in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. A blacksmith, hell-raiser, and acknowledged great shot, York was hired as a young man by Rosier Pile, the pastor of the Church of Christ and Christian Union and, after he “got religion,” became an active church leader. At age twenty-eight, he fell in love with a fifteen-year-old neighbor, Gracie Williams, but her parents vigorously disapproved of the match. Two years later, York, along with every other available young man, was drafted into the army. Though he objected on the basis of his religious convictions, he finally had little choice but to report to Camp Gordon in Georgia. During basic training, Captain C. E. B. Danforth, impressed with York’s sincerity, allowed him to go home for two weeks to decide whether or not he could fight, and York actually did spend a day and a night on a mountain wrestling with his dilemma. Returning to Georgia, York was assigned to Company G of the Second Battalion, 328th Infantry, a part of the 82nd Division, which was dubbed the “All-American Division” due to its thorough mixture of men from all parts of the country. The company became part of the first American army offensive, the St. Michel drive. With York now a corporal, it moved to the Argonne Forest, where it was under fire for a record twenty-six days.

The incident that made York famous took place near Chatel-Chehery on October 8, 1918. York’s battalion, on its way toward a railroad behind German lines, suddenly found itself in the midst of machine-gun cross fire in a shallow valley. Sergeant Bernard Early and sixteen men managed to capture one group of German gunners, but an intense barrage from guns on an adjacent ridge killed six soldiers and seriously wounded three more, including Early. The others scrambled for cover, but York, finding himself exposed, used his sharpshooting talents to kill some twenty-five German gunners. A German major, evidently fearing that his entire force would be destroyed, whistled his surrender, whereupon York and seven other soldiers guided their prisoners through two German lines, collecting additional prisoners as they went. When it was all over, 132 German prisoners, including several officers, had been captured, and the action succeeded in the objective of taking the railroad.

After being decorated by France and Italy, York received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor and was received as a conquering hero. When he returned to Tennessee, however, he found that his fame made no difference to Gracie’s parents, but he married the girl anyway. The only fees he accepted came from appearances on the lecture circuit, and he poured all the money into aiding an impoverished local school.

A nation’s need for heroes and the government’s propaganda machine may have been responsible for exaggerating York’s role somewhat and creating the impression that he had done it all singlehandedly; the man’s awareness of this, as well as his innate modesty, was undoubtedly responsible for his shunning the spotlight at the time. Nevertheless, there were those who persisted in questioning, and even denying, York’s heroism. In his memo to Wallis, Abem Finkel cautioned Warner Bros. against using Corporal William S. Cutting as a possible technical director on the film. “Cutting is the guy who claims York hogged all the credit unjustifiably.… He also insists that it was he, not York, that brought the prisoners back and that York pulled a fast one on him by bringing in these prisoners while Cutting was asleep in a shell hole.” York, Finkel pointed out, always admitted that he hadn’t done it alone.

As it happened, Cutting had already written to Lasky claiming that he and five other men had played a major part in the exploit and that York’s role had always been vastly overemphasized. Warners paid Cutting off with $250, but this started a ball rolling that threatened not to stop. The studio discovered that to tell the tale properly, some thirty-five to forty individuals would have to be paid to sign releases agreeing to their depiction in the film. The size of these payments proved to be highly inconsistent. Some men were satisfied with as little as five dollars, but Captain C. E. B. Danforth, for one, demanded and received fifteen hundred dollars. The inequity of the sums eventually made its way into the press, as did further attacks on York’s character. For example, an unsigned letter printed in the Boston Globe at the time of the picture’s release, written by a man who claimed to have been in York’s unit, maintained that York was “yellow.… We recall one morning as we were to go ‘over the top,’ York went stark mad with fear. He jumped up on top of the parapet and started to holler, ‘I want to go home. For God’s sake why isn’t this war over.’ Sgt. Early said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll blow your brains out.’”

Whatever the truth, Hawks was mainly interested in making it all palatable dramatically. He began by coming up with the idea of the Tennessee turkey shoot and reapplying the motif in the battlefield when York picks off the German gunners. Searching for turkeys, York would gobble, a bird would stick its head up, and York would shoot it. “So in the war,” Hawks said, “he was looking down a line of German trenches—the Germans were all hidden—and we had him gobble, and they’d stick their heads out, and he’d shoot one of them. Well, the audience was amused by that and didn’t take it too seriously. So he got eighty prisoners that way and marched along and when he came to a bunch of Americans he wanted to get rid of them, but they didn’t want to take them, so he had to keep on going. That way we really had fun with it and the illogical quality was overlooked.” Hawks also claimed that he and Cooper came up with the idea of York’s licking his finger and wetting the rifle sight before taking aim, which became another well-remembered bit of business from the film.

Huston operated under the conviction that the film’s version of York’s heroics was very close to the truth. He was also taken with the notion of York as a reformed drunk who rationalized killing by convincing himself that his actions saved lives on balance. “I spoke with York on numerous occasions and he told me—and this is the fascinating part—that he was convinced that if he did it, he would save hundreds of human lives. He said, ‘If I destroy this machine gun, I’ll save thousands of people.’ He thoroughly believed it when we spoke about it.

“York was a very amusing fellow, and I tried to put this across in the film,” Huston testified. “I tried to show his comic side. And dramatically, he was a terrific character. I don’t believe that the film delivers a terribly profound and relevant message.… We weren’t trying to make All Quiet on the Western Front. That was a film which set out to show the First World War in all its horror, all the better to shock the viewer so that he won’t repeat it.… We chose to tell the story of a man, a particular case. It’s completely infantile and absurd to want to try to find an overall moral in it. I believe that Hawks, who is a great director, is a reactionary man, at least in his life. But you don’t feel this in the films he makes, nor when you work with him.”

Certainly, levity ended up being more important to the finished film than any commentary about the futility of war, a distinct contrast to Hawks’s previous World War I films, The Dawn Patrol, Today We Live, and The Road to Glory. With the need to take up arms again becoming increasingly apparent, the mood had changed since Hawks made those pictures, and the patriotic impulse that had originally engaged Lasky and the brothers Warner easily prevailed over Hawks’s own pessimism and the liberal-left politics of both Huston and Koch.

With one exception, the casting fell nicely into place. Walter Brennan, also on loan from Goldwyn, was a natural choice for Pastor Pile, although shortly after shooting began, Wallis demanded that the actor’s makeup be changed because his huge, bushy black eyebrows made him look “very much like Groucho Marx.” Brennan had been with the 101st Field Artillery in World War I and had seen action near the site of York’s exploit.

Margaret Wycherly, whom Hawks found “a superb actress,” played the important part of York’s mother but ultimately found herself with hardly any lines to say. “As we were rehearsing,” Hawks remembered, “I told her to cut out a line. ‘Oh, that’s one of my best,’ she said. Well, we played the scene and I told her to cut out a couple more lines and pretty soon she said, ‘I’m not going to have any thing to say.’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea—let’s just play it without your saying anything.’ And it made a much better scene. As he went away, his sister says, ‘Why is he going, Mom?’ and the mother says, ‘I don’t rightly know.’ They didn’t know, and he didn’t know. They were going off to war, and I thought it was best not to take sides in the argument.” The fifteen-year-old actor Dick Moore, who played York’s younger brother George, remembered things rather differently. “Margaret Wycherly was a pain in the ass,” he said. “She had a superior New York theater attitude. She was kind of a joke on the set. She was very grand.”

The only role that posed any casting problems was that of York’s sweetheart, Gracie Williams. When Hawks and Howard Hughes parted ways on The Outlaw, Hawks had relinquished any financial participation in the picture, with the proviso that he could borrow Jane Russell anytime he wanted. Having liked Russell a great deal but not gotten to work with her, Hawks tested her for Gracie the first week of January, and both he and Lasky were happy with the result. Wallis, who was leaving for Washington, D.C., to attend FDR’s third inauguration, wasn’t convinced. “I agree with you that Jane Russell is very attractive, but I hardly think she is the type for Sergeant York. She doesn’t look like the simple, backwoods country girl to me.” Familiar with Hawks’s taste for provocative, knowingly sexy young women, Wallis was troubled by the director’s inclinations in casting this part and warned him that “any attempt to try to make her a sultry, sexy, wild creature that might be played by Paulette Goddard will, I am sure, meet with violent objections from the Yorks.” Wallis added that Jack Warner had voiced similar concerns. Wallis then argued in favor of another young actress Hawks tested, Suzanne Carnahan, but finally Hawks tried out an attractive, coquettish sixteen-year-old, Joan Leslie, and cast her just before shooting began. June Lockhart, a year younger than Leslie (and twenty-five years younger than Cooper), won the role of York’s sister.

With an initial budget of $1 million and a shooting schedule of forty-eight days, Sergeant York began production on February 3. That morning, Cooper received telegrams from York, General John J. Pershing, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who had been the congressman from York’s district in Tennessee and was being portrayed in the picture by Charles Trowbridge; Lasky informed Wallis that these wires “pepped Gary up enormously.” At the end of the day, unit manager Eric Stacey, the studio’s watch-dog on the production, related to management that the star had been a half hour late in showing up in the morning, “which is nothing unusual for Cooper, I can assure you.” He also reminded Wallis of Hawks’s leisurely work habits, which had always annoyed the production chief. “Mr. Hawks has been in the habit of providing tea and cake for his staff every day. This was done today, and much appreciated, and I can honestly say that no time was lost by so doing.”

Hawks would later claim, “We had no trouble at all—we just sailed through the picture.” From his point of view this was undoubtedly true, but the studio, at the time, saw things differently. Hawks spent the first five days filming on the Blind Tiger Café set and at the end of the first six-day work week was already four days behind schedule. As usual, Hawks was taking his time, letting the actors get a feel for their roles and ease into the picture.

Dick Moore, who played York’s younger brother, had appeared in more than one hundred pictures since he was eleven years old, but he still felt insecure as an actor. In the café scene, in which he comes to take a drunken Alvin home to their mother, Moore felt stiff and uptight standing there patiently with his rifle. “Hawks sense of how to get the best out of me, and to make me comfortable, was uncanny,” Moore said. “At one point in the scene, I smiled, accidentally. He said, ‘Very good, we’ll try another one.’ But he took me aside and said, ‘Everything you’re doing is good, but at no time in this entire picture does George have to smile. Don’t think you have to. Only when you feel like it.’ So I totally relaxed. How he sensed that I’ll never know.” With Sergeant York, Moore’s whole attitude about acting changed. “The thing I admired about Hawks was the sense of freedom he instilled in me.… He was a very subtle director, he would just give suggestions. He was courtly, gracious, and treated his actors with respect, even diffidence.” Gary Cooper took the teenager under his wing, teaching him how to throw a knife and talking Moore’s mother into buying him his first rifle. “I became an outdoors person because of my experiences on that picture,” Moore said.

The following Monday, Lasky went to see Warner and Wallis to request a ten-week shooting schedule. While filming was getting under way, the art director, John Hughes, was supervising construction of the 123 sets required for the picture, including an enormous farmland and mountain set on a revolving merry-go-round base (to allow for different perspectives), with a two-hundred-foot stream and 121 trees. Because of the high ratio of settings to the number of sound stages available, throughout the shoot the art department was forced to wait for the company to finish with one set before demolishing it and quickly building the next; both the rewriting and the scene construction on Sergeant York barely kept up with the pace of shooting during the initial weeks. This merely contributed to an enormous squeeze at the studio as a whole; by March, production at Warner Bros. reached an all-time high, with 5,030 people on the payroll working on eight pictures on twenty-two stages.

During the second week of shooting, Hawks received a memo from Wallis gently insisting that he speed up his work pace, the sort of missive that had become irritatingly familiar to him during Ceiling Zero. With the picture a week behind schedule after only two weeks of filming, a meeting was held to weigh solutions. The main problem was that the script was composed of many short scenes requiring a great deal of set-up time, but for economy’s sake it was decided to eliminate two major sequences from the end of the picture—a big wedding scene and the spectacle of York’s reception in New York City.

Hawks’s rapport with his cast and crew was excellent, and the director was very happy with the way things were proceeding, except for the front-office pressure. He objected to the fact that the picture was still officially listed as being six days behind schedule when, in fact, the studio had agreed to Lasky’s request for an extended schedule. Furthermore, certain factors were out of his control. Joan Leslie, for instance, was forbidden to work past 6 P.M. because of her age. On more than one occasion, work at the Warners’ ranch had been scheduled, but heavy rains had forced last-minute rescheduling onto interior sets that were not entirely ready. Uncooperative dogs and mules held up filming of certain scenes: while Hawks was getting what he needed for most shoots with an average of between one and three takes, what should have been a simple dialogue exchange between Cooper and Erville Alderson became a twelve-take farce when a mule, which was supposed to stand still, kept moving around. Finally, the scene had to be re-staged so that the animal’s newly bound front feet couldn’t be seen by the camera.

At the same time, it didn’t escape the attention of Stacey, the unit manager and Wallis that Hawks was up to his old trick of writing new dialogue on the spur of the moment. As Stacey told his boss in explanation of a very late start one day, “I noticed both the actors had yellow pages and the dialogue had been rewritten.”

As usual, Warner and Wallis were not welcome on the set, but Hawks was not about to banish his old mentor Jesse Lasky from the stage. All the same, the director wasn’t afraid to let his producer know when his presence was unhelpful. When Hawks was trying to figure out how to stage a scene of York plowing the field, Lasky was standing right behind him with a guest. Dick Moore recalled that Lasky whispered something to his companion, whereupon Hawks announced to the room, “They called for quiet on the stage.” Lasky promptly turned and left the set with his guest.

The fourth week of shooting started out to be notably difficult. Hawks came down with a very bad cold and requested that the scheduled exterior location work be postponed so he could stay indoors. This put his less-than-ideal relationship with the art director, Hughes, on the spot; feeling that the indoor-for-outdoor sets on which Cooper was to be seen plowing looked phony, Hawks demanded that they be changed and announced that he wanted to play the scene at night, with the “character silhouetted in a night sky and with no trees.” He also had words with Wallis’s spy Stacey, who instantly reported to his boss that “Mr. Hawks made a very sarcastic crack—something about shooting a schedule and not making any picture.”

Hawks suffered through the week. He had Lasky, Huston, and Koch come on the set one day to rewrite the scene in which the mountain men register for the draft. The following day, he patiently waited as bit player Frank Orth kept blowing his few lines, requiring sixteen takes of one shot and thirteen of another. The last day of the week, however, proved the most productive of the entire shoot to date; having averaged fewer than two pages of script per day up to that point, Hawks sped right through four and a half pages of dialogue in Pastor Pile’s store, ending the week with a burst of enthusiasm.

The following week, Hawks was feeling better, but the cinematographer, Sol Polito, fell ill and was replaced, mainly for the big meeting-hall sequence in which York “gets religion,” by Arthur Edeson, who had shot Ceiling Zero for Hawks and would soon handle the camera on the outdoor war scenes. That week, after constant pressure from Lasky, Warners finally upped the production from a forty-eight to a seventy-two-day shoot, or more than double the average for an A picture at the studio. “Physical construction” problems were officially blamed for the previous delays, but this didn’t stop Wallis from continuing to complain to Hawks, not only about what he considered the director’s slack working methods but also about the pacing of the scenes, which he felt was on the dull, slow side.

At the same time, Wallis and Warner secretly began planning to assign a second-unit director to simultaneously shoot all the war footage, feeling that it would take Hawks forever to get around to it and another eternity to finish it. Hawks knew, of course, that some second-unit material would be used, but he was upset when the studio suddenly announced that stunt, action, and B-movie director B. Reeves Eason, nicknamed “Breezy” for his quick—some would say slipshod—shooting style, had been personally chosen by Lasky to direct the second unit. Hawks told his old boss, “I think we are making a great mistake to put a man on the second-unit work who is not a dramatic director,” but he had little choice but to acquiesce.

At about the same time, in early March, an important budget meeting among the principals was called by the studio. Tired of being blamed for all the overages, Hawks told Warner and Wallis that he had sometimes been made to wait on the set for Lasky to deliver new pages of the script to him; he also insisted that the screenplay contained more material than could ever be used in the finished film. Lasky maintained that everything included was necessary. On March 10–11, Hawks astonished the studio by knocking out an uncustomary forty-four setups in making the turkey-shoot sequence; at the end of the second day, he had a tête-à-tête with Wallis in the director’s station wagon and received permission to keep Huston and Koch on to rewrite the final portion of the script, which still bothered him.

Work proceeded efficiently through the rest of March, and when the scenarists finally finished their rewrites, Lasky felt compelled to send a note to Wallis: “I do not want to let the occasion pass without expressing to you my feelings about these two splendid boys. In spite of pressure, they maintained an enthusiasm for the work that I am sure will be reflected on the screen.” Wallis kept any comments about Hawks to himself from this point on, and as of April, only the weather could be blamed for the mounting delays. Breezy Eason no sooner arrived on location in the Santa Susanna Mountains, where two miles of trenches had been dug, than he was greeted with more than a week of torrential rain. Several of Hawks’s scenes, including the fox hunt, had already been switched from exteriors to interiors because of both his illness and inclement weather, resulting in a more studio-enclosed picture than he originally intended, but Eason had no alternative but to wait it out. Showing Breezy up, Hawks even completed the long sequence in the G Company barracks in two, rather than the allotted three, days, although he was then tripped up when Cooper couldn’t shoot for several days because of health problems.

With a June release planned, Wallis personally took charge of the fine cutting of the first seven to eight thousand feet of the picture, up through the training-camp sequences. Hawks finally moved out of the studio onto San Fernando Valley locations at the Warner Ranch and Sherwood Forest, where the first thing he did was to have a shooting range set up so he and Cooper could indulge in target practice every day at lunch. Hawks put himself back on schedule with the grand accomplishment of finishing the firing-range scene, a seven-page sequence featuring Cooper and seventy-eight extras, in one day, which prompted the skeptical Stacey to tell Wallis, “Hawks is very consistent in making good speed on long sequences … after he has gotten the whole thing worked out.” In fact, Wallis’s concern was shifting to Eason; he complained, “I can’t seem to make much out of Eason’s dailies,” and, deciding that Eason’s scenes lacked scope, he attempted to solve the problem by sending him 250 more extras.

Although stars of his magnitude normally were not required to take orders from second-unit directors, Cooper worked for about three days with Eason, mainly in long shots during battle while surrounded by dozens of extras at a time when Hawks was doing scenes set in the German headquarters. On April 26 and 28 the two units merged, with Hawks taking over and restaging aspects of the battle. With this done but the picture not yet entirely finished, Hawks announced that he was leaving on May 1 to attend the Kentucky Derby. Given no notice at all, Warner called in the contract director Vincent Sherman to cover the final sequences. On April 30, Hawks rehearsed them in Sherman’s presence, with particular attention to the scene in which York is decorated, and Sherman executed them according to Hawks’s plan the following day. Sherman recalled that Hawks instructed him, “‘Feature the people who are doing the decorating. We’ve seen enough of Coop.’ Seeing the picture later, he was right. He had an uncanny sense of story, of what was important in a scene.” Eason shot two more days of the trenches and the German machine-gun nests, and filming of Sergeant York finally wrapped on Saturday, May 3, after seventy days of actual shooting, two days under the final allotted schedule. Weather had limited Eason to twenty days of filming on a thirty-three-day schedule. The studio also announced that Cooper had appeared before the cameras for fifty-four straight days, excepting Sundays and sick days, a record for any star. The final budget, including a 39 percent studio overhead, came to $1.6 million.

With Hawks out of town and the premiere less than two months away, Wallis continued to supervise the cutting and scoring of the picture with the film’s editor, William Holmes, and composer, Max Steiner, just as the publicity department geared up for a media onslaught of mammoth proportions. The first public preview, in a 150-minute cut without any war montages, was held on June 16, and York was duly wired that it had been a great success. After one more preview, the final print, running 134 minutes, was sped to New York in time for the July 1 world premiere. The day before, York was met at Penn Station by Cooper and numerous dignitaries, and a marching band accompanied them in a parade up Fifth Avenue to 82nd Division headquarters, where a motorcade awaited to transport them to a reception at City Hall with Mayor La Guardia. Making no secret of its enthusiasm for the picture’s combat-ready attitude, the government sent a special train from the nation’s capital carrying Mrs. Roosevelt, General Pershing, Wendell Wilkie, and several senators and congressmen. York and Cooper attended the invitational debut along with members of the 82nd “All-American” Division and Generals Pershing, Hugh Drum, and Lewis B. Hershey. York made a dozen patriotic speeches, which were picked up by the national wire services, and Broadway was blacked out for thirty seconds at midnight on June 30–July 1 to dramatize the illumination of the Sergeant York sign at the Astor Theater, where the film opened with a top ticket price of $2.20 on a two show per-day road-show basis, with more shows added due to the demand. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale enthusiastically endorsed the picture, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek requested and received a print to show to his troops in China. To top off the dream come true of any publicity department, FDR himself saw the film, said he was “thrilled” by it, and invited York to the White House.

The critical reaction to Sergeant York was so unanimous that it is difficult to find a single negative or even lukewarm review from the time of its release. Sensitive to the film’s manipulative, propagandistic nature or not, all the critics commented upon its remarkable timeliness and generally greeted it as a new American classic, the most important film to have come out since Gone with the Wind nearly two years before. Everyone rhapsodized about Cooper, and Lasky’s name was often mentioned in the context of a magnificent comeback and career capper.

Despite his prominent billing, however, only seldom was Hawks given much credit for the picture’s success, other than to say that he did a fine or highly professional job. By contrast, when Frank Capra had taken Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the capital for its premiere in 1939, the director was the center of attention. Sergeant York’s director, however, was nowhere to be found at its opening. On the eve of the greatest critical and popular success of his career, Hawks was back home in Beverly Hills, sporting with Slim, housebreaking the two eighty-five-pound English mastiff pups he had just bought, and preparing to start Ball of Fire in a month’s time.

Warner Bros. played off Sergeant York very slowly, milking its extraordinary timeliness for all it was worth. After playing in exclusive runs at inflated prices in major cities past Labor Day, the picture gradually spread into other markets until it entrenched itself as the number-one film in the country throughout the fall, breaking box-office records in many markets. The film was a phenomenon of staggering proportions, and its reputation was enhanced even further by the role it played in helping to quell the braying of some virulently right-wing politicians in Washington. Incensed by what they viewed as Hollywood’s role as self-appointed cheerleader for joining the war, isolationists and America Firsters in the Senate launched some loudly publicized hearings before an interstate commerce subcommittee on September 9. The subject was the allegedly insidious content of Hollywood movies, particularly the “warmongering” dramas that dared to suggest that the Nazis represented a threat, that Americans ought to extend a helping hand to Britain and perhaps prepare the join in the battle themselves. As always, attacking the film industry made for headlines, but when Sergeant York began building in popularity, editorial writers all over the nation began using the film as a club to demolish the Capitol Hill reactionaries, stating that the filmed biography of a religious pacifist’s conversion to a war’s righteousness represented “the full and complete answer” to the senators’ rants. By late October, the hearings fizzled out.

Thrilled with the gold mine Jesse Lasky had brought them, Warner Bros. executives were nonetheless upset at the hefty percentages they were contractually forced to pay the producer; once the picture passed $1.6 million in rentals (the amount returned to the distributor from the total box-office gross), Lasky got twenty cents of every dollar. The studio tried different strategies to hold on to more money, such as offering to buy back points, delaying payments inordinately, and pleading that since the foreign market had become so limited due to the war, Lasky ought to understand and give up his share of overseas revenue. Lasky’s contract had no loopholes, however, and the sixty-one-year-old producer crowned his career by making $2 million on the film, which ultimately returned $6 million in rentals from the domestic release alone, making it the third biggest box-office attraction in film history, after Gone with the Wind, which then stood at $18 million, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had earned $7.15 million to that point (in 1941, a film was generally considered a hit if it returned $1 million to the studio). Cooper, who also had Meet John Doe and The Westerner out that year, was declared the number-one box-office draw in America, while Variety ranked Hawks as the industry’s number-three “money director” on the basis of this one film, following Arthur Lubin, who directed three popular Abbott and Costello comedies that year, and the late Victor Schertzinger, who was also responsible for three successful releases before his sudden death. After the United States entered the war, the picture experienced another surge of publicity as countless news stories told of men, including two ministers, withdrawing previously stated objections to combat duty and enlisting after being inspired by the picture.

Not surprisingly, Sergeant York was nominated for a dozen Academy Awards. Although Citizen Kane was a prime contender in most categories, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley won the top Oscars, for best picture and director. The only York wins went to the editor, William Holmes, and to Cooper, who had won the New York Film Critics award for best actor and accepted his first Oscar from James Stewart, who was already in the Army Air Corps, having been the first major film star to enter the military. Cooper closed out his brief Oscar speech by saying, “It was Sergeant Alvin York who won this award. Because to the best of my ability, I tried to be Sergeant York.” Hawks received his only Oscar nomination for the film. Years later, when they were old in Palm Springs, John Ford, who won four Academy Awards for direction over the years, would rib Hawks about how he, Ford, had beaten him out of the Oscar undeservingly.

Hawks finally received a honorary career Oscar in 1975, but before that he always claimed it didn’t bother him that he hadn’t won. “I don’t think much of some of the pictures that have won, so I don’t think it would mean much to me.… It hasn’t anything to do with the fact that I didn’t ever get one myself.… And I listened to too many speeches of acceptance that would have made a good comedy.” Lasky was undoubtedly more disappointed than Hawks at not going home with a statuette, but he was full of plans and projects and surrounded by people who suddenly wanted to work with him again. The producer announced that his next project would be a history of the Boy Scouts, and adding that he and Hawks would work together again on another biographical venture, The Adventures of Mark Twain. Neither film happened as planned, and although he produced several more pictures through the 1940s, he was in debt again in the years before his death in 1958.

That Sergeant York is not now ranked among Hawks’s most enduring or admired films is a result of several factors, including its very success at the time of its release, its historical timeliness and consequent datedness, and its folksiness, visual phoniness, and propagandistic nature. None of the copious post-1950s critical analyses of Hawks’s career devotes much attention to the film; with its rigidly set story, preordained ideological and political intent, origins as a producer’s project, heavy studio feel, and focus on the inner journey of an individual rather than the actions of a group, Sergeant York has generally been dismissed by students of Hawks as atypical of his work in general, a more conventional Hollywood product than was his norm. Citing how unusual it was for a Hawks film to deal explicitly with major moral, religious, and patriotic issues, Robin Wood argued that “it is precisely these factors that work consistently against the film’s artistic success. One feels Hawks continually hampered by having to ‘stick to the facts’; an intuitive artist, he is ill-equipped to handle big issues on any but a superficial level.”

Looked at today, the skill that went into the film still appears impressive and Cooper remains remarkable, but the film does suffer in comparison to Hawks’s best work in that it seems not only conventional but unsurprising. Much of the humor is genuinely earned, and Hawks’s one audacious invention, the turkey gobbling, clinches the picture with comedy at its dramatic high point; on one hand, the device is inspired, while on the other, it under-cuts any serious consideration of York’s pacificistic inclinations or qualms about killing. More than on any of his other films, Hawks had considerable real-life material and predetermined attitudes he was forced to accomodate on Sergeant York, and so had less room in which to maneuver to his own liking. But while the film was not viewed as a personal triumph for Hawks, it greatly enhanced his standing in the industry and took him less than half a year to complete, start to finish.

From: Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks. The Grey Fox of Hollywood


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