In Joseph McBride's indespensible Hawks on Hawks, its subject, Howard, reflects on the narrative function of what McBride calls "the old man character" in Hawks' westerns, the most famous of which is quite probably Walter Brennan's extremely ornery Stumpy in 1959's Rio Bravo. "I think it's a way of telling the story, telling the plot. They tell it in an interesting way. You're not conscious that you're getting the plot; you're being amused by him." No fool, Hawks—he knew what Shakespeare knew about so-called fools, and how they could amuse while also putting forward necessary (but often dreary) expository stuff.
We think of Hawks as a great story-teller, and he was, but there's another side of him, a side exemplified by an anecdote related to me recently by the above-mentioned Mr. Szabo (which he cited by way of explaining some of Godard's inspiration for Made In USA) and also found in George Eel's biography of Robert Mitchum: "Hawks approached [Mitchum] about costarring with John Wayne in El Dorado...[Mitchum] inquired what the story was. 'Story? There's no story,' he later claimed Hawks replied. 'You and Duke play two old cowboys.'" Other versions of the anecdote have Hawks saying, "No story, just characters," but you get the idea. In any case, while Rio Bravo's Stumpy serves an exemplary narrative function while utterly delighting us, Hawks' casting and subsequent use of Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity in 1935's Barbary Coast—the first of the six collaborations between the actor and the director—show the "no story, just characters" ethos at work.
"I think Walter Brennan was the greatest example of a personality I ever used," Hawks told McBride. Brennan was 40, an "extra man" on various Hollywood lots, when he was brought to Hawks by a production man for consideration for a small part in Barbary Coast, a Ben Hecht—Charles MacArthur-penned tale of Gold-Rush-era San Francisco. According to Todd McCarthy's biography of Hawks, the director burst out laughing at the mere sight of the lanky, and more grizzled than his actual years ought to have indicated, Brennan. What closed the deal was when Hawks asked him to read some lines.
"With or without?" the actor asked.
"With or without what?" Hawks asked.
And so Brennan won the part of "Old Atrocity," whose narrative function is...a mess. "He was supposed to work three days, and I kept him around a month," Hawks told McBride. In the finished film, we first see him piloting a rowboat, one of a swarm of them, buzzing around a ship from New York that can't navigate through the thick San Francisco fog to get to the dock. It's New Year's Eve, and from his rowboat, looking up at the ship's prow, Brennan's Atrocity spies a very unusual sight. "Sufferin' snakes! A white woman!"
He is not quite so impressed, however, that he doesn't demand a $50 fee from said white woman Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins) and pompous but benign newspaper entrepreneur Colonel Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). And another $50 time-change fee, or some such, while they float in the middle of the harbor. "They don't call me Old Atrocity" for nothing," he sputters. Rutledge placates Atrocity by telling him that she's here to marry one Dan Morgan, who will surely take care of all necessary fees once they're all on dry land. Atrocity, placated, rows them to shore, and as he approaches the various representatives of this newborn city gathered at the dock, continues jibbering: "Jumpin' Jee-hosephat! A white woman! Whiter than a hen's egg..." and so on. Once at the dock, he announces, "She's Dan Morgan's fiancee." But bad news—Morgan, who struck it rich and sent for his, shall we say, fellow gold-digger, not only lost his entire stake at the roulette tables, but he lost his life to gambling kingpin Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). The rest of the story of Barbary Coast will tell how the calculating Rutledge gets close to Louis, falls for poetry-spouting James Carmichael (Joel McCrea), and witnesses the coming of some form of law and order to San Francisco. But that's not what we're concerned with here...
When Harry Carey's Slocum tells Rutledge of her fiancee's death, Brennan's Atrocity doesn't bat an eye. Folks whom Alfred Hitchcock used to call "the plausibles" well might, however. Atrocity knew Dan Morgan was dead, and hence could not pay what Rutledge promised, hence...huh?
And so it goes for Old Atrocity throughout the picture. He seems to pop up whenever things begin to get the tiniest bit slow. Those curious as to the precise context of the character's atrocity-mongering get some contradictory answers. At first it appears that he could be the right-hand enforcer of Chamalis, but it quickly becomes clear that that role belongs to Brian Donlevy's Knuckles Jacoby (great name!). So what is his deal, anyway? No deal. He just is.
Which isn't to say he doesn't serve some narrative function. It is he, after all, who coaxes Carmichael (a character who could well have been conceived by a sappier version of Vachel Lindsay) to Chamalis' gilded palace of sin.
And in the end, of course, when justice has to be meted out to all the miscreant of the tale, Old Atrocity receives a dispensation, after reuniting two lovers and reinstating the fortune of one of them.
"He worked in six pictures for me, and he only had [written] parts in two of them," Hawks told McBride. "The rest of the time I'd just call him up. He didn't worry about it—he'd do anything you wanted him to do. I'd say, 'Walter, I've got a picture.' 'Fine,' he'd say. 'I'll be over tomorrow.'" Their next collaboration was something with a written part—Hawks cast Brennan against type, such as it was, as Swede logger Swan Bostrom in Come and Get It. And it was Hawks' irreverence toward the written—that is, the Edna Ferber novel on which the film was based—that compelled producer Samuel Goldwyn to fire Hawks and replace him with William Wyler. In any case, it was for this role—in which, rather jaw-droppingly, his character marries one played by the beautiful Frances Farmer—that he won the first of three Academy Awards. But none of the others were for the Hawks films, which, aside from Coast, Get It, and Rio Bravo, were, of course, Red River, Sergeant York, and To Have And Have Not, the last of which saw Brennan originating the immortal question, "You ever been stung by a dead bee?" A question often reiterated in Godard's 1990 Nouvelle Vague.