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Sunday, April 13, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: His Girl Friday (1940)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell

If I had to describe this film in one word, it would be fast. It runs at a clip that is difficult to imagine; you have to see it (and hear it) to believe it. This Howard Hawks classic is more proof that Cary Grant can work with anyone, and provides the fabulous Rosalind Russell with the kind of smart, dizzy character she can play like no other. So hold on to your hat, because this one’s a rollercoaster.

His Girl Friday takes place over the course of about half a day and begins with Russell as Hildy Johnson, a newspaper reporter and recent divorcĂ©e. She returns to New York with some news for her Editor and ex-husband, Walter Burns (Grant): she’s getting married and she’s quitting the paper. Walter is distraught, not only because Hildy has found someone else but because he’s losing his best reporter. The only thing to do, obviously, is sabotage her relationship and convince her that she can’t give up the paper… or Walter, for that matter. The first scene between Hildy and Walter sets the tone for the rest of the film, with the two engaging in some barbed, fast-talking sparring. Russell and Grant don’t have the best romantic chemistry (although it’s passable), but they have a comedic chemistry that’s hard to beat.

In the role Bruce Baldwin, the other man, Hawks cast Ralph Bellamy who was no stranger to playing the nice guy who loses the girl to Grant’s caddish charmer, having starred opposite Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth in 1937. The staid and straight-forward Bellamy is a good foil to the zany antics of Grant and Russell, and does more than just set the pins up for the two stars to knock down. His simple, sincere delivery of lines like “Mighty nice little town, Albany. They’ve got the state capitol there, you know” ensures that he gets his share of the laughs as well.

If nothing else, His Girl Friday is a testament to the talent of character actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and of the ability of old Hollywood to use them correctly. Grant and Russell are the main attractions, of course, but some of the best scenes are ones that neither appears in. There are numerous scenes in the press room at the court house where a gang of reporters hang out playing cards and speculating about a trial they’re all covering, one which Walter used to get Hildy back in the game: Earl Williams (John Qualan) has killed a police officer and has been sentenced to be hanged, but may be reprieved depending on the decision of a psychiatrist, and on Governor, who has been using the case as a political ploy in the upcoming election. The reporters aren’t a just a “group,” but are individual characters whom we come to distinguish from one another according to their differing reporting styles. Through them, the film casts a cynical eye on the way news is made and reported – specifically how it’s filtered to the public depending on the source (Walter is also used to express this same cynicism, as when he calls his Copy Editor to implore “Never mind the Chinese earthquake for heaven's sake...Look, I don't care if there's a million dead...No, no, junk the Polish Corridor...Take all those Miss America pictures off Page Six...Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page...No, no, leave the rooster story alone - that's human interest”).

But the film also makes great use of Clarence Kobb as the Mayor, Gene Lockhart as Sheriff Peter B. (“‘B’ for brains”) Hartwell, Abner Biberman as Walter’s henchman Louie (who at Walter’s behest manages to get Bruce arrested on three separate occasions and kidnap his mother), and, in a small but memorable role, Billy Gilbert as Joe Pettibone, whom the Mayor and the Sheriff make the mistake of attempting to bribe. All of these actors add something indelible to the film as a whole. Thinking over the film afterwards, it’s amazing to realize how much of it Grant and Russell aren’t in and how you hardly notice because you’re being so thoroughly entertained even in their absence.

It will come as no surprise that Walter and Hildy end up back together at the end, both as colleagues and as a couple, but that’s okay. It’s also okay that there hasn’t actually been any growth in their relationship that would suggest that it would work the second time around (they spent their first honeymoon in a coal mine, covering a story; as the film ends they’ll be spending their second honeymoon covering a strike in Albany). Like I said, their chemistry is more of the buddy variety than the romantic one. What matters is what happens between start and finish, and given that it’s running time is only 92 minutes, a whole lot happens in this tightly wound and fast-moving comedic masterpiece.

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