Blog Directory CineVerse: The greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley

The greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Stripped free of sentimentality, untethered from the temporal constraints of normally paced life, and existing in its own bubble of bygone journalistic profligacy, His Girl Friday is more than a screwball comedy with one of the strongest pedigrees from Hollywood's golden era. It's also a gift that keeps on giving with its caustic wit, zippy one-liners, and rat-a-tat repartee. Our CineVerse pack parsed through this picture carefully; here's what we discovered:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it’s one of the finest and most representational of screwball comedies—that subgenre in which romances and love stories are satirized and a comedic battle of the sexes is depicted, often using witty banter, physical humor, a funny plot centered on courtship and marriage or remarriage.
  • His Girl Friday is worth celebrating for its ultra-fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery.
  • In fact, it could be the fastest-spoken film ever made. The director, Howard Hawks, was actually trying to break the record at the time for the speediest dialogue ever filmed.
  • This is also one of the very best remakes of all time; its first iteration was The Front Page, released in 1931 and based on the 1928 stage play. A Hollywood remake rarely bests the original, but this picture is the exception to that rule.
  • This is also, arguably, the finest version of this story adapted to the big screen. The Front Page story has been made into a movie at least four times: in 1931, in 1940, in 1974, and, loosely, as Switching Channels in 1988.
  • What’s more, His Girl Friday features, debatably, the finest performances in the careers of both Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Their comedic timing, cadence, physical gesticulations, and sheer ability to deliver lines at a practically impossible pace create truly unforgettable characters that exemplify the very best that screwball comedy can offer.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • This movie is famous for its innovative use of rapid and overlapping dialogue. Often, the actors are speaking at a frenetic pace, and two or more characters sometimes talk simultaneously. This forces the viewer to try to keep up with what is said and helps to cram in a lot of jokes and content in a short amount of time, making the film more rewarding on repeat viewings.
    • In an interview, Hawks explained why he opted for speedy and concurrent dialogue: “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."
    • Reportedly, the average word per minute pace in this picture is 240, compared to the typical speed of approximately 140 words per minute in a normal conversation. I found in my research that His Girl Friday has nine scenes containing a minimum of four words each second and two or more scenes paced at over five words per second. Consider that the final screenplay tallied 191 pages; usually, each page equates to 60 to 90 seconds of screen time. Yet this movie’s run time is merely 92 minutes.
    • Instead of the common practice at the time of relying on a single boom mike, the filmmakers chose to employ several microphones; technical limitations of the day forced the sound technician to turn microphones on and off as needed on cue to capture the sound, with certain scenes calling for switching up to 35 microphones on and off as needed.
    • Additionally, Hawks allowed his actors to use ad-libbing and improvisation to generate more realistic discourse.
  • This would have been a groundbreaking portrayal of a smart, autonomous, resourceful, strong-willed female lead—a woman character who was treated as a professional equal by her male counterpart, a rarity for a Hollywood film up to this time.
    • This picture deserves credit, as well, for exploring and bending gender politics. Danny Peary, author of Guide for the Film Fanatic, wrote that the movie “is not so much about the traditional battle of the sexes as it is about sexual differentiation. Hawks repeatedly shows that when characters put their guards down, they take on characteristics of the opposite sex and stop paying attention to others' genders. When no one's looking, the tough-talking male reporters become as gossipy as a women's bridge group.”
  • His Girl Friday also marked an evolutionary milestone for the screwball comedy. According to Lauren Rabinovitz, author of The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: “His Girl Friday was the first screwball comedy to depart from the money-marriage-ego conflicts of Holiday [1938], My Man Godfrey [1936], and The Philadelphia Story [1940], inserting into the same comic structure and pattern of action a conflict between career and marriage."
  • His Girl Friday helped solidify the newspaper story subgenre, as well. It’s been cited by many as one of the most important and beloved films ever made about journalism, and one that, upon its release, supposedly inspired many to pursue a career in the press. Ponder the many films about the newspaper biz that immediately followed in His Girl Friday’s wake, including Foreign Correspondent, The Philadelphia Story, Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Penny Serenade.
  • It’s also an early example of a meta-movie: one that slyly comments on the motion picture biz by providing amusing references to Archie Leach (Grant’s real name) and Ralph Bellamy, who plays Bruce and who portrayed a similar third wheel suitor in The Awful Truth three years earlier.

How and why is Hildy Johnson an important female character, especially compared to typical female characters in Hollywood films of this time?

  • Hildy is a sharp tack with agency to spare. She can hold her own with the ultra-clever uber-conniver Walter. Witness how the boys in the newsroom treat her with more respect and admiration than virtually everyone else they encounter, including other females like Mollie Malloy or Mrs. Baldwin and most male characters, too.
  • At this time, women in films, and real life, were expected to get married at a young age, have children, tend house, cook the meals and put career aspirations on hold in deference to patriarchal pressures. Hildy proves that a determined and skilled female can defy those expectations and live a fulfilling and exciting life—even in a profession dominated by men.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in His Girl Friday?

  • Stay true to yourself and your talents. We see how, by the denouement, Hildy is relieved that she has reunited with Walter, will continue as an in-demand journalist, and has avoided the temptation to settle down and live a life of likely spousal subservience in the ’burbs with someone who is not her intellectual and emotional equal.
  • The importance of adapting to a chaotic and rapidly changing world. Viewers observe how Hildy rolls with the changes thrown at her—how she impressively multitasks and quickly pivots to situations as they abruptly shift. There’s a value to thinking quickly on your feet, talking faster than the other person, and doing what it takes to “get the story,” as this intrepid female reporter does.
  • Opposites don’t attract after all. Hildy and Bruce are kind and courteous to each other, at least in the beginning. But they just aren’t cut from the same cloth, and they aren’t destined to make each other happy. Walter and Hildy, by contrast, seem made for and deserving of each other.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • The headstrong, intelligent, and thick-skinned character of Hildy is refreshing to see in a film from 1940, preventing the movie from standing as a dated relic of antiquated gender politics.
  • The material here isn’t dumbed down for the audience; you still have to pay close attention to the dialogue and character interplays to understand and appreciate His Girl Friday.
  • Some things can make a modern viewer wince, including the murder of a black police officer and use of the word “pickaninny” (referring to a small black child).
  • There are some anachronisms to parse, including the concept of “production for use” and some topical and political references that 1940 audiences may have picked up on.

How are we supposed to think and feel about Walter and Hildy, considering their amorality, yellow journalism tactics, and unlawful behavior?

  • The bygone context helps. We see a sort of disclaimer at the start of the film that this story occurred years ago and tries to briefly explain that this is how the journalism profession used to operate.
  • Moreover, I believe we can abide their behavior thanks to Hawks’ unique style. Hawks is known for often focusing on skilled professionals within an insular environment—experts who are driven by a love of their work and a code of professionalism and camaraderie without being encumbered by sentimentality. We are meant to believe that Hildy and Walter are the best at what they do, even if what they do is create sensationalistic journalism without ethics. There’s something to be admired in that kind of talent.
  • Also, despite the cramped milieu of basically three or four main sets, Hawks—known for being a director of action pictures—keeps things kinetic and moving by having speedily-spoken words and sudden dramatic and comedic twists function as the action elements in what would otherwise be essentially the prosaic filming of a stage play. In other words, the medium-tight compositions, masterful editing, and intense focus on verbiage help distract us from any moral dilemmas we may feel. This is ultimately an action movie, only it uses words and abrupt plot twists instead of car chases, combat, or explosions to keep us riveted.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Besides the impeccable casting—including the brilliance of using Ralph Bellamy as yet another comical love interest who loses the girl to Cary Grant and the use of so many great character actors, from Porter Hall and Gene Lockhart to Roscoe Karns, Billy Gilbert and Abner Biberman—this movie’s greatest gift is its snappy discourse—the astounding verbal gymnastics aced by the actors and the characters they portray. Many films impress with their masterful visuals and compositions; His Girl Friday stands out instead for its words and their breakneck tempo and rhythm. It’s probably less funny than it is fascinating for its wordplay and the dynamism of its two leads. 

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP