30 October 2005

100 films: His Girl Friday


starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and Abner Biberman
written by: Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur
directed by: Howard Hawks
NR, 92 min, 1940, USA

Perhaps the fastest-paced comedy ever made, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday is often credited with being the first film to use overlapping dialogue, but is best known for the machine-gun rapport between its two leads. Rosalind Russell stars as Hildy Johnson, ex-wife and former ace reporter of newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who's come back to inform him that she's marrying insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and moving...to Albany. Burns uses every trick at his disposal to keep Bruce in and out of jail and Hildy on the story of a murderer scheduled to hang in the morning. This is one of the best comedies you'll ever see.

Although he is in retrospect listed as one of the elite directors in the history of cinema, Howard Hawks was largely ignored, or at the very least taken for granted, by his peers. His resume is one of the most prolific of all time, yet he was only nominated for one Oscar (for 1941's Sergeant York) and three Director's Guild Awards. According to the Internet Movie Database, the only major award he ever received was a Honorary Oscar in 1974. This is the man who started in silent films, directed the original Scarface (1932), had a career that spanned nearly fifty years, and did an uncredited rewrite on The French Connection (1971), but here he shows a deft comic touch. He encouraged his actors to ad-lib and improvise and set a frenetic pace to match the natural rhythms of both the dialogue and the newspaper world it reflected. The shots are simple, with very little editing--essential in preserving the fluidity of the scenes. The breakneck speed of the dialogue is enough to hold the audience, and the amount of editing required to film the conversations in anything other than a master shot would be distracting, so Hawks doesn't try to force anything. He's smart enough to put the camera on a tripod and let his actors go.

Of course, it helps to have Cary Grant at his devious best. He's a fast-talking, conniving, egotistical, selfish bastard and no one could have played it better. This is a role he was born to play. You don't trust him--you'd have to be foolish to--but you sure do like him a lot and he sure is convincing and in a position like that of newspaper editor, he's more than willing to throw his considerable weight in any direction necessary to get the story. That includes getting Bruce arrested three different times in the span of a couple of hours on trumped-up charges and hiding a convicted murderer in a desk for the sole purpose of scooping his rivals. Ralph Bellamy's Bruce is the polar opposite. He's a naive salesman from Albany. Clearly he hasn't a clue what's going on. He's continually flabbergasted when he ends up in jail. Between this and The Awful Truth (1937), we see how Hollywood has typecast Bellamy as a well-meaning hick, dependable and dull[1]. The film even makes sly mention of this when Cary Grant, in a moment of frustration says he "looks like that film actor, Ralph Bellamy". Rosalind Russell has the difficult task of going toe to toe with Grant, and she's more than up to it. She manages to strike that balance between the tough newspaperman and the compassionate female. It's a fine performance all-around. She understands this world of reporting--lives for it, actually--and while she's able to convince Bruce that she wants to settle down, and possibly even convinces herself for a time, her fellow reporters don't buy it, and neither do we. It's obvious this is where she belongs. One of the reporters lays 3-1 odds that the marriage won't last 3 months, but no one will take the bet. Nor would we. The only person who might is Bruce, but he's in jail for stealing a watch.

[1] To his credit, Bellamy would later subvert this trend and show a great deal of range. He won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Dramatic Actor and worked steadily until 1990's Pretty Woman, his final film.


mattreed said...

Can you think of any contemporary movies that use overlapping dialog to this extent (or to as good affect)?

lucas said...

i was going to mention altman as the obvious contemporary, but my best guess is courtroom scenes. the "you can't handle the truth" exchange, for example.