Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – HIS GIRL FRIDAY
On August 14, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. As today is Sunday, and I am still a sucker for actual ink-and-paper news, and given the film’s subject matter, I thought I’d repost it here. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
Starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy
Directed by Howard Hawks
In my life, I have watched an inordinate amount of episodic television, across all genres and networks, during every hour of the day and night, without prejudice towards premier or rerun. (It’s this experience, particularly during my formative childhood years, that now makes me a savant at commercial jingles – not that it pays any bills, but I thought I’d mention it). If I were asked the dreaded “desert island” question and was forced to choose only one TV show to watch for the rest of time, I would seriously consider creator/writer Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.
The show, about the day-to-day inner-workings of the White House, appeals to me because of its crackling dialogue, which Sorkin serves intelligently, wittily, and at a blistering pace that is reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. But where The West Wing laces its politics with humor, His Girl Friday laces its humor with politics.
After an extended leave of absence, Hildy Johnson (Russell), ace reporter for New York City’s fictional newspaper The Star Ledger, returns to the office to inform her publisher, Walter Burns (Grant), that she is leaving the newspaper business for good. She has become engaged to insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy), and plans to move in with her new husband … and his mother … to settle down as a homemaker in Albany.
This greatly concerns Walter because he will not only lose his best reporter to a life of (what he perceives to be) abject boredom, he will also lose his ex-wife to another man – an ex-wife he still loves. Making matters worse, Hildy is scheduled to leave in only a few hours, with the nuptials to take place the next day. Hoping to change Hildy’s mind about her reporter’s life and her heart’s love, Walter takes every scheming opportunity to postpone, and ultimately prevent, her marriage and departure. Hildy is quite familiar with Walter’s wily ways, so she is as careful as possible while around him, meaning Walter must be twice as conniving (in the names of love and news, of course) to get his way.
Walter’s mission begins with a little bribery. He offers Hildy the commission from a $100,000 life insurance policy to be underwritten by Bruce, in exchange for her getting the scoop on the story of the century. Earl Williams (John Qualen) is a man convicted of shooting a cop, and he is to be executed by hanging the next day. Complicating Williams’ case is the fact that he is white, the cop was black, and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb), who is up for re-election, is using his support of the execution as a springboard to secure the city’s black vote (despite the governor’s opposing wishes).
As events unfold and as Walter’s scheming takes its toll, Hildy wants to forfeit the commission and flee for Albany. But Walter finds more ways to keep her around by whatever means necessary.
One of the most important aspects of any film is the chemistry between its stars, but that is difficult to quantify, because, like organic chemistry, costar chemistry can take on many forms.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who starred in nine films together, had the great chemistry of two people with mutual restrained desperation for each other (thanks, in part, to their long, off-screen affair that resulted in the marital equivalent of unrequited love). William Powell and Myrna Loy, together in 14 films, had the chemistry of two people who had been together for eons, but acted like newlyweds every day (they were only ever friends in real life). And real-life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, together in just four films, had a heat that has yet to be matched in Hollywood since.
In His Girl Friday, Grant and Russell have a chemistry of two best friends (with myriad benefits) who can’t live with or without each other. It’s this chemistry, when combined with each actor’s individual talents, that makes the rapid-fire dialogue – with numerous instances where their dialogue overlaps for what feels like glorious minutes – work so well, because they are that comfortable with each other. This comfort level also makes their critical comic timing perfectly smooth. Unfortunately for us, unlike the dozens of combined pairings of the three aforementioned couples, Grant and Russell make their only on-screen coupling in His Girl Friday.
Like the films featuring Tracy & Hepburn or Powell & Loy, His Girl Friday has a strong sense of female empowerment and equality, as evidenced in Hildy’s first scene, when she returns to the newspaper. She strides with great confidence through a field of desks, and is showered with enthusiastic and respectful greetings from her male peers. This strong sense continues throughout the film, whether in Hildy’s double-speak dealings with Walter, her verbal spars with the boys in the press room (and a fantastically motley bunch they are, featuring great character actors like Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, and Frank Jenks), her interview with Earl Williams, or her pants-wearing role in her relationship with Bruce.
Yet, for all that empowerment and equality, and like other Hepburn and Loy characters, Russell’s Hildy won’t sacrifice her feminine identity. Hildy laments that her marriage to Walter was a failure, she yearns for the “normal” life of a homemaker, and she empathizes with the only other pivotal female character in the film, Williams’ friend, Molly Malloy (Helen Mack), who is misunderstood and mistreated by the male reporters. These instances remind us that while Hildy might be “one of the guys” on a daily basis, she is still a woman at heart.
Dig a little deeper into the film’s dialogue, and you’ll find scathing jabs taken at politics, politicians, corruption, nepotism, racism, sexism, capital punishment, and the power of the press, all delivered by screenwriter Charles Lederer in a style that Aaron Sorkin surely must admire, if not downright envy.
Spinning all of these plates is director Howard Hawks, who is smart enough to do several things. First, he compliments the complex dialogue with simple direction. There are no stunning camera angles, no fancy tricks of shadow and light, and no lavish sets. This film is based on the play The Front Page (written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), and Hawks maintains the feel of live theater by keeping everything (except the dialogue) to a minimum.
Second, Hawks doesn’t preach (and this is where His Girl Friday splits from The West Wing). Yes, weighty issues are addressed, but they only act as reminders of the real world while simultaneously serving as targets for humor.
Third, and most impressively, Hawks knows when to change pace. Sure, the majority of the dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed, but from time to time, Hawks slows things down enough so that we might catch our breath. Then he cranks it back up again. The best example of this is when Hildy interviews Williams in jail. Progress comes to a near halt as we learn the convict’s story, but once that’s done, Hawks says to us, “I know you’ve been on a roller coaster ride that feels like it’s now over, and I’m sure you appreciate the stoppage, but what do you say we ride it again, only this time with a few more curves?”
We gladly ride it again, and we never want the ride to end.