Monday, January 23, 2006

His Girl Friday

Dir: Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, few others)


This film has an undeniable claim to being one of the best movies ever made, and a credible claim to being the best comedy. It stars Cary Grant as Walter Burns, the owner and director of a Chicago newspaper that divides its column inches between muckraking, human interest stories, and outright fiction. He plays opposite the devestatingly beautiful Rosalind Russell, playing his ex-wife and best reporter Hildy Johnson. Hildy has just shown up to quit his paper and to tell him that she's getting remarried. The husband to be is Ralph Bellamy playing Bruce Baldwin (one of the many in-jokes in the movie occurs when Burns, trying to describe Baldwin to an underling, says he "looks like that film actor, Ralph Bellamy"). When Burns commits himself to making sure that Hildy and Bruce never leave the city to go and get married, Bruce doesn't stand a chance.

When the movie was translated from the play The Front Page, the reporter who's quitting is changed from a man intending to go into advertising to Hildy Johnson, who wants to live 'like a real woman' - as a housewife caring for kids. The change introduced a significant subtext into the film, as Hildy negotiates masculinity (she smokes and drinks at lunch) and femininity (she continually insists that doing so makes her not a real woman) ultimately without resolution.

The beauty of this movie is the pace and the script. The movie for a long time was the undisputed fastest paced talking comedy ever created. There is not a missed second in the entire film, and barely a line that isn't hysterical. Burns and Hildy are hard-boiled, cynical city-slickers who look natural together - during shots they lean into each other as they trade the most vicious barbs. To keep Bruce in the city, Walters engineers various stunts that have Bruce persistently landing in jail. To keep Hildy in the city, he convinces her to take one last story about an insane man who is to be hung by corrupt city officials. Hildy takes the story, and much of the rest of the movie is spent in the press room of the courthouse. Here, a not very flattering picture of journalists develops, as the film depicts them variously making up stories and cold heartedly demonizing innocents. As the day runs out, Hildy begins to fall back in love with journalism (and with Burns), and grows increasing frustrated with Bruce's inability to survive city life.

The camera work sets a sharp contrast to the pace of the rest of the movie, but only to accentuate Hildy and Burns's hectic pace. Most of the film takes place inside a single room in the courthouse (and virtually the rest of it in Burns's office, filmed from a single angle that opens into the entire room). The set, on the other hand, does reflect the pace - phone lines are everywhere, people trip over doors, etc. And no minute passes without a wisecrack or a deadpan insult. There is no part of the movie that is not laugh out loud funny.

This is one of the movies that I would quite simply never see but for living in Los Angeles and having the Aero theater within driving distance for a slow Sunday night. What an incredible movie.