Monday, February 14, 2011

His Girl Friday

Doesn't Grant's leer and that tag line make this sound awfully sordid?
Humor is a funny thing.  See what I did there?  Hilarious.  But it's true; what is funny to you today might not be funny to you tomorrow, much less in a year or ten years from now.  Consider this: Jerry Lewis was extremely successful as a comedian and comedic actor.  Case closed.

I bring up the temporary nature of most comedies because, every so often, I find a film that is clever and funny enough to truly be one for the ages.  His Girl Friday, made in 1940, is one of those comedies.  When former ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) stops by her old newspaper building to ask a small favor of her former boss (and ex-husband), Walter Burns (Cary Grant), she happens to mention that she is going to be married.  Tomorrow.  To a deadly dull insurance salesman, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), to boot.  In fact, the couple is supposed to catch a train out of town in two hours.  Walter can't let that happen; not only would he permanently lose his best reporter and the foil to his rapid-fire jokes, but he would lose out on the chance to become her husband again...and, given their relationship, maybe even her ex-husband again.  So, Walter hatches a plan --- well, more like a few dozen plans --- to keep Hildy in town, on the paper, and by his side.

This isn't the first time this plot made it to the big screen.  The play it is based on, The Front Page, was made into a film of the same name in 1931, and the film was a big hit, being nominated for Best Picture, Director and Actor Oscars.  For whatever reason Howard Hawks decided to remake the movie, but he made the clever choice to change the gender of Hildy's character from a man to a woman.  By making that change, the dynamic of the whole film changed from one that focused on the screwball antics of a boss trying to keep his favorite employee to a man desperately trying to win over his lost love.  You have to admit, the second one sounds more universally appealing.

What makes His Girl Friday different from so many other comedies, modern or otherwise, is its use of dialogue.  The script is witty, sure, but that's not all.  It is some of the fastest witty dialogue to hit the big screen, and the characters are often talking over one another, so you don't always catch the jokes.  That would be annoying, but there are so many jokes that you can't help but catch enough to make a viewing worthwhile.  Of course, that also means that you can catch new jokes every time you watch the movie, too.  A lot of the jokes make use of clever wordplay, some of the jokes work just because of their speedy delivery, but other jokes only make sense if you know what on Earth they are talking about.  For instance, when Walter is trying to describe Bruce to somebody, he says that "He looks like that fellow in the movies --- Ralph Bellamy."  It's true; Bellamy actually plays Bruce.  Walter also makes a reference Archie Leach, which is Cary Grant's birth name.  Clever stuff, if you can catch it all.

That really is a difficult task, with so many characters talking over each others lines.  Back in 1940, though, they didn't have multi-track recordings, so the fact that Howard Hawks was able to capture it all and make it sound good is very impressive in retrospect.  Hawks was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood's Golden Age, and he mastered just about every type of film.  This one, though, is definitely the crown jewel of his comedies.  It is often called a screwball comedy, but His Girl Friday is smarter and less physical than so many other screwball pictures.  Hawks did a great job with his casting (Cary Grant for a witty role is always a good choice), and his ear for conversational timing helps make this film stand out after all these years.

It doesn't hurt that he had Cary Grant being charming as the lead actor.  Really, who doesn't like Cary Grant?  Aside from his ex-wives, I mean.  Walter could have been an overbearing, power-hungry jerk, if played by the wrong person.  With Grant, though, even the character's snake-charming personality just seems endearing.  He also delivered some great lines perfectly; I laugh every time he tells Hildy that getting divorced sure makes a fellow feel unwanted.  I'm not terribly familiar with Rosalind Russell's body of work, but she is definitely impressive here.  It takes some serious talent to match Cary Grant's charm on screen, but she matches his charm and his delivery.  The funny thing about the character of Hildy is how strong of a female lead she is, and yet she is spending the entirety of the film trying to become more classically feminine; she's at her best and happiest, though, when she is acting as Walter's equal in all things.  The rest of the supporting cast is okay, but they are just there to give the main actors people to bounce dialogue off of.  Ralph Bellamy is fine as the nice (but boring) fiancee, John Qualen is amusing as a pitiful killer, and there are a handful of other recognizable character actors from the period, as well.

I think what I like best about His Girl Friday is just how equal Walter and Hildy are.  Hildy realizes early on that Walter is trying to get her working for the paper again, and she does her best to resist.  In many movies, though, we would just see everything from Walter's perspective and see how clever he is.  But this movie is more Hildy's story than Walter's; for every trick he plays and every lie he tells, she figures it out, eventually.  My favorite moments are when she confronts him with his lies and they just laugh together.  There's just something to be said for enjoying the absolute bullshit coming out of someone's mouth and being in on the joke, I guess.
I should point out that this film has become public domain, so many DVD prints are of pretty terrible quality.  So, if you're looking to pick up the movie and you see a $5 version and a $12 version, just suck it up and spend the extra money.  It's worth it.

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