Friday, April 07, 2017

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday: immediately Walter Burns starts to undermine the relationship between Hildy Johnson and Bruce Baldwin. Ralph Bellamy (Bruce), Cary Grant (Walter), Rosalind Russell (Hildy). Please click to enlarge the image.

Meidän vastaeronneiden kesken / Meidän vastaeronneitten kesken / Oss nysskilda emellan (Swedish title in Finland) / Det ligger i blodet / La Dame du vendredi / La signora del venerdi. US © 1939 Columbia Pictures Corporation. Year of release: 1940. P+D: Howard Hawks. SC: Charles Lederer – from the play The Front Page (1928) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – [Ben Hecht, n.c.] – [additional dialogue: Morrie Ryskind, n.c.]. DP: Joseph Walker. AD: Lionel Banks. Cost: Robert Kalloch. M: Morris W. Stoloff. S: Lodge Cunningham – Western Electric Mirrorphonic Recording. ED: Gene Havlick.
    C: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Peter B. "Pinky" Hartwell), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Roy Bensinger of the Morning Tribune), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Louis "Diamond Louie" Peluso), Frank Orth (managing city editor Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Malloy), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Baldwin), Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone), Pat West (Warden Cooley), Edwin Maxwell (Dr. Egelhoffer, the alienist from New York), Marion Martin (Vangie / Evangeline, Diamond Louie's blonde moll).
    92 min
    On the sound technology to the overlapping lighting fast dialogue: "To get the effect he wanted, as multi-track sound recording was not yet available at the time, Hawks had the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead microphones on and off as required for the scene, as many as 35 times" (Wikipedia).
    The title of the film stems from Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719): the native man rescued by the hero on a Friday becomes his "Man Friday". In 1912 there is the first record in the magazine Industrial World of the version "Girl Friday" which Howard Hawks's film may have popularized.
    Premiere 18.1.1940 – Helsinki premiere 30.11.1941 Adlon, distributed by Adlon – telecast 3.7.1963 (TV 1), 11.3.1969 (TV 1), 17.7.1977 (TV 1), 2.11.1987 (MTV 1), 15.4.1989 (HTV)
    Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Howard Hawks), 7 April 2017

Revisited His Girl Friday based on The Front Page, "a hit Broadway comedy about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur" as summed up in Wikipedia.

It had been a while since I last saw this film, and in my memory it was predominantly a screwball comedy about relationships in The Awful Truth fashion. I had also been influenced by the interpretation of Robin Wood which I still find relevant. But this time I was surprised to discover how much more multi-layered this film is beyond its overlapping machine gun dialogue and shouting match mentality.

The obvious satirical layer is about tabloid journalists hawking for material at the press room of Chicago's Criminal Courts building. From an opened window they hear the sound of the gallows being tested for imminent use. This is literally gallows humour.

A human interest story that can be printed on the front page has always priority to Walter Burns. "Never mind the European war. Jump the Polish corridor. Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page. Never mind the Chinese earthquake. I don't care if there's a million dead".

But more gravity than that is discovered in the functioning of the press. The current mayor and sheriff need the publicity of an execution to win the election although they know that the man on death row has been pardoned. The liberal minded The Morning Post is about to expose them – and the "city that's been graft-ridden for 40 years under the same gang".

The identification strategy of the film tends to have us identify with Walter Burns (Cary Grant) who is ostensibly the coolest guy in the film, but from the start he is shown to be rude, fraudulent and ruthless. He is no gentleman. He lies. He steals. He uses counterfeit money. His milieu is a snake pit, a shark bay. You cannot trust him for a moment. He is as callous and hardboiled as the corrupt leaders at the town hall. His elbows are sharp, and he has on his payroll criminals such as Diamond Louie (Abner Biberman) and his moll Evangeline (Marion Martin).

Hildy (Rosalind Russell) is his opposite. She sees through him. She keeps exposing him bluntly and ironically. She keeps protecting and rescuing Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) from Walter's traps. But although she declares "Scram, Svengali!" she keeps returning to her role as Walter's star reporter. Why, is a mystery, but a psychologically plausible one. Walter and Hildy complement each other, and Hildy has to confess to Bruce that "I'm no suburban bridge player". Hawks's genius was in transferring the Hildy character to a woman and making the crazy Walter-Hildy relationship compelling.

While Hildy provides the sober core to the movie, the most shattering character is Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), even more so than the confused and marginalized Earl Williams (John Qualen) who has been reduced to a pawn in the power games of the city and the press. Mollie the streetwalker is the only decent person, the only human being in the film. She has helped the unemployed Earl by giving him shelter (and nothing more) and now her reputation has been destroyed by the sensation press. Mollie jumps out of the window after declaring "I'll give you a wonderful story – only this time it'll be true". For once the press is struck dumb.

There is a token happy ending, but everything will go on as before in this black and hard-boiled comedy.

A brilliant and complete print. Since there are no subtitles it is necessary for the non-native English speaker to focus more than usually on the marvellous, mercurial, lightning fast repartee that no subtitling can possibly cover.

P.S. 20 April 2017. Re-reading Todd McCarthy's brilliant Howard Hawks biography:
    1. His Girl Friday is "one of the greatest American screen comedies, an arguable improvement on its brilliant source material, a high point in Hawks's own career, and a culmination of the 1930s screwball genre from a man who was there at the start of it all some six years before".
    2. Charles Lederer took Hawks's basic notion of turning Hildy into a woman the crucial extra step to make her the ex-wife of Walter Burns. Hawks credited Lederer's idea with making "all the scenes much better and the characters more definite."
    3. Changing Hildebrand into Hildegard enriched the dynamic of the story in obvious ways, enabling it to become "a very curious and complex romantic comedy in which love is expressed through work and work is expressed as love".
    4. Hawks made sure to include a scene not present in the play – Hildy's prison inteview – that showed this celebrated pro in action, proving how good she really is and thereby how worthy of Walter's esteem.
    5. The scene of Hildy's arriving in the newsroom includes one of the rare extended moving-camera shots in Hawks's work.
    6. Hawks devised a way to set a new speed record on His Girl Friday by having the actors overlap each other's dialogue.
    7. Hawks felt that audiences had had a problem with Bringing Up Baby because he had made "all the characters crazy". This time, he was determined to play the supporting characters straight to offset the antic behavior of his leads.
    8. "Very uncharacteristically for the time, but consistent with his first speed comedy, Twentieth Century, Hawks used no music in the film except to build to the final fadeout".
    9. "On the surface [...] Hildy comes off as exceedingly modern, a sharp-dressed feminist before her time who can out-think, out-write, and out-talk any of her male colleagues, an unusual woman in Hawks's world in that she long ago proved herself worthy of inclusion in the otherwise all-male group".


"Halusin kerran todistaa, että The Front Pagessa on hienointa modernia dialogia mitä kukaan on kirjoittanut. Pyysin erästä tyttöä lukemaan Hildyn osan. Päätoimittajan sanat luin itse. Tajusin: 'Tämähän toimii paremmin miehen ja naisen välillä kuin kahden miehen välillä'. Soitin Ben Hechtille ja ehdotin: 'Mitä jos muutettaisiin juttua niin, että Hildy on tyttö?' 'Loistava idea', hän vastasi." (Howard Hawks Peter Bogdanovichin haastattelussa)

Näin Hildy Johnsonin, korvaamattoman tähtireportterin, osa siirtyi Lewis Milestonen The Front Pagen Pat O'Brieniltä His Girl Fridayn Rosalind Russellille. Hildebrandista tuli Hildegard, morsiamesta sulhanen. Ratkaisu muutti elokuvaa perusteellisemmin kuin ensi silmäyksellä huomaakaan.
    The Front Pagessa Hildyn korvaamattomuus on asia, johon meitä pyydetään uskomaan. His Girl Fridayssa Rosalind Russellin äly, nopeus, tehokkuus ja oivalluskyky tulevat katsojalle ilmeisiksi. Lisäksi se, että hän on nainen, tuo elokuvaan uusia tasoja. Hildy ja Walter ovat olleet naimisissa. Walter tarvitsee häntä muutenkin kuin vain tähtireportterina. Rosalind Russellin tulkitsema Hildy on kaksinkertaisesti se mies, joka Pat O'Brienin hahmo oli Milestonen elokuvassa: itsevarma, riippumaton, jopa aggressiivinen. Silti hän on myös erittäin feminiininen, mikä tekee reportteritovereiden ihailun häntä kohtaan välittömästi ymmärrettäväksi.
    Tarinan kaksi painopistettä ovat: (1) pystyykö Walter estämään Hildyä naimasta sulhastaan ja hylkäämästä ammattiaan? (2) Hirtetäänkö Earl Williams, säälittävä murhamies, lahjottujen poliitikkojen uhri? Näiden kahden asian yhteensovittamista hankaloittaa niiden tavaton epäsuhta. Hawks onnistuu korjaamaan tarinan sisäänrakennettua heikkoutta pystymättä kuitenkaan eliminoimaan sitä. Milestonesta poiketen Hawks kohdistaa päähuomionsa selkeästi ensimmäiseen teemaan. Elokuvan ensimmäiset 20 minuuttia keskittyvät yksinomaan Hildyn ja Walterin suhteeseen. Earl Williams -juoni jää toissijaiseksi.
    Hawksin luova yhteistyö näyttelijöiden kanssa on eri luokkaa kuin Milestonen ammattimainen työ. Eleisiin ja ilmeisiin liittyvät vitsikkäät vivahteet punoutuvat eläväksi kudokseksi. Esimerkki: Grant saa kuulla, että Hildy avioituu seuraavana päivänä. Voimme nähdä, miten päätös tehdä aie tyhjäksi hahmottuu hänen kasvoillaan refleksin tavoin erilaisten vaihtoehtoisten strategioiden välähdellessä hänen mielessään. Hän hieroo kättään, koskettaa puhelinta, sitten kättään, ja poimii lähes vaistomaisesti neilikan maljakosta ja pujottaa sen napinläpeensä.
    His Girl Fridayn terävä aromi perustuu sen sävyn hämmentävään monimielisyyteen. Kilpakosija Bruce Baldwin edustaa yllätyksetöntä kunniallisuutta, ja Hawks kannustaa Ralph Bellamya paikka paikoin melkeinpä liikuttavaan osasuoritukseen. Lopulta katsoja ei voi olla tuntematta (vastoin tekijöiden aikeita), että Walterin tarjoama elämä voi olla omalla tavallaan yhtä tukahduttavaa kuin Brucen edustama kunniallisuus.
    Vastuuttomuuden houkutus tuo Hawksin komedioihin niiden merkillisen intensiteetin. Kun vastavoima on riittävä, tuloksena on Scarfacen tai Monkey Businessin kaltainen mestariteos. Muussa tapauksessa syntyy vakava epätasapaino, kuten elokuvissa Bringing Up Baby ja His Girl Friday. Hawksin komediat hämmentävät ja herättävät levottomuutta, mutta hallitun ja jäsennetyn taideteoksen aiheuttama hämmennys on eri asia kuin epäonnistuneen työn herättämä kiusaantuneisuus.

– Robin Woodin mukaan (Howard Hawks, 1968) AA 1991

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