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Monday, February 12, 2018

His Girl Friday

Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors. Leonard Maltin called him, "The greatest American director who is not a household name." He received only one Academy Award nomination (for Sergeant York) but the only Oscar he received was an honorary one. Yet he directed a lot of films that are well known, and in almost every genre. He directed one of the greatest gangster pictures, Scarface, one of the greatest noirs, The Big Sleep, one of the greatest Westerns, Red River, and perhaps the greatest screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

He directed a few other screwball comedies, and Filmstruck is featuring them this month. I've written about Bringing Up Baby, but there are three others worth watching, and I'll start with His Girl Friday.

It's kind of hard to believe I had never seen this one before, as it is a benchmark film. A remake of The Front Page, which was a play and then a film (and several films after), it's about two reporters hot on the story of an escaped man from death row. The Front Page was about two men, but His Girl Friday turns one of them into a woman. The result is cinematic gold, with two great lead performances.

Cary Grant is Walter Burns, the editor of the Morning Post. His paper has been championing the reprieve of Earl Williams, who killed a policeman in a fit of despair. The script is a bit daring, because he killed a black policeman, and Burns is accusing the politicians of trying to win the black vote. (this being 1940, the term "colored" is used, as is the word "pickaninny").

Rosalind Russell is Hildy Johnson, ex-wife of Grant and a star reporter. She comes to see him to tell him she is done with him and the paper, as she is marrying the decent but square Ralph Bellamy (in an ad-libbed joke, Grant tells someone that her fiance looks like that actor--Ralph Bellamy). Grant schemes to keep Russell from getting on a train to Albany, knowing she is newspaper "man" forever, and of course she is.

His Girl Friday is known for its rapid-fire dialogue. I watch movies with subtitles because I've been to too many rock concerts, and they had a hard time keeping up. There is a brilliant scene about halfway through when three people are talking at once that reminded me of the Marx Brothers at their best. The scene lasts a couple of minutes, and you can be dizzy with exhilaration after its over.

What's interesting about the switching of genders is that a woman reporter is not treated as anything out of the ordinary. Russell is one of the boys at the county courthouse press room. The script also has a supporter of Williams, Helen Mack, entering the room to give the reporters a dressing down for writing lies about her. They callously disregard her,but after she leaves, they sit in silence for a moment, uncomfortable because they know she's right.

The rest of His Girl Friday is constant zaniness. I especially enjoyed Billy Gilbert, who was discovered by Stan Laurel, as a messenger. Gilbert does some nice scene-stealing, talking about his wife and resisting a bribe by the mayor and sheriff (a very good Gene Lockhart). One of the reporters is played by Cliff Edwards. Who's he? He's Jiminy Cricket, that's who.

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