Feel free to comment with any suggestions if you have any ideas for future editions. I'm ready and willing to increase my film list!
This week's film is Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, a screwball comedy based on the stage play, The Front Page, and widely regarded as one of the first entries into that popular genre: the romcom. The romantic comedy genre is, let's face it, pretty tired. Audiences get films after films of the same plot; boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy does something wrong, must race against time to get to girl, boy and girl fall in love and live happily ever after. Some radical differences include the gender swap with the focus on the girl, or perhaps even following several different couples at once. Either way, modern-day romcoms, with the odd exception, are rarely groundbreaking which is why it is extremely refreshing to return to something as wonderful as His Girl Friday.
The film stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as bickering divorcees Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, both of whom used to work together in the newspaper business and follows editor Walter's unscrupulous efforts to prevent his reporter ex-wife from marrying insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Running through the background of the film is the case of Earl Williams, a convicted murderer due to be executed in the morning, allowing for some sublime blackly comic scenes in which the reporters attempt to convince the executioner to rearrange the hanging so that they can get the report into the evening edition.
Russell and Grant are a joy to watch, the chemistry practically fizzles across the scenes in which the two attempt to out-snipe each other. It's hard to believe that she wasn't the first choice for Hildy, given Russell's fantastic performance, and similarly, Grant was thought to be mis-cast at the time. They are the heart and soul of the film and it's impossible to imagine it with any other actors in their roles.
They also deserve credit for managing to fire off lines at the extremely rapid pace which the film is famous, averaging at 240 words per minute and the cast handle it with expert timing. It was also one of the first films in which conversations occurred simultaneously and people begin speaking over each other. All of the cast put in sterling performances; the comic highlights aside from the leads are the group of reporters vying and battling each other for a scoop and Ralph Bellamy for his bewildered performance as Hildy's put-upon fiance, Bruce Baldwin.
The entire narrative is built around the fast pace of the screenplay, barely slowing down to let the audience catch their breath. If there is a pause in the dialogue, other sound is used to continue the sense of speed. In one scene where Burns is attempting to get rid of another reporter, the dialogue slows to a normal pace but throughout, there's the constant sound of Hildy's typewriter in the background as she frantically hits the keys to get the story out. The only downside to the film is it does betray its theatrical beginnings. Some of the scenes, particularly with the reporters, feel a bit stagey thanks to the use of a fourth wall. It's a small gripe though and the pacing of the film helps to reduce its impact on the scenes, especially when Hawks employs rapid editing to add to the tension of the situation.
One of the most surprising things about the film for me, as a 21st century viewer, is the presentation of Russell's character in a period in which women's careers were still something to be fought for rather than expected. Here, we're given a woman who is respected as a reporter, making her own decisions and being considerably more independent than some of the female characters we're used to seeing. Granted, her only choice is between domestic marriage to Bruce or a career marriage to Walter, but the fact that she has a career is accepted to the point at which Walter will do anything and everything to get her back as both a reporter and his wife.
There's also the fact that both parties, Walter and Hildy, are capable of running rings around each other equally; every move Walter makes to try and get her back is either spotted or prevented by Hildy until the very end of the film in which he tells her to go back to her fiance rather than stay with him. It allows for her to make her own choice about which marriage to go for and it is great to such a fierce female character in a romantic comedy. The heroines of various modern-day romcoms would do well to learn from Hildy.
His Girl Friday is one of those films that proves, on occasion, the old adage that it really was better back in the good old days. Seeing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell throw down and do everything possibly to out-do each other was the most fun I've had watching a film in a while. It proves that a romantic comedy can still be witty and funny without a ditzy female lead who wants nothing more than a handsome (rich) man to sweep her off her feet, falling over various things until he finds her endearing.
It also proves that Tony Curtis really did do a mean Cary Grant impression in Some Like It Hot.