Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #7 (of 200) :: Quipping With Sharks and the Fine Art of Gender Upheaval: Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940)

Originally intended for Broadway, The Front Page was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both former newspapermen from the self-aggrandizing and cutthroat (dark) days of Chicago's circulation wars, basing their characters on themselves and several old colleagues. Produced by Jed Harris and directed by the legendary George S. Kaufman, their play proved a smashing success. Seems audiences were delighted by the intricate plotting and the snarky, slang-filled dialogue of the irascible characters that inhabited the newsroom of The Examiner. Howard Hughes obtained the film rights and Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay for Lewis Milestone's 1931 film adaptation for United Artists, with an assist by Charles Lederer.

Lederer was also a holdover for Howard Hawks' proposed gender-bending remake of The Front Page for Columbia nine years later, who stayed true to Hecht and MacArthur's crackerjack, rapid-fire dialogue, soon to be his director's signature trademark, in perhaps the screwiest of screwball comedies of all time, His Girl Friday (1940).

"I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another," Hawks expounded later during an interview with fellow director, Peter Bogdanovich. "Especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."

To get the right mix for this effect, the director employed several microphones for each take, some hanging from above, others hidden around the set, all going to the same recorder, requiring the sound man to keep the dialogue in-synch with the switch-flipping to keep the right mic hot -- as many as 35 times a take! I'm telling ya, having a conversation in this film is like swimming with sharks in deep water, where multiple characters must keep paddling and defensively flailing to stop from drowning and being devoured simultaneously. And this is why His Girl Friday is one of those flicks that absolutely requires multiple viewings, where a person can pick up something new each and every time and STILL not catch it all.

Now, there are many apocryphal tales surrounding exactly why Hawks pulled this gender switch, making the battling and bickering Walter Burns and Hildebrant Johnson a divorced couple instead of just being an unscrupulous editor and a crack reporter. One catalytic influence that I think gets overlooked is Torchy Blane. See, in-between adaptations, Warner Bros. had unleashed Glenda Farrell in a successful series of films, starting with Smart Blonde (1937), spotlighting a savvy, motor-mouthed female reporter with an acid-tongue who always outwitted, out-quipped and out-reported her male counterparts, and she always, always, got in the last cracked-wise word with everyone, that were truly hilarious.

The most oft told tale on the origin of this switcheroo is how Hawks had his secretary reading the part of Johnson during the pre-production phase (other sources claim it was at dinner party during a dialogue tutorial) and a mental light-bulb clicked on, sending the director scrambling to Lederer for, well, not as massive a rewrite as you'd think because even though the story might've changed the dialogue remained the same as the scheming and cajoling Burns still wants his ace reporter to get him the real scoop on a condemned man (Qualen) destined to be hanged at midnight for his newspaper but this is also part of his overall stratagem to win her back by derailing (the now) Hildegarde Johnson's impending marriage to a doltish (but earnest and completely overwhelmed) insurance salesmen who kinda looks like Ralph Bellamy.

What's a cold hard fact is that Rosalind Russell was about sixth or seventh in line for the role and only got it when Carole Lombard proved too expensive and several other big names -- Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunn, and Jean Arthur -- took a pass; a source of bitter contention between the actress and the director, causing a few dust-ups during production. Lombard was Hawks' first choice for Hildy, then Hepburn, whom he had hoped to pair up with Cary Grant again just like in the director's other britches-burning comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Grant was the director's first choice all along for Walter Burns, who had a ball. For once, the actor got to stir the pot instead of being at the mercy of whoever else was pee--*ahem*, sorry, whoever else was holding the ladle.

Russell would have the last laugh on the director, though, beating him at his own game. Knowing Hawks favored a loose script, spontaneity and improvisation, Russell hired her own gag writer to punch-up her dialogue to match Grant, barb for barb and double-entendre for double-entendre. Grant soon caught onto this but played along and didn't rat her out. And in the end, with the crackling chemistry these two show as they spark off of one another, we should all be grateful that those casting dominoes fell that far. Also, major kudos must be given to Bellamy as the never-say-die but never-had-a-chance corner of this love-triangle. And how 'bout a big hand for the gaggle of reporters at the courthouse, who proved this gender identity switching goes both ways. I mean, that poker game is one of the most gossipy hen-parties I've ever witnessed onscreen.

I'm always kind of amazed that it took until the 1970s before Hawks conversational style really caught on, cinematically speaking. (Remember, Robert Altman was fired off Countdown in 1968 because the studio charged his actors were all talking at the same time.) But right here is where it really started, a veritable well-stocked vocabulary bar, brash, brassy, rowdy, and ballsy that'll leave your ears a little punch-drunk. And if you haven't seen it yet, the film is (quite inexplicably) in the public domain; and thus, available to stream almost everywhere, so give it a whirl. Just be sure to hang on to something after you push play because there's a gale-force storm of comedy primed and ready to run you over -- and then back up and run you over again. And again. Aaaaaaand again. 

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"Hawks immediately recognized that with Hildy as a woman the story takes on a new, interesting dimension: the characters play for higher stakes. In The Front Page, Walter wants Hildy to remain with The Morning Post instead of marrying Peggy and taking a higher paying advertising job. This is as much out of spite (as Peggy points out) as out of fear of losing his ace reporter. (In the play, there is additionally a subtle homosexual bond between Hildy and Walter.) In His Girl Friday, Walter, who becomes the lead male character, needs Hildy (as all Hawks' heroes are incomplete without women of equal intelligence, wit, and strength of character) because he loves her and because she is a crack reporter -- not necessarily in that order."

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The Fine Print: His Girl Friday was watched via Amazon Prime's streaming package. Watched as a Howard Hawks double-feature with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's seven down, with 193 to go.

His Girl Friday (1940) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Howard Hawks / D: Howard Hawks / W: Charles Lederer, Morrie Ryskind, Ben Hecht (play), Charles MacArthur (play) / C: Joseph Walker / E: Gene Havlick / M: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills / S: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Abner Biberman, John Qualen

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