Feb 20, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No 63

Because this film is out of copyright you can watch it free and legally in full on Youtube by clicking the link below.

63: HIS GIRL FRIDAY [1940]
DIR: Howard Hawks

Radio 5 Live critic Mark Kermode's rule for current comedies is that he recommends those with six laughs or more. It's a sad, sad state of affairs when one laugh roughly every 17.5 minutes can be considered as a recommendable ratio. To say that, given that qualification, His Girl Friday is a recommendable comedy would be to drastically understate things. This film doesn't have a laugh every 17.5 minutes, hell I'd be surprised if the ratio weren't better than 1 laugh every 17.5 seconds, so fast and furious is the comedy.

His Girl Friday came about when Director Howard Hawks, trying to demonstrate why he believed that the play The Front Page, on which the film is based, had the best dialogue he had ever heard. He took one of the male leads to read, and asked a female guest to take the other, soon realising that changing the gender of one of the characters had great effect on dialogue and story. So, the male editor and reporter of the play become a crack female reporter and her editor and ex-husband, lending an entirely different chemistry, and new comic possibilities, to the story.

Hawks' frequent collaborator Cary Grant rejoined him for this film, and he's at his urbane best here, making Walter Burns, who is a manipulative and pretty awful character if you stop and think about for more than about two seconds, charming and hilarious. Opposite him, in place of the intended Jean Arthur (with whom Hawks apparently didn't hit it off on Only Angels Have Wings the year before) Hawks cast Rosalind Russell, not the most beautiful leading lady of her time, but a talented one, and able to hold the screen, even with Grant at his most charismatic and funny.

Russell is the anchor of the film, and her rich voice and crisp delivery bite into the many hilarious lines in Charles Lederer's screenplay. She talks (as does everyone) at 100 miles per hour, but we never miss a word of it, and her comic timing is impeccable. There's a particular skill too in making the story play in a screwball comedy, and Russell's dramatic background serves her well there, she's able to turn on a dime and play the films various relationships (with Grant and with her new fiancé, played by Ralph Bellamy) believably without letting the laughs flag.

Cary Grant may seldom have played anyone but Cary Grant (and he's really not stretching much here) but he did it with such assurance, such skill and such charm that you can't help but be drawn in. There's a surprising economy to Grant's performance here; he doesn't actually move much, giving the impression of Walter Burns as an utterly assured man who knows that everything is certain to work out his way. He's also capable of some wonderfully ridiculous moments. Grant plays the film's last twenty minutes at more or less constant fever pitch, becoming funnier with every passing second. Also to grant's credit he improvised perhaps the film's funniest line, when Walter is asked to describe Hildy's fiancé and says "He looks like that fellow in the movies... Ralph Bellamy"

This isn't to say that the quality stops with Grand and Russell, there is an endless parade of funny supporting performances, fro me the most notable is from Billy Gilbert, who has two hilarious scenes as a messenger named Mr Pettibone. Hawks, for his part keeps a light but firm grasp on the madness, never drawing attention to the camera or editing, but never letting the energy drop and the film begin to feel like a filmed play.

Honestly though, His Girl Friday is on the list because it's funny.

Walter Burns: There's been a lamp burning in the window for ya, honey... here.
Hildy Johnson: Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago.

Bruce Baldwin: [Concerning Walter] I like him; he's got a lot of charm.
Hildy Johnson: Well he comes by it naturally his grandfather was a snake.

Walter Burns: [on the phone] Well Butch, where are you?... Well, what are you doing there? Haven't you even started?... Listen, it's a matter of life and death!... Well, you can't stop for a dame now! I don't care if you've been after her for six years. Butch - our whole lives are at stake! Are you going to let a woman come between us after all we've been through?... Butch, I'd put my arm in fire for you, up to here. Now you can't double-cross me... Put her on, I'll talk to her.
[talking to the woman]
Walter Burns: Oh, good evening madam. Now listen, you ten-cent glamour girl. You can't keep Butch away from his duty!... What's that?... You say that again, I'll come over there and kick you in the teeth!... Say, what kind of language is that? Now look here you. -
[makes a noise like a horse, hangs up]
Walter Burns: She hung up! What did I say?

Walter Burns: Look, Hildy, I only acted like any husband that didn't want to see his home broken up.
Hildy Johnson: What home?
Walter Burns: "What home"? Don't you remember the home I promised you?

Hildy Johnson: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: "Hildy, don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter." Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

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