22 May 2009

Production For Use, The Magnificent Efficiency of His Girl Friday

The most recent post on Jim Emerson's film blog for the Chicago Sun Times, Scanners, is about whether a single shot can ruin an entire film. Check it out. I may delve into this topic myself at a later date. I was reminded of the topic when I watched His Girl Friday (1940) today. Why's that you ask? Because not only is there not one bad shot there's not a wasted second in the film's entire 92 minutes.

Last night I was watching Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), a film I greatly revere. But there a few things that have always bothered me about it. For example one night the gang makes much ado about going to see their beloved Baltimore Colts play in the championship game. So what happened? It's never mentioned again. Win or lose the outcome of the game is going to be discussed, or should be.

Every thread of His Girl Friday is followed to the end. All that famous overlapping dialogue and not a word of it is wasted. The great Howard Hawks directed. The screenplay was based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The celebrated stars are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and they have deserved every encomium given for their performances here. But hearty cheers were earned by the rest of the cast. The reporters in the city room were letter perfect, they included Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey who all graced numerous films of the Thirties and Forties.

Gene Lockhart is wonderful as the bumbling sheriff and Clarence Kolb was born to play a pompous blustering big city mayor. Billy Gilbert is an absolute hoot as the incorruptible Joe Pettibone who wouldn't dream of doing anything his wife would disapprove of.

Then there's the character who is described as looking like Ralph Bellamy, Bruce Baldwin. He of course is played by Ralph Bellamy. Baldwin is the quintessential unsexy, bland, exciting as dishwater fiance that has become a film staple. No one played the likable sap better. He had done it before opposite Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) when he was all set to marry Irene Dunne.

Also in the cast was John Qualen and its pretty near time I devoted an entire post to this great character actor who showed up in many of the great films of his era. Here he plays the convicted killer Earl Williams. He gives the character enough darkness so that we take his plight seriously, but not so much that humor becomes uncomfortable. Indeed the success of this aspect of the film is one of the reasons the film works so well and on so many levels.

The notion of a condemned killer who may not be in his right mind and who in any case is a victim of society's ills has deep resonance. As do the notions of possible protests in response and politicians using the execution for their own purposes. The jailhouse interview conducted by Russell's character, Hildy Johnston and the killer is worthy of a serious drama, but like Qualen's performance does not detract from the comedy.

His Girl Friday also takes a hard look at newspapers. For example we see the casualness reporters develop in the face of tragic events, like a young woman jumping to her apparent death.

Of course pacing is everything whether the dialogue is rapid fire or languid. His Girl Friday moves at a frenetic pace but is not for a moment confusing or disorienting. Not only are characters talking fast, but the action is often constant. There are virtually no action scenes per se but people are always doing something, whether typing, talking on the phone, playing footsie or moving about the room. A lot of action takes place in one room yet the film never feels confined.

I'd submit that anyone who wants to direct a film should study certain classics and this would be one of them. There's not a second of fluff. I showed it to a journalism class comprised of 7th and 8th graders one year. Young people of that age group today almost universally balk at old films particularly in black and white. They didn't have time to utter a whine, groan or moan about His Girl Friday. They were drawn in immediately and absent a yawn in the whole film, they stayed with it, offering nary a complaint. After all, what's to complain about?


Kate Gabrielle said...

Oh, I love this film SO much I could watch it every day. Love that you caught the Ralph Bellamy line-- you know there's an Archie Leach one too right?

Call me a sap, but films that have an underlying message about society and morality like this one are the ones I like most.

Unknown said...

This is a fantastic film and your review is right on the money. I love both the Ralph Belamy and the Archie Leach lines ! Keep up the Great Work !!

Unknown said...

There is only 1 question I want to ask, what was the name of the major's first wife ?

You mean the one with the wart on her ? Fanny.

Anonymous said...

Joe Pettibone....hilarious. You can see Cary Grant trying to hold back laughter when he says " Well shes good enough for me!" about The Wife. And if you look close you can see a cut after The Mayor shuts the door on Joe hes cracking up.