April 30, 2011

His Girl Friday (1940)

I've been slacking with my reviews lately.  I blame Gone with the Wind.  It was just so... so... much, that after that other movies just seem too mundane to be worth commenting on.  In fact it felt much like this film project was already over, because we have, if you think about it, already come full circle.  Sixteen weeks ago we saw the also epic and industry-defining The Birth of a Nation, which even shares many story elements with Gone with the Wind, especially in the first and early second acts.  From those primitive beginnings, pretty much all the major filmmaking techniques have now been realized.  Everything D. W. Griffith set out to do has been revisited and perfected is one monumental effort.  At least according to the standards of the time, Gone with the Wind was very much the Ultimate Movie.

So where do we go from here?  I realize now that the '30s really were the true Golden Age of Hollywood; the period that is the most "classic."  What sets the next phase of film history apart is a more visible effort to push boundaries; deconstruct old ideas; play with form and tone.  Because, in the wake of the Ultimate Movie, what else was there to do?

So... His Girl Friday, a subversive screwball comedy about the newspaper business.  The story is actually adapted from a 1920's stage play called The Front Page, itself made into a film in 1931.  This version amps up the already fast-paced, overlapping dialogue even more, and adds a new twist by turning the ace reporter character of Hildy Johnson into a woman, thus adding a love triangle and a new dimension of social commentary.

The film is notably unflattering towards the news industry, the law, and pretty much everyone else.  Anybody with significant moral fiber - who might've been the star of a more conventional film - winds up merely a naive pawn pushed to the sidelines around Johnson and her boss, Walter Burns (Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant), who power the film with their romantically charged feuding.  They are both big personalities, and equals in every way: equally intelligent, capable, sharp-tongued, and ruthless.  You might say they belong together, in that way people say it that isn't entirely complimentary.

His Girl Friday is famous for the dialogue, which is so fast I'm sure I missed half the jokes.  The way characters constantly speak over each other was fairly novel on film, and an important step towards more naturalistic acting.  However, naturalism was not the point here - the dialogue is all about style.  In fact, it was almost a special effect.  The movie has too many shots of reporters barking overlapping torrents of information into their telephones (a telephone should probably have been the poster image), so that eventually I got the impression the movie had those scenes just to show off that it could do them, like an action film with too many special effects.

More importantly, though, the dialogue paces the movie, in the same way that music would ordinarily be used.  This, to me, was the most interesting and revolutionary quality of the film.  The intensity of the conversations was used to build tension, moreso than their actual contents (which often could not be heard anyway), and the payoffs come when the dialogue suddenly ceases, leaving a portentous silence.  Some actual music does appear right at the end, and, because the movie was so thoughtfully structured, I instantly realized, "Ah, we must be at the end of the movie."

Overall, I can't say that I liked it.  Comedy ages faster than most genres, especially something so topical as this.  But I definitely appreciate the craftsmanship, and the creative approach to spinning its story.  It's a shame Rosalind Russell didn't become a bigger star.  She got the part because almost everyone else turned it down, and made it her own.

NEXT WEEK: The film that, try as he might, even William Randalph Hearst couldn't stop.  It's hard to believe we're already here.

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