WEIRDLAND: His Girl Friday Blu-Ray: Rosalind Russell & Cary Grant, Screwball Gender Conflicts

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

His Girl Friday Blu-Ray: Rosalind Russell & Cary Grant, Screwball Gender Conflicts

"The so-called "digital" is not a mere technical medium, but a medium of thought. And when modern democracies turn technical thought into a separate domain, those modern democracies incline towards totalitarianism". Jean-Luc Godard

When adapting Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s smash hit play The Front Page, director Howard Hawks had the inspired idea of turning star reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman, and the result is an immortal mix of hard-boiled newsroom setting with remarriage comedy in His Girl Friday (1940). Also presented here is a brand-new restoration of the 1931 The Front Page, the famous pre-Code adaptation of the same material, directed by Lewis Milestone.

His Girl Friday Blu-Ray New Features:

-New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
-New 2K restoration of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931), made from a recently discovered  print of the director’s preferred version
-New interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday
-Archival interviews with director Howard Hawks
-Featurettes from 1999 about Hawks, actor Rosalind Russell, and the making of His Girl Friday
-Radio adaptation of His Girl Friday from 1940
-New piece about the restoration of The Front Page
-New piece about playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht
-Radio adaptations of the play The Front Page from 1937 and 1946
-PLUS: A booklet featuring essays on His Girl Friday and The Front Page by film critics Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow. 

The two opening episodes of His Girl Friday are an addition to the play and develop the romance. Six years after the beginning of the screwball cycle, Hawks brings the gender conflicts central to the movement to their most striking expression. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) returns to The Morning Post to tell her editor and former husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that she is getting married. She even brings her fiance Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) along with her (as if Walter will suspect a ruse unless he sees the hard evidence). The plot portrays the shifting gender roles that transformed the experience of women in the decades following World War I. In this romantic comedy, love and work are united rather than in conflict. Walter knows that if he can get Hildy to reexperience her passion as a reporter, she will revive her love for him in their common endeavor. On the other hand, Bruce Baldwin represents Walter’s opposite. Bruce is the traditional choice. As Hildy explains, “He treats me like a woman.” 

Hawks took his idea for turning The Front Page into a romantic comedy to Columbia Pictures, where Harry Cohn, the studio chief, gave the project a green light. When Ben Hecht was unavailable to write the revision, Hawks hired Charles Lederer, a member of Hecht’s circle who had worked on the film adaptation of The Front Page (1931), to do the screenplay. Many have noted the speed of His Girl Friday (Bordwell and Thompson 2001: 352). Hawks was proud of his snappy direction of dialogue, the interruptions, the overlapping exchanges, and rapid-fire speech (McBride 1982: 80–1). Todd McCarthy has noted that the film clocks in at 240 words per minute, about 100–50 words faster than normal American speech (1997: 283). Lea Jacobs times nine scenes with a delivery at or above four words per second, and two of those above five words per second (1998: 406). 

Others have explained that the use of gesture, movement by character, and camera and editing also propel the pace forward, complementing the rapid-fire talk (Mast 1982; Sarris 1968; Wood 1968). The contrast between the deliberate speech of Bruce and Earl and the fast-talking Walter and Hildy also intensifies the conflict between the slow rube and the quick-thinking sophisticate. It assures us that this couple are meant for each other. Hawks forgoes a musical score until the very end, allowing these other elements to determine the rhythm of his picture. 

His Girl Friday maintains a remarkable pace in a film made up exclusively of interior sets, whose final scene unfolds in thirty-three minutes without leaving one room. As a result, the audience senses the compression of time. What is the meaning of this stylistic device? The deadline approaches. There is little opportunity to think, and less time to feel. Only those with a quick mind, ready words, and fast reflexes prosper. The others have to take out insurance and hope that their cards are lucky. “You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world,” says Earl Williams. The poseurs, like Dr. Engelhofer, risk getting shot “in the classified ads.” A hanging, a jailbreak, a suicide, can suddenly shift the tide of fortune, and power changes hands. And so in affairs of the heart how can one listen to one’s own emotions, let alone sense the beloved? It’s best to act; to exercise one’s skill, and to work in tandem with those who share your talent, sense your direction, and feel your pulse. 

Speed and toughness give His Girl Friday a distinctive American character; clever and harsh, its intelligence glides beneath the surface, and its passion and concern are disguised by its cynicism. The film hides its feelings in the humor of a hostile world almost spinning out of control. The earnest ones who propose marriage and declare their love, like Bruce and Earl, are vulnerable and stupid. The emotion they express amounts to dime-store cliches whose reliability may fade with their confidence. Walter shuns expressions of affection and romantic gestures. He tells Hildy what she can do, what they can do together, who they are fighting against and campaigning alongside. 

His Girl Friday cuts fast and clean. The screwball couple work together and discover their love in action, their fun in words, their union through a tough-minded turn from sentiment in a world run by scoundrels at the expense of fools. Does Hildy’s education suppress a woman’s sensibility for a masculine exercise of power? Yes, Hildy does choose power over feeling, pragmatism over poses, but, as Walter says, she can write with a woman’s touch, she can hear Earl’s pathos rise from his confusion. But she fears the fate of Molly, the beleaguered woman whose caring was used against her. Hildy finds her power in words, her patron in Walter, and she chooses to break free and run with the scoundrels. 

Finally Hildy fully experiences her rebirth of feeling. Walter dispatched Hildy to stop the execution of Earl Williams, but also to cover a jailbreak. “I know you,” Walter claimed at the beginning, “I know what quitting would mean to you.” He had to imprison Bruce Baldwin three times and secure a reprieve for Earl Williams before Hildy finally discovered that she was the one who had to break free from the expectations of “being treated like a woman” and find her true self. "The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies" (2011) by Leger Grindon

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