Thursday, May 15, 2008

Favourite movies: His Girl Friday (1940)



Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur created their immortal play "The Front Page" in 1928. It was a smash hit on Broadway starring Osgoode Perkins as ruthless, fast-thinking editor Walter Burns who stops at nothing to keep ace reporter, Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson, from getting married and leaving the newspaper racket...that is, the journalistic profession. The 1931 motion picture was also a hit starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. The Academy graced the effort with three nominations: Best Picture, Best Director - Lewis Milestone, and Best Lead Actor - Menjou. It was a case of it's nice to be nominated.

Inspiration, as it so often did, struck director Howard Hawks and he envisioned "The Front Page" with a romantic angle. Hildy wasn't just to be Burns' ace, she was to be his ex-ever lovin'. The play was adapted by frequent Hawks' collaborator, Charles Lederer (The Thing from Another World, Monkey Business, I Was a Male War Bride, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Rosalind Russell was given the role by attrition. It had been turned down by Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur. Feeling just the teeniest bit slighted and not sure of Hawks, it was co-star Cary Grant's friendship and improvisational skill that put Roz at her ease until she realized she did have Hawks' trust. One day she threw her purse at Grant who ducked and responded "You used to be better than that". It's in the picture, as are some adlibs from an advertising copywriter Miss Russell hired to help her keep up with the fellas.

Classic Hollywood movies are graced with incredibly talented character actors and most of them seem to be in this movie. The reporters awaiting the execution of a railroaded schnook: Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey. The poor schnook: John Qualen. The crooked mayor, Clarence Kolb. His numbskull sheriff, Gene Lockhart. Burns' beleaguered assistant editor, Frank Orth. Irving Bacon as a waiter (just how many waiters did Mr. Bacon play?). Billy Gilbert almost walking away with the movie as the befuddled Pettibone, purveyor of pardons. Abner Biberman as Burns' henchman Louis. Alma Kruger as a respectable almost mother-in-law. Helen Mack has the thankless role of Molly Molloy and plays with conviction. Miss Mack was on the vaudeville stage at the age of ten, a silent film leading lady and eventually a producer and writer for radio. In Hawks' pictures you will often find the finest ensemble work. Part of his knack for bringing the high energy to such scenes is through many rehearsals often aided by a stop watch, keeping sharp eye on on his professional cast and the take-no-prisoners dialogue.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are marvelous in "His Girl Friday", a most felicitous teaming and dream casting (apologies to the talented ladies who sought other roles). So overwhelmingly great are our leads that one almost overlooks the contribution to the movie of Ralph Bellamy as Bruce Baldwin, the other man, offering the simple joys of life out of the fast lane to our heroine. Mr. Bellamy is perfect! His looks are of the tall, protective, comforting type. His talent is unquestioned. The movie is full of wonderful moments of this poor sap, pardon me, fish out of water, having his life turned upside down by the jealous Walter Burns. One almost feels sorry for poor Bruce, one certainly appreciates that few could play that role as well.

No Academy Award nominations were forthcoming for this adaption of "The Front Page". However, in 1993 the movie was placed on the National Film Registry along with these outstanding films: Shane, Lassie Come Home, It Happened One Night, Nothing But a Man, Sweet Smell of Success, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Wind.

I watch "His Girl Friday" often. Sometimes I sit back and roar, chuckle and grin. Sometimes I am silent, as I enjoy the pure genius of the thought-provoking, funny script and its execution. I am always energized and awe-struck by this movie classic.

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic film...it exhausts me to watch it. Thanks for all of the background info.

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  2. Thanks, guesswho.

    I like pontificating on the web. I don't have to see folks' eyes glaze over!

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  3. Hard to believe this very fine film didn't earn one single Academy Award nomination. How many did James Cameron's Titanic get? Sad. Sad Sad.

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    1. I'm glad the Academy is there, doing its thing, but sometimes we can't help but wonder what "they" were thinking.

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