Monday, March 29, 2010

His Girl Friday: Love that Repartee

There used to exist this wonderful type of movie called the screwball comedy. Many have tried to recreate the magic of that genre today, but it never matches up to the charm of those original movies. It’s the changing times that have caused that format to die away, and will never be able to be brought back to life like it was before. But I can’t help but long for someone to finally bring it around again. Until that magic happens, I’ll stick with one of my favorites – “His Girl Friday.”

From 1940, “His Girl Friday” stars the man who was truly the best at screwball comedy, Cary Grant, the ever delightful Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy. Adapted from the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it is the story of newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his attempt to stop his star reporter – and ex-wife – Hildy Johnson (Russell) from getting married and quitting the newspaper business. In the original play, the leads are actually two men, but after director Howard Hawks heard his secretary reading Hildy’s lines during auditions, he liked how a woman sounded so much better. He asked the playwrights’ if they would mind turning Hildy into a woman, and with their blessing, they continued with the rewrite.

Of course, in the play, Hildy and Burns were never married. (The world was not that provocative yet). However, the addition of the leads’ previous marriage made Hawks enjoy the dialogue even more. See, it was the cutting and sharp dialogue Hawks enjoyed most about the play, and made him want to turn it into a fast-paced movie. He wanted it to feel like real conversations, where people, especially people arguing, tend to talk over one another. This was a new concept for film at the time, because up until this film, most all dialogue in films wasn’t spoken until the character’s line beforehand was finished. Of course, this made for much more dialogue than usual and a much longer script. The final screenplay for “His Girl Friday” was 191 pages long, yet the film runs only 92 minutes. This contradicts the traditional screenplay rule in Hollywood that a page of dialogue usually runs about one to one and a half minutes on film.

During filming though, Hawks encouraged adlibbing by the actors. Grant had become a pro at it after working on films like “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing Up Baby,” another Hawks film. One of Grant’s most famous adlibs in “His Girl Friday” is when he talks about the last man to cross him, naming him Archie Leach. Grant’s real name was Archibald Leach. Another great adlib by Grant that almost didn’t make it into the final cut of the film is when he is trying to describe Bellamy’s character, Hildy’s fiancĂ© Bruce. Grant ends up saying “He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know…Ralph Bellamy!” Columbia studio head Harry Cohn didn’t like that line at all when he saw the dailies, saying it was too cheeky and Hawks had to take it out. But luckily Hawks convinced him otherwise, and it survived.

I simply adore Rosalind Russell. She was one of those actresses I wanted to be like as a kid, like Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball. I loved when they played those spitfire characters, women who could hold their own to any man and still be beautiful and funny. Russell shines in “His Girl Friday,” one of the few films of the time to actually put a woman at equal level with a man. However, Russell almost wasn’t cast. The part originally went to Carole Lombard, but the studio could not afford her. It then went out to Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunn, and Claudette Colbert, but they all turned it down. When Russell finally was cast and production started, knowing she hadn’t been first choice, she felt like Hawks was treating her like leftovers. Finally she went up to Hawks and said “You don't want me, do you? Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.” She went on to get much critical praise for the role of Hildy.

Even though the original play is still under copyright, “His Girl Friday” is in the public domain now, so you can see it for free on practically ever sight out there, including Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. (And for all my friends out there who might want to make their own version of the film, go for it!) So kick-start your week with some great witty repartee this humdrum Monday. Have a great week, and I’ll be back on Friday!

(Post-tidbit: Both Grant and Russell reprised their roles for an abridged radio version of “His Girl Friday” on “The Screen Guild Theater” on March 30, 1941, exactly 69 years ago tomorrow. But thanks to YouTube, you can hear it below. (Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.))

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