Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, February 28, 2008

His Girl Friday

I have a long-standing pet theory about Hawks' comedies that I'm starting to question. The theory is that the comedies contain two different kinds of characters, pitched at different levels of abstraction: one more plausible and naturalistic, the other more stylized and exaggerated. And that the films document the perplexity of the more naturalistic characters as they are confronted by refugees from a different and wilder movie.

One reason the theory is appealing is that Hawks' dramas clearly depend for their effect on the manipulation of multiple levels of realism. Hawks creates genre-based expectations using story, decor, secondary characters, etc., and then encourages the lead actors to play the movie faster, smaller, more casually than the setup leads us to expect.

I recently revisited His Girl Friday, no doubt the greatest Hawks comedy, for the first time in decades. (I watched it eleven times between 1973 and 1985, then gave it a long rest.) His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby (which I saw not too long ago) are the comedies that best support my old theory. But now I'm not so sure that the concept holds up.

Obviously Hildy Johnson would be the more scaled-down, psychologically readable character in my schema, and Walter Burns would be the creature from the House of Fiction. But, even in the first big duel between Walter and Hildy in Walter's office, one notices a great deal of choreography: stylized, balletic moves that seem designed to show off artifice. Hildy slips out of Walter's grasp with split-second timing; Walter knows when Hildy will throw that pillow at him, and at what angle. Surely there's a sense in which Hildy and Walter inhabit the same plane of abstraction, not different planes. Both actors play-act openly; and our pleasure comes from watching and sharing their delight in having pulled it off, or sometimes their amusement at not quite pulling it off.

Bruce Baldwin, Hildy's suitor, is really only slightly more plausible a lover than the absurd Miss Swallow in Bringing Up Baby. If we divide the film into opposing aesthetic principles, one more realist and one more fantastic, then Bruce has to follow Hildy into the more realist sector, and we must then account for her bizarre desire to settle down with this "paragon," who no less than Walter beckons Hildy into the realm of burlesque.

Instead of trying to justify such a bifurcation, it makes more sense to me now to view Hawks' comedies more in the way that I view his dramas. In other words, less in terms of one set of actors opposed to another, and more in terms of the actors working and playing together, opening up a gap between themselves and their genre-identified environment, and amusing themselves by acknowledging that gap.

Still, somehow there is a difference between the comedies and the dramas: all Hawks commentators have puzzled over it. It occurs to me that most adventure-based genres don't interfere very much with Hawks' desire to create the kind of idealized characters he enjoys. He evokes genre mostly with background elements and introductory passages; his actors perform their genre duties while both having fun and projecting Hawks' idea of what he'd like people to be. Whereas comedy, at least to the extent that it comes with genre coding, seems to require that actors behave in an eccentric or outrageous manner. This is a potential issue, because Hawks likes his characters to embody his ideals.

In my post on Bringing Up Baby, I talked about how the film seems to be split in two by these impulses: the need to create clear genre signals with goofy characters; and the desire to enjoy the company of ideal characters. I believe that this tension is what gave rise in my mind to the idea that Hawks' comedies are built around the formal conceit of the collision of characters from different kinds of movies.

Judging from interviews, His Girl Friday seems to have been a conscious effort on Hawks' part to tone down the unreality of the comic hijinks in Baby. The tensions within the earlier film have been reduced, or at least made less conspicuous. Modern audiences can admire and emphathize with Hildy Johnson in a way that they cannot with David Huxley.

There's a quietly stunning moment in His Girl Friday where Hawks shoots the works on two brief closeups of Hildy, eating lunch with Bruce and getting off a few wisecracks at Walter's expense: "He comes by it naturally - his grandfather was a snake." The background of the restaurant is suddenly dense: dark shadows overhead, bit players in motion, cigarette smoke. Hildy is eating her food, enjoying the ambience. The shots would work perfectly in a Hawks drama - in fact they look a bit like Only Angels Have Wings, the other Hawks film shot by Joseph Walker - and take their place with the many other idyllic interludes in bars and cafes in Hawks's work, evoking the pleasures of social intercourse. Bringing Up Baby couldn't have accommodated such images - it isn't drama-friendly enough.

But the comedy-vs.-drama tensions of the earlier film haven't been eliminated altogether. Hawks and his writers (credited Charles Lederer, uncredited Ben Hecht and Morrie Ryskind, maybe others) devised a two-part structure in an attempt to balance the film's comic and dramatic needs. In the first section of the film, Hildy is firm in her desire to leave the newspaper business behind, and the film slowly sets up the pleasure-giving mechanism of the Earl Williams case. There is lots of fast dialogue and good comic business in these early scenes, but there are also daringly slow, pregnant passages: not only the celebrated scene where Hildy interviews Earl (precisely pitched between cynicism and empathy, readable either way), but also the remarkable, very long dead spot after the reporters torment Molly Malone, with bad conscience killing dialogue, leaving only the sparse ambience of the news room to fill the movie until Hildy's return.

The first section ends with the Earl Williams prison break and Hildy's instinctive reenlistment as an investigative reporter. This scene, invested with considerable weight by Hawks' framing and decoupage (Hawks holds a medium shot of Hildy as the news room goes wild, then tracks behind her as she casts her lot with the newspaper life), takes much of the suspense out of Hildy's dramatic arc. She will continue to resist her fate after this, but the filmmakers won't take her nearly as seriously. The second section of the film is a comic elaboration of the consequences of Hildy's backslide, and a mere coda from the point of view of dramatic development. Walter Burns, who has heretofore lurked in the film's margins, seizes center stage, now that the preeminence of his world view has been established; and Hildy begins to function as little more than one of his imps. As if to confirm the ascendency of the Walter principle, the second half is punctuated with as many affronts to decency as Hawks and the writers can fit in. The ending, with Hildy once again disappointed and humiliated, is probably best understood in terms of this current of nihilistic comedy: the tour that Hildy has signed up for is a lot of fun (in fact, it's where all the fun in the film is), but she cannot expect justice and dignity there.

It's an odd place for a Hawks hero to wind up, and there are moments along the way where the ego-negating farce isn't a perfect fit for the level-headed gal who sat in that dreamy restaurant. The question is not so much whether she would fall for the devil again, but whether she would keep the plot spinning by putting up token resistance after her fall.

Does this difficulty in reconciling characterization with the principles of farce constitute an imperfection? It feels that way at times. Do I wish the imperfection were eliminated? I don't think so. Without the introduction of farce, Hawks wouldn't have a logical path that he can follow to the point of chaos. Maybe the spots where the two aesthetic planes don't quite meet are the price we pay for the excitement generated by bringing them together.

David Bordwell recently posted an interesting account of His Girl Friday's critical standing over the decades.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan, for some reason I have never really enjoyed "His Girl Friday" or "Bringing Up Baby". My favorite American comedy has long been Cuckor's "The Philadelphia Story".

February 29, 2008 2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another delicious American comedy I would love to see on DVD is Elaine May's "A New Leaf". It is a mystery to me why this utterly charming and intelligent film is not more widely appreciated.

March 2, 2008 2:43 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Peter - I love those two Hawks films, but I'm always surprised that more people aren't bothered by them. There's so much old-time, vaudeville comedy in them - and then the unlikable characters don't get any more likable as the films progress. Of course, A New Leaf runs some of the same risks, in different ways....

March 3, 2008 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan, I probably need to revisit Hawks. I agree with your point about vaudeville. Which reminds me of the films of Frank Capra. I used to be a big fan of his work. Once again, it has been years since I saw his films. Not forgetting the great Preston Sturges.

March 3, 2008 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan, your mention of vaudeville for some reason brought to mind George Marshall's wonderful Western spoof, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. One of my favorite films.

March 4, 2008 1:38 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home