Last night I watched His Girl Friday again, for the nth time. It’s one of my favourite ever films. One of those sharp sassy black and white movies with machine-gun fire dialogue, wit, edge and amazing screen chemistry. It tells the story of a group of unscrupulous newspapermen, including one ‘newspaperman’ who is a woman, covering the case of convicted murderer Earl Williams, who is due to be hanged in the morning. Earl escapes and – well, to say more would be a spoiler.
But the extraordinary thing about the film is that it’s so FAST. Not only fast, devious, nimble-footed, and bewilderingly cynical. It is at heart a coruscating satire of the amorality and immorality of newspaper folk But yet, we love them. Many people have gone into journalism after watching this movie, on the misapprehension that all journalists will be as clever, witty and beguiling as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (they’re not.) And though both the leads, Grant and Russell, behave appallingly we love them, and we want them to fall in love.
If you’ve never seen it, do so; if you’ve seen it as often as I have, you haven’t seen it often enough.
All this is the segue for a wee bit of a discourse about movies and authors and the like. On this website I’ve featured a number of long and sometimes quite scholarly (cue Archie Tait and Stuart McGregor) articles on movies, books and TV. And in a little while I’ll be featuring a major piece by Stuart on the graphic novel author Warren Ellis. Yes, Debatable Spaces does occasional venture beyond me blathering about my new novel release and pimping my own work (oh, by the way – Artemis goes on sale in – shut up Palmer!)
I was watching His Girl Friday as part of my current venture of teaching on a course in film up at the University of York. It’s a job that came about by the usual circuitous route (my entire life is a series of random coincindences) and for me it’s been a great chance to reconnect with old movies and new movies in a rather more systematic fashion than has been my wont over the last year or so. And a chance also to think about what movies mean, and how they work, which is invaluable to me in my other role as a screenwriter and co-producer of a feature film.
So what’s the story with His Girl Friday? Why is it so good?
Firstly, I’d argue, it’s a prime example of that cultural movement known as Pulp. Think Raymond Chandler, think Dashiell Hammett; think also Billy Wilder’s fast and furious comedies, or the gangster movies of Jimmy Cagney (which I’ve also been revisiting). They’re different things in different genres, but the one thing they have in common is blistering speed. Paul Cain wrote a pulp crime novel called Fast One; that could be the name for that whole movement. Compare and contrast with the novels of George R. R. Martin, which explore a world in a thorough and detailed and – though hugely exciting – slow fashion. But in the 30s and 40s the vogue was for fast and furious; you get to the point, you make it, you move on. In White Heat, for instance, by the third shot we know that Jimmy Cagney is about to rob a train. In Reservoir Dogs, we spend AGES listening to the guys nattering on before we realise a bank job is about to occur.
There’s no right or wrong about this; it’s just the issue of how pace in storytelling can change. I find that fascinating. And when you watch an old movie by Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, the first reaction is panic – my God, this is all happening so quickly, can I keep up? We cod ourselves that we live in the age of fast editing and multi-tasking brains; but the average modern action blockbluster is a snail compared to the racing hares of yesteryear.
Then there’s the hat. Rosalind Russell’s hat. And her suit too – big shoulders, very mannish, sexy in a totally empowering way. His Girl Friday is one of the great feminist movies of all times because Rosalind’s character is, from first to last, one of the guys; but on her own terms. She’s ambitious, ruthless, smart-witted, fast-talking. Allegedly, Russell hired her own screenwriter to amp up her own dialogue so she had just as much witty repartee as the guys; if so, that proves the actress became her character. Take no shit, Rosalind. Get in there and do the job.
Nowadays, it’s much rarer to see such a powerful and guileful woman in a mainstream movie; we live in the age of Lady Gaga and Beyonce. It’s still a world of empowered women – both those ladies certainly are – but to see Rosalind’s brand of edge and wit and velocity in a female character in a movie is not as common as it ought to be. Film-makers, take note.
If I may just slip in a week academic beat; there’s a famous semiotic study (stay with me! don’t flee!) about the pop singer Madonna, by academic John Fiske (in a book called Reception Study, edited by James Machor and Philip Goldstein). According to the editors, Fiske ‘construes fans as active viewers and listeners for whom Madonna’s persona and music become a “site of semiotic struggle between the forces of patriarchy and feminine resistance of capitalism and the subordinate.” ’ Phew. And according to Lucy, a 14 year old Madonna fan, as quoted by Fiske, ‘she’s tarty and seductive…but it look alright when she does it you know, what I mean, if anyone else did it it would like right tarty, a right tart you know, but with her it’s OK, it’s acceptable.’
‘Reception study’ by the way is that academic discipline that deals with the way that real people – you and me – respond and react to cultural phenomena. Its method involves talking to people, finding out what they really believe, then discussing those conclusions. So it’s not some arid theoretical discipline; it’s an evidence-based study of the phenomena of our everyday life.
And what Fiske learns about Madonna is that she dresses like a whore on stage in a ‘post-modern’, ironic, empowering way. Girls feel good about themselves watching Madonna sing; she’s no dumb blonde. She’s using exaggerative versions of the icons of sexuality (those conical breasts!) to say, Hey, look at me, I’m a woman and I’m sexy and I’m cool with it.
But the hat worn by Rosalind Russell playing the role of Hildy Johnson – especially when tipped back, as it is in the photo above – tells a different story. This woman is sexy but doesn’t have to flaunt it. She just wants to do her job, the best she can. She’s not playing any artful erotic game; damn it all, she’s best ‘newspaperman’ in the business! That’s actually, to be honest, a little bit more feminist than Madonna’s schtick. It’s also inspirational. And, for a film made in 1940, it’s a beacon and a symbol for all women in all audiences everywhere. No more dumb blondes; this is the way of women in the future.
All that is conveyed by the hat; not just the hat the whole demeanour of the character; not just the whole demeanour of the character, but the very tang and pace and dash of the film. The film means more than just the story in other worlds. It’s the epitome of a whole way of being.
That’s as much semiotics as I will perpetrate in this blog; forgive me my moment there.
Interestingly, the feminist subtext to the movie arose by chance. In the original version – - a hit Broadway stage play called The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – the role of Hildy Johnson was played by a man. But after hearing his secretary read the lines, Hawks decided to make Hildy Johnson a woman; which turned out to be an act of genius. A whole new subplot and subtext arose; a love story within the satirical comedy. (In the 1931 film Hildy Johnson was played by Pat O’Brien; in the 1974 version Hildy was played by Jack Lemmon.)
There now follows a visual retrospective of some of the works of Howard Hawks (1896-1977):
How careers begin…this early (1927) crime drama was directed by Joseph Von Sternberg and written by Ben Hecht, who wrote the play of The Front Page, on which His Girl Friday is based. But – uncredited – Hecht’s cowriter was the young Howard Hawks.
After producing more than 60 movies, and directing quite a few silent movies, this was Howard’s first talkie:
An all-male cast… a pressure cooker environment…does that ring a bell?
In an interview with Joseph McBride (in the book Hawks on Hawks) the director spoke of his approach to dialogue in this movie: ‘People liked the scenes because they were underdone, because they were thrown away. Nobody emoted in the pictures that I made.’ This is the very definition of what makes a Howard Hawks film; a casual thrown away approach to dialogue that roots the characters in the real. I’ve worked with directors who used this as their defining aesthetic – ‘Just throw the line away’. ‘Don’t act it, just throw it away,’ etc etc. The opposite approach is to be big and emotional and for a character to ‘beat his chest’.
Of course, some directors and indeed actors still to this day prefer ‘big’ acting. Think Al Pacino in Scarface… (as opposed to Paul Muni in Scarface, the Howard Hawks’ movie with the same name – see below.)
This is a stunner of a movie; Muni is brooding; the acting is laconic. Muni has a trick with a coin that is mesmerising. This is still, post-Godfather, one of my favourite gangster movies.
This is the one where Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn inadvertently adopt a leopard. Hawks has travelled the road from an all-male cast (Dawn Patrol) to directing a movie which has one of the best roles for a woman ever. His strategy for the writing /directing of female roles both here and in His Girl Friday was identical; just treat ‘em like men. The women are just as sassy, just as bold, just as annoying as the men. This utterly non-sexist approach also underpins the writing role of Starbuck (Kara Thrace) in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica; in the original series, Starbuck was a guy. In the reboot, Starbuck is a cigar-smoking whisky-swilling fist-fighting gal; same difference, huh?
Only Angels Have Wings features Cary Grant again, in a comedy about a guy who runs an air service. This is one I haven’t seen; must rectify!
And now we see Hawks’ range – from comedy back to war movie; this one was the highest-grossing film of its year.
His Girl Friday followed, in 1940, with this crap poster for a great film:
Then it was To Have and Have Not…Based loosely on the Ernest Hemmingway story, this was Lauren Bacall’s first role. She was spotted on the cover of a magazine by Hawks’ wife Slim; Hawks trained her how to pitch her voice low. And on the set, Bogie and Bacall fell in love…one of the greatest movie romances of all time, of the off-screen variety. William Faulkner worked on the script, with Ernest Hemmingway.
Hawks once broke his hand when he hit Hemmingway in the face, to prove to he knew how to throw a punch. Hemmingway laughed like a drain and the hand never healed. Sigh. Those were the days.
No, no, what am I saying – the writer should hit the DIRECTOR. That would be more like it…
(I’m kidding, honestly!)
Moving swiftly on to The Big Sleep, up there with The Maltese Falcon as one of the greatest detective movies of all time based on Chandler’s famously brilliant but narratively incoherent novel. (No one, not even the novelist, ever figured out who killed the chauffeur). And in this we get more of that unique Bacall/Bogart chemistry. (If you look hard, you’ll see the title The Big Sleep underneath the words BOGART AND BACALL, which tells you all you need to know about how this film was marketed).
By 1948, a change of direction – from the maker of sassy contemporary comedies and hardboiled noir thrillers and war movies, we have….a Western. Perhaps the greatest Western ever. This is (as memory serves) the Western in which they cry ‘Yee-hah!’ , as parodied in City Slickers.
John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, the cattle drive across a river. THE river. The Red River.
From there it’s a small step to science fiction… The Thing From Another World is based on the short story Who Goes There? by legendary SF editor Joseph W. Campbell. Years later John Carpenter re-made it as The Thing. The Carpenter version is a much better thriller, and those opening shots of the dog in the Arctic snows are stunning. But, bluntly, the dialogue in the Carpenter version is workmanlike and the performances are vivid but not richly observed.
In the Hawks’ version, however, you get great dialogue, great character, great faces…shame the action peters out but it’s still a classic.
Around about now, 1949, Hawks put Cary Grant in a dress:
The premise of this movie (I Was a Male War Bride) is that Grant is a French officer (!) during the War who marries an American girl; but the only way he can travel to America to be with her is under the terms of the War Brides Act. Hence, the cross-dressing…this is not one of the best known Hawks’ movies but it’s a sheer delight.
After knocking out a musical starring Marilyn Monroe,
Hawks returned to Westerns with Rio Bravo, his rebuttal to High Noon, a film which he and John Wayne loathed for its wishy-washy liberalism. And so instead of a story in which the townsfolk refuse to help the Marshal, we have a story in which the community rallies round. Even the town drunk (played by Dean Martin) shows his mettle, and there’s even a song. For my money High Noon is a greater film; but this is still fab.
Then in 1967 Hawks made another Western with similar themes, also starring John Wayne. Another cracker, though it’s quite some time since I’ve seen it.
This had a screenplay by Leigh Brackett, the (female) screenwriter who wrote The Big Sleep and also wrote The Empire Strikes Back; she was a successful SF author too, in the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ mould; I have a couple of her books on my shelf. When Wayne is about to shoot a bad guy in the belfry of a church, he says, ‘Let’s make music.’ This is the film in which Wayne makes his horse walk backwards…an under-taught skill in many drama schools.
Then it 1970 it was back to Westerns and Wayne with Rio Lobo; to be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen this one (yet!)
This isn’t the comprehensive list – and I’ve left out the silent films, none of which I’ve seen. But it’s an extraordinary back catalogue.
And, despite the range of genres, there are clear common factors in these movies. First, the dialogue – fast, snappy, vivid, wonderful. Second the depth of characterisation for even the minor roles. Third, the in depth casting; which is another way of saying Second, because a great and perfectly cast actor can conjure up a character in almost no words. Think of the guys sitting around the table waiting for Earl Williams to die in His Girl Friday; even one of them a lived-in face, with laconic throwaway delivery. We know nothing about these guys but they are utterly real.
Here’s one of the best bit-part actors Hawks ever worked with; Walter Brennan:
Never has an actor looked less than an actor…and in Red River, he steals the movie.
All these distinctive common factors make it possible to instantly recognise a ‘Howard Hawks’ film. But in his own time, Hawks was regarded as a journeyman director; it’s the films which were famous, not him. But then, in the 60s, Hawks was rediscovered as an ‘auteur’, namely a director with an individual voice and vision. And that’s absolutely right, and a great corrective to a culture which (at that time) often disparaged the vital and hugely creative role of movie director. And from that moment on, the director’s role has come to be regarded as pivotal to the creative vision on any and every film. And the cult of the ‘auteur’ has come to dominate the international film industry. Which again is fair enough; since directors do work terribly hard, and you really can’t make a movie without one.
Oops. Here we go. Rant alert!
Like all or most professional screenwriters, I have come to hate the word and concept ‘auteur’ . Not because of what it means, but because of what people THINK it means.
In other words, there’s a whole assumption in the film industry that every director should be an ‘auteur’ and hence should write or rewrite every movie he or she directs. But this is silly. A writer who also directs is fine – that’s what Quentin Tarantino does, and he was getting high value writing jobs before he became a director. The same is true of John Huston, and Preston Sturges.
But if there’s already a writer in place, and if that writer knows his/her stuff, then it’s a director’s job to support that writer’s vision, and talent, in a collaborative way. It’s called script editing. Stephen Frears, one of the greatest directors in the world, is great precisely because he understands that process perfectly. He began his career working with Alan Bennett, one of the finest writers in the world; and Frears knows he’s a better director if he trusts his writer. And when I was teaching TV at the National Film and Television School (the very cradle of British auteur theory), Frears arrived for a term’s teaching and raised hell with the directing students who were refusing to work with the writing students. He told them how it SHOULD be done; and taught them how to give script notes, the rarest and most precious of skills.
The problem really is that the word ‘auteur’ has been corrupted and abused to mean the opposite of what it originally meant. Originally, it emerged from the very reasonable and smart point made by a bunch of French critics that the supposed ‘hack’ directors of Hollywood often in fact had a very distinctive ‘authorial’ influence on their movies. Hawks was one of the directors singled out, as was Alfred Hitchcock – both directors who prided themselves on working with top notch writers, as opposed to those directors (like Jean Renoir) who largely wrote their own stuff.
And the American critic Andrew Sarris, whose article on the auteur theory really started the hare running, also included Hawks among his pantheon of top ‘auteur’ directors. But he also relegated directors like Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and David Lean to the second tier, which proves that for all his cleverness, the man was a fool; and his version of the ‘auteur theory’ was in effect no more than a way of codifying his own preferences/prejudices. I mean, let’s get a grip here. (Wilder in particular pretended not to be bitter at Sarris’s sniping, which means he was REALLY pissed off. But Wilder was truly one of the greats; if he’d only ever made Some Like it Hot he’d be a genius, but he did a whole lot more…)
And now, ‘auteur’ is loosely used to mean a director who writes; or a director who RE-writes, usually in the process snaffling a co-writing credit. I’m treading on eggshells here, because there are so many stories I could tell to illustrate this general point, but I can’t, for fear of not eating lunch in this or any town again. I cite the example of a well known screenwriter who recently told me (no, I can’t tell THAT story.) The only example I can/will give is of the time I worked on a Bill episode by a new director who went on to be quite famous, but whose script meddling was notorious and highly unwelcome. He wrote a significantly changed draft of the script I’d written, not in a nice or collaborative way, breaking all the rules of good conduct on that show, and when the script editors saw the result they were appalled. Because it was bad; the wrong tone, the wrong rhythm, no sense of the characters I’d created. Luckily, in that environment – on a show where the writer’s voice was respected – I got most of my stuff back. But elsewhere, this kind of meddling is widespread and condoned, nay, encouraged.
But how is this different to having Howard Hawks rewrite your script? His whole method depended on collaborating so closely with the writer he became the de facto cowriter; he would also sometimes work with actors on set, reworking their lines, sometimes changing the character’s character. Why is that allowed?
Well, because that’s part of the collaborative process, and as long as the writer is there, or welcome to be there, no one minds this stuff. In fact, we relish it; we like being part of it; we ‘get’ it. And Hawks was smart enough to know that you can impro lines and bits of business on set; but if you meddle with the heart and soul of the story, the invisible narrative structures carefully put in place by the screenwriter, the whole house of cards will fall down.
Many writers, including the gloriously outspoken William Goldman, have spoken out against the prevailing cult of the ‘auteur’ director, on the grounds it ignores the vital role of the screenwriter.
Goldman even claims (in Adventures in the Screen Trade) that Jean-Luc Goddard, one of the originators of auteur theory, said in an interview “that the whole thing was patent bullshit from the beginning, an idea devised by the then young scufflers to draw some attention to themselves” Of course, being Goldman, author of a book about his experiences in Hollywood called Which Lie Did I Tell?, this quote from Godard may be apochryphal.
Goldman also offers a classic example of the preposterousness of auteurism:
“Peter Benchley reads an article in a newspaper about a fisherman who captures a forty-five-hundred-pound shark off the coast of Long Island and he thinks, “What if the shark became territorial, what if it wouldn’t go away?” And eventually he writes a novel on that notion and Zanuck-Brown buy the movie rights, and Benchley and Carl Gottlieb write a screenplay, and Bill Butler is hired to shoot the movie, and Joseph Alves, Jr. designs it, and Verna Fields is brought in to edit, and maybe most importantly of all, Bob Mattey is brought out of retirement to make the monster. And John Williams composes perhaps his most memorable score. How in the world is Steven Spielberg the “author” of that? Why is it often referred to today as “Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”?… There’s no author to that movie that I can see.”
One American critic has coined the term Schreiber theory (from the Yiddish word for writer) as a counterbalance to the prevailing auterist approach. However, only screenwriters subscribe to this theory; and no one takes us guys seriously.
And, getting back on track, I would argue that Hawks is a great director BECAUSE he worked with such great writers. And he knew it too. He was asked why he rarely took a writing credit on his movies, and he said, ‘Because if I did, I couldn’t get such good writers to work with me.’
He did have a very particular method, however, based on working long hours with a writer, and working on scenes by each person taking a character and busking lines. And out of this came the kind of dialogue that Hemmingway (one of his collaborators) called ‘oblique dialogue’ and Hawks himself called ‘three cushion dialogue’. Because you hit it over here, then over there, to get the meaning. Aaron Sorkin uses a similar type of three cushion dialogue in The West Wing.
That’s collaboration; and Hawks is an auteur ie a great and distinctive director because he was a great collaborator. And his particular directorial style is virtually unmistakable. Okay, maybe sometimes you might wonder if a film is directed by Hawks or by Billy Wilder – also a master of three cushion dialogue. But it’s certainly pretty special.
Interestingly, for me the weakest film of his is The Thing From Another World because of the lack of thriller tension. And though it’s SF, that’s definitely a thriller story. His other films are all in genres where thriller tension isn’t that important. In the screwball comedies, it’s character that counts. In the kind of Westerns he made – as opposed to the Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone action Westerns – it’s character that counts. Even The Big Sleep, a classic detective noir, it’s not the thriller tension that matters, it’s the characters, as they are revealed by the machinations of a (as all concerned admitted) at times impenetrable narrative.
However, it would be interesting to see what had happened if Hawks had managed to (as he tried to) get the rights to the Bond movies; instead they were snapped up by his former assistant director Cubby Broccoli.
Imagine how Hawks might have re-envisioned that suave secret agent:
BOND: Hello. My name is Bond. James -
BOND GIRL: Will you shut up and listen to me?
BOND: – Bond. Hey! You’re not meant to -
BOND GIRL: Guys like you, you drive me mad!
BOND: – interrupt me. (SOBS)
Ah well, we’ll never know.
Character is at the heart of these Hawks movies. And he choose his collaborators because a) they liked to work with him and b) they were great at dialogue and c) they were great at character. Hence his long term relationships with, in particular, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer.
Anyway – rant over. Now I have to track down Rio Lobo and Dawn Patrol, to fill in the gaps in my Hawks-watching…
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