Wednesday, September 05, 2007

THE SLIFR 100: #10 HIS GIRL FRIDAY


What’s new that can be said about His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ lightning-speed newspaper comedy which employed the genius tactic of making The Front Page’s previously XY Hildy Johnson the ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) of full-throttle city editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant)? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but since it’s number 10 on my chronologically ordered Top 100 list, I had intended to revisit it and talk a little bit more about this movie so filled with glorious talk. But again, what can be said about that glorious talk that hasn’t already been said before, and brilliantly, by the likes of Molly Haskell and
Tom Powers
? Danny Peary’s entry in his original Cult Movies book was also illuminating. And you know what? I’d absolutely love to read what Campaspe might have to say if she turned herself loose on this great film.

I was about to undertake what I feared would be just another testimonial to the movie’s enduring magnificence when Fate intervened in the form of a YouTube clip I spied on Bad for the Glass this morning. The Shamus had pointed the way toward a new way of looking at this 67-year-old comedy masterpiece that was just the refreshing change of pace I was looking for. My favorite gumshoe blogger poses the question: “What would His Girl Friday be like without the famous Hecht and MacArthur rat-a-tat dialogue?” He then introduces the clip featured below, an experimental, literal deconstruction of the film that excises every word of that celebrated verbiage, leaving in only the few dead spots—the sneezes, the wheezes, the grunts, the pauses and “Cary Grant’s delightful laugh.” All spoken words removed, the 92-minute movie is shrunken down to about 8 minutes and 20 seconds. As the Shamus observes, if one knows the plot of His Girl Friday backward and forward, this reductio ad absurdum has the unexpected effect of highlighting the subtle touches of staging that Hawks could bring to even such a set-bound film as this. But I also found myself noting the visual space created by the actors, their level of comfort with each other, and within the frame, and how that space eventually gets pummelled into bits as the "movie" progresses. (Some of these inadvertant edits and resulting "reaction shots" are hilarious too.) This strange little edit of His Girl Friday has the unexpected effect of underscoring the simple, yet teasingly complex appeal of Grant, Russell, Ralph Bellamy, John Qualen, Gene Lockhart and the rest of the cast, as actors, personalities and graphic entities, by charting them in shards and compressed in time, shorn of the one element-- their very entertaining speech-- most viewers would seize on first when mounting an appreciation of the film.

This “between the lines” edit is surely no replacement for enjoying His Girl Friday at full length, but it is valuable and entertaining as a different perspective, and it will definitely whet your appetite to see the unexpurgated megillah, words and all.



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14 comments:

Sal said...

Dennis,

This 8 min. “experimental” clip as it’s referred to is real cute and all, but what does it add to the style, substances, innovation or structure of the legacy of His Girl Friday? I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something or I’m really very sleepy (I work graveyard remember).

I was really waiting to hear you talk about this film being the first to use overlapping dialogue or the progressive design of a strong female character in a film from that era. Ok, that’s been done before and maybe it’s been talked about to death but whomever that person was who held this clip in a such high regard as to classify it as an “experiment”, well I don’t see it. Let’s cut and edit all the effects shots and dialogue from the original 2001 A Space Odyssey and see what we get. Nothing! Just a goof.

Now take something like Alien and remove the alien creature itself from the entire film. What have you got? Probably a film centering on characters trapped on a ship in deep space who begin to slowly go mad with the notion that a creature is on board and it may attack and kill them at anytime, except no one has actually seen it including the the audience. Now that might be an interesting “experiment” in psychological terror.

Does that make any sense?

Jonathan Lapper said...

I have to agree with Sal.

You wrote, "this reductio ad absurdum has the unexpected effect of highlighting the subtle touches of staging that Hawks could bring to even such a set-bound film as this. But I also found myself noting the visual space created by the actors, their level of comfort with each other, and within the frame, and how that space eventually gets pummelled into bits as the 'movie' progresses."

I notice all that as well but more so with the movie intact than in this piece. And again, it is noted by you and Shamus that if you know the plot etc., etc,. etc. Exactly! If you don't know the plot I don't think this eight minute piece tells you anything. The things you notice are only noticed because you're playing the actual movie in your head while watching the re-edit.

Jonathan Lapper said...

By "this piece" I am referring to the clip, not what you wrote. Re-reading my comment it seemed poorly worded so I just wanted to clear that up.

Edward Copeland said...

I love His Girl Friday. I too am planning (eventually) to try to review all the titles on my top 100 that I haven't already done, but other projects and the foreign film survey has tied me down, but His Girl Friday will be one of them. Remember: Keep the rooster story, that's human interest.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Just when you thought you'd seen it all, huh?

"What does it add to the style, substances, innovation or structure of the legacy of His Girl Friday?"

Actually, I thought the point (and it's not a large point, but it is interesting) is to see what you're left with when a movie that is so dependent on its dialogue has that element excised. So of course this strange editing exercise doesn't add anything to the movie. But it does force you to look at what's left and consider what it means, if anything.

"The things you notice are only noticed because you're playing the actual movie in your head while watching the re-edit."

Well, I think that's certainly true. A lot of what is fun and fascinating about watching this clip is triggered by your own knowledge of what happens just before, or after, a cut. And frankly, I don't know why you'd want to watch it without prior knowledge of His Girl Friday, because it seems there'd be precious little for you in there otherwise. I'm not claiming it has any importance, and I doubt you'll be seeing dialogue-free cuts of your favorite classics showing up on special edition DVDs soon. I posted the clip because I thought it was an unusual prism through which to look at the movie, a way of talking about things I liked about the movie without treading over already well-worn paths, or commentary that was far more fruitfully observed than what I was prepared to compose-- thus the Haskell and Powers links.

Of course, not everyone is going to find watching His Girl Friday sans chatter worth the eight minutes it takes, and that's perfectly valid. And maybe this experiment doesn't work on a movie where the dialogue is less dense, more mundane. If nothing else, I found it fascinating simply because I'd never seen anything like it-- though I suppose it is a kind of extreme reverse of that clip I posted a year or so ago that cut out everything out of The Big Lebowski except for the word "fuck." Where were you purists then?! ;)

The Shamus (formerly TLRHB) said...

Bravo, Dennis!

Sal said...

Well, we can agree to disagree.

Still, I wouldn't consider myself a purist since I did think Bourne Ultimatum was a good movie. How purist was that opinion?

Yet again, I sometimes feel we overthink something and find substance where none really exists. I'm sure we could go on and on about this but it's my feeling that the same "experiment" could be done with "M*A*S*H" or "Apocalypse Now" and it's narration. As a matter of fact I think watching Apocalypse Now without that narrative dialogue would be very interesting just to see if the film can still draw you into this journey into madness as it does with the narrative intact.

So we disagree. Big deal. Your still the man in these parts.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Well my big disagreement is with Shamus. I think he should have said "Huzzah" instead of "Bravo".

Bob said...

To me, the piece is a fun and kind of useful illustration of the kind of touches that makes the difference between a brilliant directorial job and a mediocre one. In fact, since this is just one of three pretty faithful film versions of "The Front Page," it would be great to see similar experiments with the Lewis Milestone and Billy Wilder versions.

I doubt if anyone would feel like doing it those films, but I bet it wold tell us a great deal about why those films are generally considered to be pretty drastically inferior to "His Girl Friday" by just about everyone.

Outside of Shakespeare adaptations, it's very rare in film history that you can have three films with so much of the same storyline, dialogue, etc., so this is an unusually good opportunity to really look at the director's contribution entirely apart from the writer's work.

As for "huzzah" versus "bravo", I say "can't we all just get along?"

bill said...

"I posted the clip because I thought it was an unusual prism through which to look at the movie, a way of talking about things I liked about the movie without treading over already well-worn paths, or commentary that was far more fruitfully observed than what I was prepared to compose..."

Teach you to do THAT again.

Ha ha, no, but seriously, I haven't seen this, or "The Devils", in many, many years. I do remember that I liked "His Girl Friday" and did not like "The Devils".

So there. That's my contribution. Good day to you all.

Jonathan Lapper said...

As for "huzzah" versus "bravo", I say "can't we all just get along?"

Huzzah, Bob!

Cinephile said...

Great YouTube find on Shamus's part, and great post, Dennis! I agree wholeheartedly with both your initial assessments in your post (esp. the stuff about Hawks' visual style) and your responses n this comment thread. I would respectfully disagree with Sal-- I think it "adds" something in precisely the manner Dennis describes. The visual stuff he notes makes us look at Hawks (so often thought of in terms of dialogue, actors and themes) differently, as a very underrated visual stylist (so invisible you almost don't see it, which is different than there not being anything to see); and the lack of dialogue underscores the movie's overall theme of miscommunication beautifully, reminding us that for all their wit and speed and brilliance, the film is suggesting how words can obfuscate as much as illuminate. I loved Dennis's post precisely becaue it was such a neat spin on the usual "best of" writing, avoiding the obvious to generate a new discussion about a well-known film (which, as this very thread suggests, he was pretty successful at).

Sal said...

Look, I'm just not seeing it the way you all do.

I respect Dennis, Jonathan, Shamus and everyone else who seem to see something there that I don't.

Enough said. I'll slither off over into the corner and wait for the sun to come up so I can throw rocks at it.

Marilyn said...

I enjoyed watching this clip if only because it forced me to look at the visuals with more concentration than I would have otherwise. I don't think I "needed" it to understand Russell's and Grant's appeal. They are both very physical actors - as are so many of the actors of the 30s - that it would be impossible to overlook their body language to any large degree. As someone who used to work in the theatre, I enjoyed watching the blocking of this still-theatrical film. It's really quite good and marries film with theatre seemingly effortlessly.

Does it add anything to the film? Obviously, it takes away the distraction of dialogue and thus adds room for observation in a film that normally has me breathless trying to keep up. For that, I say "thank you."