YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO.
by Sheila O’Malley
"When I first started in pictures, an actor didn’t have the freedom to interrupt the dialogue. But in His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell and I were constantly interrupting each other. The sound men would say, ‘We can’t hear you.’ And we’d say, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to hear us. People do interrupt each other, you know.’"
His Girl Friday is known for its faster-than-fast overlapping dialogue, every line rat-a-tat-tatting like automatic weapon fire. There are times—in the crowded press room, for example—when no less than five or six people are all talking at the same time, and yet clarity is never sacrificed. The overlapping required specific timing on the part of the ensemble. Director Howard Hawks said in an interview with critic Richard Schickel, decades later, “Naturally, we used [overlapping dialogue] because that’s the way we all talk… Our little trick of adding a few words in front and adding a few at the end of a line makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.” Reality hyped up on caffeine and cigarettes and sleep deprivation. The end result is something almost symphonic or orchestral, and is still the high watermark for fast-talking ensemble pictures.
But the thing about the fast dialogue that is so extraordinary here—and why imitators often fall short—is that the dialogue is not an empty gimmick. Every line is supported by characterization, motivation, action and re-action. Hawks immerses us in the cynical, hard-bitten world of crime reporters and the newspaper business, where everyone races to get the scoop regardless of who may be trampled along the way. One just assumes (because it is set up so powerfully) that this is how they all talk, this is the world they inhabit. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, heading up the cast, speak as quickly as the rest of them, lobbing linguistic explosives at one another like grenades, laughing when they detonate.
Hawks (and cinematographer Joseph Walker) filmed the action with an unfussy straightforwardness that not only eradicates distraction from the fastest dialogue ever captured onscreen but highlights the irresistible chemistry between Grant and Russell. Except for one or two scenes, the entire action takes place in the cramped unglamorous press room at City Hall. A lot of His Girl Friday is filmed in medium shot, with all of the actors crowded into one frame. What we are seeing plays out in real time. Hawks doesn’t “zoom in” for you; you have to decide where to put your focus in any given scene. *His Girl Friday* is one of those rare films that gets more dazzling with repeat viewings.
A remake of the wildly popular 1928 stage play and 1931 filmThe Front Page (considered by Pauline Kael to be “the greatest newspaper comedy of them all”), written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, His Girl Friday is so cynical that at times you wonder if eventually it will lose its nerve. *His Girl Friday* does not lose its nerve. As Walter (Grant) and Hildy (Russell) hurry out of the press room in the final frame—reconciled as man and wife and racing on to the next big scoop—she struggles, carrying a purse, her coat, and a suitcase. Instead of helping her out with any of it, he gives her an impatient look and says, “Don’t you want to carry that with your other hand?” In an earlier scene, he doesn’t hold the door open for her, and charges across a room without waiting for her, something she gibes him for. And so nothing has changed. Roll credits. The world portrayed in His Girl Friday is insular, brutal, and heartless. Comedy, and the enormous appeal of Grant and Russell, helps you swallow the pill. But it is still a pill.
Howard Hawks had the bright idea to re-make the film but to change the star reporter “Hildy” (originally a man) into a woman. Hawks was interested in the world of men—the world of work and shared endeavor that bonded men together—but he was also interested in feisty, insolent women who could go toe to toe with men (without sacrificing their femininity). You rarely see portrayals of marriage or domestic life in Hawks’ films. He was interested in the interplay of wit and bravado between a man and a woman who, more often than not, cannot admit to each other (or to themselves) their true feelings. Howard Hawks’ people have a lot of pride. Part of the fun of his films (and they are tremendous fun) lies in watching prideful people ignore their own softness, their own needs and wants, in order to maintain the façade that they are individuals.
While there are conflicts between men and women in a Hawks picture, he often makes the conflicts look like the best fun in the world. David Huxley (Cary Grant), the workaholic paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, has a moment at the end of the film when he stands on his brontosaurus-scaffold, looking down at the dizzy dame (Katharine Hepburn) who has upended his entire life in a matter of 24 hours, and shouts at her, “I’ve never had a better time!” Huxley’s emotional outburst in that final moment is key to understanding Hawks’ unique take on the battle of the sexes. Yes, in Hawks’ male characters’ view, women can be annoying and too emotional, and muck up the serious work of men … but in the end, hanging out with them provides you “a better time” than you’ve ever had in your life.
It was well known about town that Rosalind Russell was not Howard Hawks’ first choice (or the studio’s first choice) for the female lead in His Girl Friday. She wasn’t even the second or third choice. Many years later, Russell titled the His Girl Friday chapter in her memoir “Back Door to The Front Page, or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.” She was so pissed off about it that she showed up to her initial meeting with Howard Hawks with wet hair, having just come out of the pool. It is not difficult to picture Hawks’ reaction to this ostentatious display of indifference: she had spirit, she was feisty, she was not intimidated or eager to please. In other words, the perfect “Howard Hawks Woman,” a trope all his own, fine-tuned through picture after picture, showing up in different guises from the beginning until the end of his long and illustrious career. Howard Hawks’ world was a macho one; he made films about pilots and gangsters and cowboys, stereotypically male pursuits. Women in such films normally inhabited a very clear female space, narrow and limited (although no less important as love interests or damsels in distress). Howard Hawks had no interest in those clichés. He presents us with sassy dames who barrel right into the center of the action, disturbing the all-male equilibrium to often sexy results. Lauren Bacall, making her film debut in To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart, was perhaps the pinnacle of this type of female character. In his direction to her, Hawks kept stressing that he wanted her to be as “insolent” as Bogart. No tears or feminine wiles were allowed—she was a tough gal in a tough world, and, in Hawks’ fantasy, only that type of woman could make a certain type of man happy. In Only Angels Have Wings, poor Jean Arthur is driven out of her mind trying to get close to Cary Grant’s tough-guy pilot.
Howard Hawks had a dream of equality between the sexes, where women were as cool and self-possessed as men, where they didn’t muck up the business of men with dreams of domestication and safety. But he was not interested in women who tried to be like men. He liked women in his films to maintain their femininity, their sex appeal—minus the stereotypical tears and sentimentality. His women are emotional daredevils. Watching Angie Dickinson banter with John Wayne in Rio Bravo is an object lesson of the perfect “Howard Hawks woman,” as is Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
After chatting with Russell for a bit, Hawks sent her straight to wardrobe to get fitted for some pinstripe suits. And that, as they say, was that. Rosalind Russell was Hildy from that day forth. Cary Grant, fresh off Only Angels Have Wings, was already signed on as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor and Hildy’s ex-husband.
The first scene in His Girl Friday is rightly famous, and should be studied by young directors who want to know how to present necessary information efficiently and naturally. Hildy, decked out in geometric pinstripes (coat and jauntily cocked hat) that make her look like some sort of manic playing card, swoops through the busy newsroom on her way to inform her boss/ex-husband that she is about to be married to a sweet, conventional guy named Bruce (played by Ralph Bellamy). As she makes her way across the room she is greeted affectionately and happily by everyone who sees her. You understand immediately that Hildy is not in any way, shape, or form a “his girl Friday”—rather, she is a star reporter at the newspaper, the best writer they’ve got. But like most Howard Hawks women, she wants to be a “woman,” too; she wants to have a normal life where her husband won’t cancel the honeymoon because of a coal mine disaster or a union strike.
Hildy bursts into Walter’s office, Walter rises to greet her, and so begins one of the best scenes in American cinema. Critic Molly Haskell remarks in an interview included in the special features of the DVD, that it’s like watching a boxing match between two fighters “in the same weight class.”
What you understand immediately is that the two are perfect for one another not just because nobody else on earth could keep up with them, but also because nobody else would put up with either of them. It’s a match made in screwball heaven. Pauline Kael, in her famous essay on Cary Grant, "The Man From Dream City", observed that the 1930s screwball comedies “turned love and marriage into vaudeville acts and changed the movie heroine from sweet clinging vine into vaudeville partner.” Direct descendants of the dazzlingly witty Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Walter and Hildy are obsessed with one another, competitive with one another, and, finally, helpless in the face of the blatant chemistry binding them together. As Barbra Streisand’s Judy says in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (a 1972 homage to 1930s screwballs), “Listen, kiddo, ya can’t fight a tidal wave.”
The strength of His Girl Friday lies in the fact that we can see all of that from the get-go. When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns behaves in often-reprehensible ways, repeatedly jailing poor Bruce throughout the film on trumped-up charges, you understand that it’s only because he can’t bear to lose Hildy. Of course, the question remains: is it just her writing he will miss, or is it her? The beauty of His Girl Friday is that it does not distinguish between the two.
Hildy, throughout the course of the film, begins to re-discover who she really is: a “newspaperman.” All you need to do is watch Hildy dash like a lunatic between two different telephones in the press room, barking out instructions into both mouthpieces, speaking so quickly it is unbelievable that you still understand every word, to know that this woman is doing exactly what she needs to be doing during her short time on this planet. Her desire to have a quiet life with a nice husband is sincere, but there are more primal drives on this earth, and those who define themselves by what they do will understand.
Hawks is radical in that he makes the woman central to this ultimate journey, when so often the woman is forced to compromise in other films of that era (and ours). You must choose, if you are a woman: domestic bliss or a career. Here, Hildy gets both, although “bliss” is probably a wild misrepresentation. She and Walter Burns will live together, work together, and fight like cats and dogs until the end of their days. Life will be fun, messy, exciting, infuriating, busy, and focused. To Hawks, that’s what “having it all” looks like. And Walter Burns, ruthless as he is, understands that. He finds Hildy hilarious. He “gets” her. She will be safer with him, ironically, than with the more staid Bruce Baldwin.
Pauline Kael, in that same essay, observed, “Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don’t fool around with Gable. But with Grant there are no pressures, no demands; he’s the sky that women aspire to. When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves. He’s a slapstick Prince Charming.” When poor tragic Molly Malloy (played beautifully by Helen Mack) leaps out the window of the press room to hit the sidewalk a couple stories below, Walter is not only unmoved, but clearly conniving how he can work it to his advantage. In any other actor, such a reaction would be unforgivable. But in Grant’s hands, it’s deeply funny, and further evidence that Walter and Hildy are cut from the same cloth.
Stella Adler—The great American acting teacher and founding member of the Group Theatre—once said, “It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.” Her words could represent the Howard Hawks mantra, explored and examined in film after film after film, but His Girl Friday is the zany zenith. Despite all of the hilarity and slapstick, His Girl Friday has a serious, dark heart, and those who persist in believing that the ultimate in life is discovering “who you are” will wonder what all of those people are doing, racing around shouting into telephones at one o’clock in the morning. But Hildy and Walter know the real secret to life: What they DO is who they ARE.
And so they proceed to do it like Hercules.
Sheila O’Malley writes film reviews and essays for RogerEbert.com, Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Noir of the Week, and the House Next Door. Her first play, July and Half of August, recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago, and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood.
Career Opportunities (1991)
A DESERT ISLAND SITUATION
by Chad Perman
(editor’s note: this article was originally posted on August 4th, 2009)
I can’t remember the exact conflux of events that led to me seeing Career Opportunities in a proper movie theater without my parents’ knowledge - though it might well have been something I snuck into after buying tickets for something else (I once bought tickets for Ladybugs and snuck into The Lawnmower Man instead, so I wouldn’t exactly put it past me) - but I do remember, quite vividly in fact, the experience of watching the film itself. Somewhere along the way, as memories do, this one, attached securely to Jennifer Connelly’s impossibly tight white tank-top (the only thing any one ever remembers about this film, if they remember it at all), took up residency in a part of my brain that is forever linked to being thirteen years old and on the verge of something I didn’t quite understand but desperately wanted to know a whole lot more about.
Life, it seemed, was changing quickly all around me, new doors opening up every day, each with their own new, exciting opportunities and a sense that there was this whole huge bucketful of experiences just waiting to be lived, right around the corner. At its best, it feels limitless. It’s a feeling that words have no real chance of capturing, but it’s certainly something that we all experience at one time or another in our respective journies through adolescence. And that’s what John Hughes got, so much moreso than most screenwriters, that feeling of endless possibility that you only really begin to tap into as a teenager - right at the very time when the world is also revealing itself to be a much scarier, lonely place than you had imagined, and your hormones are feverishly busy throwing you every which way. It’s a confusing time, a figuring out time, and Hughes continually explored this territory in many of his best-loved films (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club). However, Career Opportunities wasn’t really in the same ballpark as those other films, not even in the same league really; Hughes wasn’t taking on any big, important issues when he penned this one. In fact, if memory serves (and some version of it, certainly, does), my biggest question plot-wise throughout the film was “Are they gonna do it?”.
Thus, freed from the constraints of tackling Big Life Questions, Hughes instead used Career Opportunties to indulge in a typical male fantasy: being trapped somewhere for a significant period of time with a very attractive woman. It doesn’t matter how our hero (Frank Whaley) finds himself in such a situation - I vaguely recall something about John Candy, an evil night manager, Target doors that locked from the inside, and a rich girl (Connelly) who has run away - but rather what he does once the situation is thrust upon him.
And Jim Dodge (Whaley, the poor man’s Jon Cryer) does what nerdy John Hughes characters always find a way to do in John Hughes movies: he makes the most of a desert island type situation, wherein fate - whether in the form of mutual detention (The Breakfast Club), a drunken pact (Sixteen Candles), parental neglect (Home Alone), or doors-locking-from-the-inside-at-night-after-a-girl-you-had-a-crush-on-for-over-a-decade-but-never-really-knew-you-existed-fell-asleep-in-the-store-until-after-it-was-closed (Career Opportunities) - places you in a situation where all the rules, social and otherwise, are briefly suspended. Empowering wimpy or delusional male characters seemed a constant motif throughout Hughes’ films, a kind of wish-fulfillment for dummies (and, one has to wonder, how much of this was simple projection on Hughes’ part?). If you try hard enough for long enough, he seemed to say, you will eventually get a chance with The Girl of Your Dreams. You might mess that chance up, or misunderstand it, but it will present itself.
I think it’s safe to say that his notion has ruined many a dweebish man.
However, in Career Opportunities, for whatever reasons - laziness? frustration? the end of an era? - the dork actually does get the girl. He overcomes his own faults (or rather, uses these previously limiting character attributes in service of something brave or noble, for once), and is rewarded by an almost literal ride off into the sunset. He doesn’t even have to change his personality or un-dorkify himself in any way - if anything, he’s even more dweebish by film’s end, empowered by the newfound love of a Troubled Pretty Girl. It’s enough to make poor Brian or Duckie puke.
Career Opportunities is not a big film, nor an important one. There are no particularly memorable lines in its 83 minutes, no huge plot twists or unexpected developments. If anything, it’s a a giant tease for perpetually hormonal males and a giant commercial for Target. Nothing groundbreaking or worth writing home about - except, perhaps, that it was the very last time Hughes would ever really set foot in “teenage movie” waters, waters he had ruled for several years (and which, ultimately, he would be best remembered for). Sadly, after Career Opportunities, Hughes would switch tracks to far more family-oriented fare - often to disappointing results - for the remainder of his career. Still, the film is not without its charms - a meet cute, some dancing, some Home Alone-ish big empty house/store indulgences, some couples’ roller-skating, the best white tank top in the history of cinema - and if Hughes left the teenage bandwagon on a minor note, at least he had such a successful run in the first place. After all, here we are writing about his films - for an entire week - nearly twenty years after most of them were made. That has to mean something, right?
Chad Perman is a writer living in Seattle, and the editor-in-chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Star Wars (1977)
STAR WARS IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE 1984 MERCURY TOPAZ
by Christopher Cantwell
There is a VHS tape somewhere (probably in a landfill in Texas, though it breaks my heart to write that) that is a recording of the first ever network airing of Star Wars from February 26th,1984.
It’s something that my mom and dad—skirting ambiently along the banal zeitgeist of suburban America at the time—decided to be an event of enough renown that they should record it using the family VCR. Recording a television signal with a VCR was no easy task at the time, and so I’m forever indebted to my parents for doing it. The reason this recording is so important to me is that it was my very first exposure to Star Wars.
I was born in November of 1981. I missed Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back completely, and was only one and a half when Return of the Jedi came out. So this TV recording was, in many ways, a door. From here, my mom bought me a Stormtrooper action figure from the Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery store (back when I still sat in the front seat of the cart). From here, my babysitter Gary who lived next door gave me an entire case of some of his Star Wars toys the day before he moved away. From here, I begged my mom to see Return of the Jedi at the dollar theater in either ’84 or ’85; the dollar theater that was in the vast and empty parking lot of Collin Creek Mall off US-75, where I remember walking into the theater too early and seeing the very end of the movie first. From here, I bought more toys, rented the THX-remastered versions when they came out (“The Original One Last Time”), saw the Special Editions in the theater, whiled away summer days in rural Texas by playing video games like X-Wing (“You MUST register!”) and TIE Fighter (“Mission-critical craft under attack!”), read novels and comic books on my bed and in the backseat of the car, and eventually experienced the mass-suicide of the prequel trilogy in which Childhood as we know it was silenced by a clinical guillotine blade.
Why did I do all this? Sure, Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, and has probably implanted itself on every boy in some way for the last 37 years. It’s got the mythology, and the universal themes, and the blah, blah, blah. Anyone could write pages upon pages about how Star Wars is a powerful film. I could write about how Star Wars might be one reason I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last ten years, because it helped inspire me to tell stories of my own.
But that’s really boring, isn’t it? Truthfully, every subsequent Star Wars experience I’ve had (and that includes meeting George Lucas himself) has never lived up to that VHS TV recording. I love the first movie. I love MY videotape recording of it.
Here’s what I remember: the tape goes in, the first thing I see is a TV bumper version of the Star Wars title zooming up the screen as mock spotlights shine over it. The movie starts like everyone remembers it. I’m probably laying on the floor in a blue and gray afghan my grandmother knitted me (the blue and gray schema is for the Cowboys, but to this day, I barely know anything about that team, or really the sport in general). A particularly magical part of this tape occurs when the commercials begin. This is when a black cube with yellow borders spins out of a star field background, and a famous person inside the cube tells me what they love about Star Wars. Debbie Reynolds talks about being Carrie Fisher’s mom. The Flintstones say they loved the movie. Magic Johnson tells me he “dug R2.”
In my head, Star Wars is supposed to have commercials—the film and its commercials have been wedded as one story. There is a part in Star Wars where a guy eats a Kit-Kat and roars like a monster. Then there’s the part in Star Wars where a football player tells me he is a “coffee achiever.” At one point in the movie, kids sing the jingle for Nature Valley Chewy Granola Bars (which I can still sing in its entirety). There’s also another droid that nobody else remembers: the Leggs pantyhose droid that makes beeping sounds and just looks like a large pantyhose egg container with flashing lights. I love that character.
For me, Star Wars will always be brought to you by the 1984 Mercury Topaz. There will always be ads for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and a sitcom starring Suzanne Pleshette. Star Wars will always have two title treatments: the famous one, and the way my mom wrote it in blue pen on the tape label.
Sadly, that tape is most likely gone, a probable victim of two house moves by my parents over the years. But God bless the Internet. Up until I wrote this article, I only knew that I had a VHS recording of Star Wars that was somehow important because famous people talked about it during the commercial breaks. With a few cursory searches, I figured out that I once had the February 26th, 1984 first-time network TV airing from CBS.
Apparently, Mark Hamill did some sort of prologue about the Star Wars phenomenon before the movie started, and also wrapped up the movie at the end. CBS seemingly did this to fill out the three hours of air time they’d blocked out. I just learned about this now, as it wasn’t on my tape—I suppose my folks thought it was bullshit and didn’t hit record until the actual movie started. However, this “wrap-around” is on YouTube as well, and gives the airing some notoriety among extremist fans. This is good, because some guy sells cheap DVD-R’s of the original airing from his Paypal account.
I just bought one.
Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, co-executive producer and co-writer of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, set in the early 1980s in Dallas. The show’s season finale airs on Sunday.