Friday, April 19, 2013

On HIS GIRL FRIDAY

Journalism.  Politics.  Ethnicity. Guns.  Four topics that have been major in social media this week.  Four elements we look at, plus a little romance, in a classic comedy airing later on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  Need some laughs and a relief from the relentless hard news of the week?  Watch the dynamo performances Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell deliver in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday.  It airs later tonight/this evening at 8pm ET on TCM.  This gender-bender comedy set in the rapid-fire world of big city newspaper journalism in the "Dark Ages" is one of the best remakes ever made.
When I say "Dark Ages," I mean the days when reporters did their work on rotary telephones and typewriters.  It was still like that when I got to New York City in the mid-1980s.  His Girl Friday is based on a famous play called The Front Page.  Many classic film fans know that.  The Front Page was first adapted for the big screen in a 1931 film that seems rather creaky today.  Adolphe Menjou was Walter Burns, the harried newspaper editor who wants ace reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Pat O'Brien, to call off his wedding and cover a hot story.  In His Girl Friday, Hildy became a woman.   Not just any woman.  This Hildy got Reno-vated from Walter. She's his ex-wife and she's about to get remarried.  But Walter will stop at nothing to sabotage her marriage plans so she can cover a hot story.  Their marriage may be yesterday's news but a flame seems still to be burning.  Notice that when Cary Grant as the scheming editor reminds Hildy, "We've got something between us nothing can change," he points to their...well, their underwear sections.  Walter and Hildy were meant to be a team.  Maybe not a husband and wife team, but a team nonetheless.  The wisecracks whip out. The pace is fast. The chemistry is terrific.  The gender switch is inspired and makes The Front Page story fresher.  Hildy is a no-nonsense dame with a heart o' gold.  She's a gal who's one of the guys.  Not only that, she's often the smartest guy in the room.  Walter goes to work in a hat and a suit.  Hildy returns to the office in a hat and a suit.

In the literature of film, this costume design tells you exactly what you need to know about Hildy.  In a man's world, she's just as good as a man.  This would be the kind of character Rosalind Russell would make her own in 1940s comedies.  When Hildy walks into the newspaper offices at the open, watch how warmly she's greeted.  Notice her sisterhood with the other women.  She's walking feminist turf.  Hildy is not at all like Sylvia Fowler, the catty character Russell fabulously played in the 1939 comedy, The Women, also rooted in a Broadway play.  Hildy is a street smart, independent career girl.
Roz got 4 Oscar nominations in her film career and received an honorary Oscar.  You'd think that one of her nominations came for His Girl Friday.  No.  Her first one came a couple of years later for her comedy, My Sister Eileen.  She never won an Oscar.  Neither did Cary Grant.  Hard to believe, isn't it? He, too, received an honorary Oscar.  His Girl Friday always makes me wish Hollywood had re-teamed Cary Grant with Rosalind Russell they way he worked more than once with Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

This week, we witnessed CNN report the wrong facts in the Boston bomber case.  A suspect was under arrest.  Then he wasn't under arrest.  Other news outlets reported what CNN reported.  So they were wrong too.  Watch the men in the press room while they're covering the Earl Williams execution story.  His Girl Friday feels relevant.
Today, in the pre-dawn hours, there was live network news coverage of the major gun battle that occurred between police and the two Boston bombing suspects in Watertown, Massachusetts.  One suspect reportedly shot and killed a young security guard at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  One suspect is dead.  The other is armed and dangerous...and still at large.  Boston was in lockdown.  This is just two days after the Senate went "Peter B. Hartwell" on legislation that would've expanded background checks on gun buyers.  In  His Girl Friday, Hildy refers to that character as "Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell.  B for Brains."  There's business about a gun in the story.  Hartwell makes a big boo-boo while a gun is present.  Walter and Hildy feel that Earl Williams, the white man on death row, is really innocent and that his execution would be for political gain.  Corrupt politicians are up for re-election.  Minority votes are important.  A black police officer was killed.  Hanging Williams could win over those minority voters.
Because she's so much "one of the guys," you may wonder if Hildy has a feminine, softer side.  Yes.  There's an important scene in which her style and banter switch out of the fast lane.  We see her skill as a reporter and how manipulative she can be to get the story she wants.  She visits the convict scheduled to be executed for an interview.  She's softer and intimate but still serious.  She makes reference to her lipstick on a cigarette.  The talk is about guns and what guns are for.

Journalism.  Politics.  Ethnicity.  Guns.  Topics of this week in a fast 1940 comedy remake.  As I mentioned, 1931 saw the first film version of The Front Page.



In the Howard Hawks sex-change version, Ralph Bellamy plays the nice dork of a man eager to marry Hildy.  We side with Walter.  Bruce is not the man for Hildy.  He gets in the way of her work.  He doesn't understand her journalistic talent.  He doesn't see that she can do as "a newspaperman" what lawyers didn't.  As for remakes, this is a rare case in which a remake is just as good if not better than the original.  It's in that championship league with George Cukor's Holiday and A Star Is Born, William Wyler's Ben-Hur and the George Stevens remake of An American Tragedy retitled A Place in the Sun.

Another thing:  A few years ago when I still lived in New York City, a Logo TV exec contacted me.  He asked me to suggest movies the channel could air during Gay Pride Month.  The movies could be old classics.  Logo just wanted films with gay characters in them.  Films that weren't usually seen during a Gay Pride Month.  I suggested His Girl Friday.  In The Front Page, Bensinger is played by Edward Everett Horton.  He's an obvious fussbudget.  He's prissy and afraid of germs.  He's always got his handkerchief handy.  He's a bit of an outsider in the press room.
Notice Bensiger in His Girl Friday.  He's less a fussbudget and less an outsider.  As Hildy is giving us a new woman, he's giving us a bit of a new gay image.  He's just the guy at work who happens to be gay.  The other reporters know and they're cool about it.  Ernest Truex takes on the role of Bensinger ("Roy V. Bensinger, the poet," as Walter says).
Bensiger's newspaper writing style may be a little flowery but what's his career goal?  He'd like to be a war correspondent.  The refreshing attitude towards a non-hetero member of the workplace is evident when all the guys are glad to see Hildy back and congratulate her on her engagement.  She tells the male reporters that she's getting married the next day.  Bensiger asks if they're invited.  Hildy smiles warmly and says, "Well I might use you for a bridesmaid, Roy."  It's a good-natured josh and an embrace of diversity.  Did Logo go with my suggestion?  Nope.  They aired The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Again

There were other versions of The Front Page.

Billy Wilder returned to the original in his 1974 remake of The Front Page with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett as the hooker, Mollie Malloy.  Yes, Carol Burnett.  In Wilder's version, Bensiger (played by David Wayne) is quite obviously gay and doesn't have the basic "regular guy" vibe of Bensinger in Hawks' remake.  He's a snooty fussbudget.
The Howard Hawks remake inspired 1988's Switching Channels with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve taking the action into the world of TV journalism.

Of all the new versions, the crown for remaking The Front Page still goes to Howard Hawks'  His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.  This 1940 classic holds up very, very well.  It's fast, funny and packs a pretty fierce punch.





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