His Girl Friday ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 6: Screwball Comedies

So before anything else, let's make a few general statements, shall we?

--His Girl Friday is not actually a screwball comedy, despite it being labeled as such.

--Out of every so-called screwball comedy ever made, His Girl Friday is the greatest out of all of them.

--When I finally watched His Girl Friday for the first time this week, it immediately jumped into my top-ten favorite films of all time. And not just that, but literally, like, number four or five.

--His Girl Friday screenwriter Ben Hecht was a fucking genius, and it's a crime against humanity that we as a collective national popular culture have largely forgotten about this Chicago journalist, early Hollywood master, and bitter mean alcoholic.

Okay, ready? Let's move on.

The second pairing of star Cary Grant and director Howard Hawks (who first teamed up for the movie I reviewed yesterday, 1938's Bringing Up Baby), His Girl Friday nominally fits into the screwball comedy genre of its times, but with one big, hugely important difference: it's actually half deadly drama to go with its half madcap comedy, a politically active social-justice story whose message just happens to go down well because it's delivered through a series of seedy, sociopathic, alcoholic "newspaper men" who end up caring despite all their natural tendencies, not because of them, and who end up doing the right thing largely because there was personal fame and fortune in it for them, not out of any sense of moral duty.

For that we can thank screenwriter Ben Hecht, still revered among local literary circles here in Chicago but who has sadly become nearly forgotten by everyone else. He started his career as a "newspaper man" himself, back in the Early Modernist period, which to be clear is a different thing than merely a "journalist" -- largely missing from the journalism industry altogether by now, these were the young men who used to trawl the dark hallways of night courts and midnight emergency rooms looking for whatever kinds of stories they could find, a sort of brotherhood of hard-drinking cynics who daily wallowed in the worst the human race had to offer. Many of them frustrated novelists, it was these "newspaper men" who first started writing the daily columns that blended facts with opinionated creative writing, an effort to take what little true information they could scrounge up and then present it to the public for maximum emotional effect; Hecht wrote one called "One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago," and it's largely credited as the column that eventually influenced such later heavy-hitters as Mike Royko, Nelson Algren, Studs Turkel and more.

It was through these experiences that Hecht was inspired to write a Broadway play about the subject, The Front Page which became a huge success; it was this that got adapted into the movie version now called His Girl Friday, because of one of the two main characters now being turned into a woman, literally because of Hawks' female secretary reading those lines while they were auditioning the men trying out for the other role, and Hawks liking the sound of those lines coming out of a woman so much that he asked for a complete gender-switch rewrite. (And for what it's worth, the original play was actually co-written by Hecht and his buddy Charles MacArthur, a member of Dorothy Parker's Algonquin Round Table who among other things was the uncredited screenwriter of Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks; when it came time to switch Hildy Johnson into a woman for His Girl Friday, they brought in yet another old newspaper-man buddy of theirs, Charles Lederer who would eventually also write such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the original Ocean's 11.)

That was an incredibly smart move on Hawks' part, because it's the act of these tough, quick, originally male lines coming out of a woman's mouth that makes this such an indelible classic that still feels so fresh and new even today, 77 years later; it's almost accidentally the first feminist-friendly film in Hollywood history, or at least "feminist-friendly" if you mean "women too can be monomaniacal alcoholics who don't give a fuck about who they have to ruin in order to get their story." And I know I said this before, but that's really one of the other major keys to this movie being so successful; that these characters come to their place of earnest help almost accidentally, otherwise being these seriously flawed human beings who you end up liking merely because of their quick wit and saucy attitude, not because they're decent people in any way, shape or form, which makes it all the more devastating when they realize that the convicted criminal whose coming execution they're covering has in fact been framed, in a convoluted scheme that reaches all the way up to the mayor's office, and they decide against their better natures to help protect the now escaped convict while they get the real truth about the matter written up and published in the next morning's edition.

A movie that was technologically cutting-edge on top of everything else (in order to correctly capture all the overlapping dialogue, Hawks had multiple mics installed in the ceiling of his sets, then had a sound guy literally turn them on and off in a pattern as his main characters walked from one side of the set to the other), this is one of the few screwball comedies that will also sock you in the gut with its powerful, emotionally moving story, a film that doesn't even begin to hide its stage-play origins (when the criminal at the heart of the story breaks out of prison in dramatic fashion, it's impossible not to notice that it happens literally at the exact halfway moment of the movie, making it clear that this must have been the capper of act 1 of the stage version, whether or not you've ever actually seen the stage version), which makes its dramatic moments all the more...well, dramatic. A movie that will be entering my Letterboxd Top 4 Of All Time graphic at the top of my profile today, I suspect this will be the oldest pick of the entire Film School Dropout challenge that is fated for me to revisit again and again in the future, and is also officially the first film of the challenge where I can say, "Yes, if you could somehow magically redo this movie in color film and contemporary equipment, you would literally not be able to tell that it's actually 77 years old." It comes strongly recommended in this spirit, one of the big highlights so far of the entire FSDO challenge.