Monday, April 29, 2013

Movie Review: His Girl Friday

Directed by Howard Hawks. 1940.

Few action heroes have dominated their movies the way Cary grant does His Girl Friday. In fact, if you consider that Grant disappears for about a quarter of the movie, he probably has greater per scene magnetism. The only dull part of the film is the yawning center where the nitty gritty of the urban political machinery spools out. Yes, these scenes are more than competent and the zippy newsroom dialogue adds spice and verismo, but the political shenanigans stand but a framework for the romance between newsman Walter Burns (Grant) and his protege-cum-ex-wife-cum-girl-Friday, Hildy Johnson (Russell.) These electric scenes bookend the film and come so fast and furious their details are hard to spot. Their charm, however, is sure and irresistible.

Take the opening, where Hildy enters the copy room of her former boss and husband, power paper owner Walter Burns. She hurries in with her new beau, leading the guy through the office. The sheepish man moves to open a door for her but she pushes ahead and barely registers his gesture. What a contrast to her relationship with Walter. When these two are finally alone in his office, Walter takes a seat. When Hildy asks for the same he crosses his leg and gives it a gentle tap. "There's been a lamp burning in the window for you," he says, and to which she replies, taking a seat on the table, "That's a window I jumped out of a long time ago." Thrust, parry.

The scene escalates as he lights up and she asks for a cigarette. Without turning to face her Walter tosses over the pack. After he's lit, Hildy asks for a match and, instead of lighting hers, Walter shakes his out and hands over the box. He finally swivels his chair to face Hildy, entirely comfortable with her towering over him as she sits atop the table. Feigning forgetfulness about when they last saw each other, she adds, "It feels like yesterday." "Maybe it was," he trumps, "seeing me in your dreams?" Slowly Hildy gets caught up in the wheels of his flim-flam machine and they're re-hashing old spats about missed honeymoons and empty promises with Walter constantly re-framing the arguments, going so far as to say she spoiled their cozy arrangement by marrying him. Not content with her level of outrage, he mocks her feminine wiles with a cheeky impersonation and finally gets her to blow her top by claiming he was drunk when he proposed. She moves to chuck her purse at him and, ducking both to dodge it and answer the phone, he chirps, "You're losing your arm. You used to pitch better than that." Whew. Good thing the cigarettes are already lit.

When Walter finally discovers Hildy's engagement, he finagles a lunch with the happy couple, proceeding in every way possible to humiliate the dull simpleton. He bursts out of his office, hat on and heading out. Holding doors? Forget about it. Walter immediately mistakes an old man for Bruce, and when he finally finds the guy, shakes his umbrella handle in place of his hand. At lunch, this time Hildy lights up first and when Walter decides to follow, instead of striking a match himself, he pulls her arm over to light his cigarette for him. Walter orders first and everyone follows with the same. He takes rum in his coffee and Hildy follows suit. Bruce demurs because he has a busy afternoon buying tickets and checking baggage and what a bore, this guy. An insurance salesman, he's "wooed" Hildy with promises of a quiet country life in upstate New York. In contrast Walter begins to tell some spicy stories about some of his old cases with Hildy, who proceeds to kick him each time. By the end of lunch, Walter's convinced the Bruce to sell him a policy, but that's just a ruse to get Hildy to stay and get on top of a hot story with him. At the close of the scene, she takes Bruce's money and cautions her fiance about her charming ex, "A lot of people never did anything until they met Walter Burns."

The ensuing political big-city political chicanery is coherent enough, but it's just a frame to get Walter and Hildy back together and Walter uses it just that way. Whether he's setting Hildy up to be in the action or getting Bruce arrested, three times!, Walter's moving everything to his advantage for getting the story and the girl. We spot Walter's win when the jig with the city bigwigs blows up and Hildy stands there,  handcuffed to him, playing hardball politics with mayor and chief commissioner. She's thrilled. No way she'll give up the excitement of life with Walter for a country-time picnic with Bruce and his mother. No way she'll forego the flitting zips and zingers, the relentless witty persiflage with Walter for Bruce's ho-hum agreeability.

Once the story's all wrapped up, Hildy looks up adoringly at Walter over the typewriter, quite forgetful of Bruce. Yet Walter sends her on her way. She walks off sullen, but darts back when the phone rings. It's the police. They have an ever-bewildered Bruce in custody, set up in another of Walter's schemes. Hilda finally bursts into tears. Walter really does love her. He's swindled her into a plot of murder and corruption, used her to get a story, broken up her incipient marriage, nearly killed her would-be mother-in-law, and dashed her hopes of a peaceful life. But this time they're going on their honeymoon. Yep, sounds like love.

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