We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade.
Here’s Part One, in which we cover the era of silent movies.
Now, we move into the 1940′s, Hollywood’s last great era.
1. His Girl Friday, 1940. Probably the greatest screwball comedy ever, this remarkable movie remains, to this very day, fresh, timely and hugely entertaining, a testament to the genius of the Hollywood system where the right script, director and cast mesh with almost magical results.
As in so many screwball comedies—The Awful Truth, Twentieth Century, My Favorite Wife—this is a comedy of remarriage. Cary Grant, the ruthless and ever-so-charming editor of a big city newspaper, is determined to rescue his ex-wife, ace reporter Rosalind Russell, from marriage to the decent and v-e-r-y slow talking Ralph Bellamy.
The film moves like a bullet, overlapping dialogue comes in waves and functions almost as a musical score. Director Howard Hawks explained to Peter Bogdanovich that the secret to making such complicated dialogue comprehensible to the audience was to add irrelevant words to the end and beginning of each sentence, thus the important information in the middle comes through clear as a bell.
Originally, His Girl Friday was a hit Broadway play, The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, written for two male leads. But in a table reading director Howard Hawks had a woman read the Hildy Johnson part and he thought that it worked better.
Hawks, a great director but a notorious liar, burnished his reputation at every opportunity. He was noticeably reluctant to give credit to others for, well, anything.
I believe that Hawks carefully scrutinized the Marlene Dietrich films directed by Josef von Sternberg, where Dietrich was a blazing mixture of raw female sensuality tinged with cool masculine dominance. Recognizing great potential in this personae, Hawks wisely adapted it for comedy. One has only to screen Morocco and Shanghai Express to find the seeds of what has become known as the Hawksian woman.
Cynical and hard-bitten, the newspaper business is viewed as a cesspool of ambition that is, at least, honest in its attempt to check the power of an inept and corrupt city government. What makes His Girl Friday such a work of genius is that cynicism never devolves into nihilism. The scene where Rosalind Russell interviews the hapless death row inmate is a multi-layered tapestry with Russell expertly manipulating the interview for sensational copy even as she comes to recognize her deeply felt compassion for this tragic Socialist fool.
Hawks neatly observed that His Girl Friday was superior to his other classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) because everyone in Baby was crazy. In His Girl Friday, the real characters—most notably street-walker Mollie Malloy and death row inmate Earl Williams—balance out the craziness just perfectly. Hawks neglected to mention that Rosalind Russell gives her character a depth and vulnerability that is entirely lacking in Katherine Hepburn’s rather cold performance in Bringing Up Baby. Ironically, Jean Arthur was studio boss Harry Cohn’s first choice for the role of Hildy Johnson. But Hawks and Arthur were cool to one another due to Arthur’s inability give Hawks what he wanted on Only Angels Have Wings.
A few weeks ago, in a car taking me to the airport, the driver, after learning that I was a screenwriter, asked if I thought that Citizen Kane was the greatest American movie evuh.
“Nope,” I said, “I vote for His Girl Friday.”
His Girl Friday is widely available on DVD.
The Greatest Films of the 1940′s will be continued next week.