Simultaneously reaching a near artistic zenith and floundering in middling commercial anonymity with the giddy, off its rocker, positively deranged Bringing Up Baby in 1938, director Howard Hawks had obviously caught an itch that could not be quelled by merely retreating to a new genre (although Hawks was one of the foremost masters of genre-agnosticism in film history). Conscripting the dastardly trio of Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur to whip up a whirlygust of a screenplay conjured from the bones of the stageplay The Front Page (by the latter two of the trio), Hawks required another at bat for the genre. The progeny of this attempt, His Girl Friday, isn’t inherently the best Hawks film (it isn’t even the best Hawks screwball in my estimation). But as his second-chance screwball, it is the summit of his decade-long experimentation with the disconcerting, rebellious limits and possibilities of film sound.
Giddy and ruthless, like a barbed-wire hug, His Girl Friday is another of Hawks’ patented two-fisters, the pecking buzzards this time taking the form of the agile Cary Grant as a newspaper editor and the fierce and more than a little frenzied Rosalind Russell as a star reporter and Grant’s ex-spouse who is to remarry soon and leave the staff (not if Grant can help it of course). A minefield of sonic hazard and permeable sound puncturing the film frame later, Grant’s tease to have her return for one last unimpeachable job transforms into an epiphany of not only love for each other but collective infatuation with the high-wire (un)balancing act of constant flux that is the self-stoking, self-arousing newspaper lifestyle.
Hawks was a stylistic chameleon (or, as the Cahiers crowd would suggest, a steadfast thematic scientist for whom nominally disparate genres were totems to his thematic fetish objects of gender and human speech). But, whatever the film, an allegiance to the compulsion of compulsory human messiness channeled through sound was an order of the day; the Hollywood cinematic bylaw that dialogue is to be structured so that audiences can discern each syllable with pristine clarity was a line of demarcation that existed, for Hawks, only to be crossed. With all the references and innuendos, a blitzkrieg to match any other, one may want to “catch” the film in its moments of cleverness. But Hawks’ goal isn’t clarifying or pacifying the film through understanding all the wit; instead, he asks us to dare it, brave the film’s winds, test its mountain and topple with it while basking in the unfettered glory of the free-fall tumble. Separating out and pinpointing the film’s autonomous moments, mutating the film into a parade of individual and disparate “lines”, is a fool’s errand in a world where character don’t have to sit back and listen. The soundscape in His Girl Friday isn’t an expository backdrop to a string of events, a well of stillwater information to be gleaned, but a whirlpool of constantly moving, navigable sonic bedlam that keeps the film from atrophying in a sea of self-conscious cleverness where the only purpose is to discern the intelligence of the dialogue.
Much as Paul Muni mumbled in Scarface, His Girl Friday cackles with demonic glee. The proto-Altman overlapping cross-hatch of sound exteriorizes the male-female conflict for agency in the actual sound space of the film, priming the film with the possibilities of aural perception and transposing questions and concepts and ideas into actions, perceptions, interactions the audience must lash together. We are gifted no grounding rod, no resting point, no equilibrium point to contextualize our reactions; the film, bluntly, doesn’t have time for us.
Plus, the mouthpieces this time are better than ever, with Grant devilishly inserting a more domineering presence compared to his essentially passive, permeable paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, there afflicted with enough domestic impotence to write Freud’s last will and testimony. His more combative demeanor is only second fiddle to Russell though; Grant improves Russell more than he kindled Hepburn in that earlier film, since his more combative fire here asks more of Russell in her quest for reportorial center stage. Wrapped up in a venomous, supremely slanted hat and wearing an ossified, rigor mortis stiffness in her movement as though she’s visibly and forcibly constraining what the men might perceive as feminine fluidity, Russell simultaneously exists as one of the boys, transcends them, and demarcates the internal contest and strain of living a career-centered life in a world where women are coerced to leave the public behind for the private realm. Although gender is at the margins as the film hurtles through the throngs of dialogue, Russell’s performance perishes the thought that this is a fundamentally gender-agnostic version of the tale (her character was a male in the initial play).
All that, and it’s no visual slouch to boot. Borrowing ace cinematographer Joseph Walker (fresh off of Hawks’ divine Only Angels Have Wings) for an acid-drenched visual palette, His Girl Friday postpones the cotton-candy superfluity of the screwball for a gangster-adjacent tone that limns aspects of the semi-expressionistic visual style of Hawks’ earlier film Scarface (the story here does involve an accused murdered escaping and all that good stuff). The newspaper world is no teetotaler here, but a spirited animal, a world that must be navigated rather than a space to be transgressed effortlessly. A killer early tracking shot back and forth across the battlefield of the newspaper office introduces Hildy’s virility simply through her strutting, prowling even, singular ability to walk across what is otherwise a harried, hot-coal maelstrom of cluttered physical space and free-floating aural discordance hanging in the air like lung-infesting dust particles. Her costume, all scabrous diagonals and verticals that chop the world around her to bits, also instantly marks her as one with this hostile space, singularly able to exploit its nooks and crannies for her gain.
Screwballs are not typically ensconced in the halls of the visual masterworks of cinema (and, truth be told, they don’t deserve to be, nor does His Girl Friday; sharp though its visuals are, the sound is the primary tool of engagement here, the machete to chop away a path to cinematic sublimity). Still, the staccato editing scatters the characters around the space in heated confrontation. And Walker’s camera hurtles not with casual grace but the incessant determination of a headstrong rush to control the space in a world that overrules containment with dialogue and characters that energize the periphery and almost bursting off the screen with fierce aplomb. A film ready to punch its way out of any paper bag with a simple syllable or a glare, it’s damned effective stuff. But His Girl Friday transcends simple, classically composed effectiveness within the rule-sets dictated by the higher powers that be. Contrary to popular demand, the whole edifice of the screw-loose film is dangerously ready to unloosen its hinges and fall over in the maddened frenzy of an unholy carousel ride into the hell of newspaperdom.