Three comedies of Howard Hawks

There’s a little preface to this essay on some old films. Most people experience a film at first through advertising media. It may be a rumour that “it’s supposed to be good”, it may be a review in the newspaper, but it’s all advertising. Nothing to do with the quality of the film. In fact, bad films are in even more need of advertising. Even if you don’t like it, at least you’ve bought a ticket. This plays havoc with people’s critical faculties (if they have them). Quality doesn’t count, but if it doesn’t come with hype, if it’s not in colour, or if it’s an old film, you won’t see it. The literary equivalent would be to say you won’t read classic literature, only what’s on the bestseller list. The musical equivalent would be to ignore celebrated and influential musicians and just listen to top 40 on the radio. People of course can do whatever they like. But it seems a pity to willfully ignore the best, most influential and most entertaining films ever made for the absurd reason that they were made in a previous decade.

In Richard Benjamin’s My Favourite Year (1982) Peter O’Toole as swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann tells an anecdote about the death of Victorian Shakespearian actor Henry Irving. His friends gather around Irving’s deathbed. “Don’t worry about me” he says, “dying’s easy”. After a pause, obviously still thinking about it, he adds, “comedy’s hard”. Among all the maudlin, the melodramatic, the obvious, the tasteless and the inept films that litter our video stores there are three expertly made and brilliantly acted films that can still make us laugh when most other comedies of the past 50 years have been turned over to the film historian. Some background information can help us to appreciate them.

Films are often divided into categories. It helps us make a choice, and makes life simpler for the assistant at the video library. One such category is “screwball comedy”, which is sometimes listed as a sub category of “romantic comedy” which of course is a sub category of “comedy”. The essential thing about romantic comedy is sentiment. Romantic comedy asserts the belief that there is a girl for every guy, and vice versa, no matter how unlikely the match. We laugh as the two people screw things up, and feel an inner glow when, just before the end, they finally get together. Screwball comedy is different, with the sentiment pushed into the background, until the end of the film, in favour of fast paced action, manic physical comedy, and a battle of the sexes, as in The Awful Truth (1937). Not all films called screwball comedies are so: a certain number of them are of a completely different sub category of humour: satire. Bombshell (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937), and To Be or Not To Be (1942) are as satirical as Dr Strangelove (1964) or South Park. Satire uses humour to make social comment, but if labelled as comedy it can often offend viewers expecting light entertainment: hence charges of bad taste and dulness levelled at some of the most cogent of satires. So ‘screwball comedy’ shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a category. Some films so categorised are truly so, others only marginally, others not at all. And a film succeeds by the way it is made, not at all by the place it is filed.

The man behind many of the great screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, and behind many other films, was the prolific writer Ben Hecht, author of well over 100 screenplays, a famous novelist, journalist and civil rights activist as well, probably one of the most influential people of the 20th century. As he himself said, nobody remembers who writes a film, but Hecht wrote many of the best known films of the golden age of Hollywood. Of relevance to what I have to say about film, he is the author of Roxie Hart (1942), later the musical and film Chicago, Nothing Sacred (1937) which lambasts the sensation hungry press and equally gullible newspaper readers, A Star Is Born (1937), about a rising and a fading film star: all three directed by William Wellman. And four films of Howard Hawks: Monkey Business (1952), The Thing From Another World (1951), His Girl Friday (1940) and Twentieth Century (1934). Hecht’s films are characterised by masterly command of vernacular dialogue, fast pacing and unerring aim at the targets of hypocrisy and pompousness.

Howard Hawks is probably the greatest of American film directors, although there are many other close contenders, but Hawks never wanted to be considered that way. He saw himself as an entertainer. He strove to create one or two great scenes in a film, and no bad ones, and was content with that. Few others have done as well, though some with more self importance. As a result Hawks is a little under rated. Almost unrecognised is the fact he worked as co-script writer on all his films, and was a highly talented writer, as well as producer and director. Hawks excelled in all film genres, but here I just want to write about his work in comedy. He was introduced to film by his friend Victor Fleming, then cinematographer to legendary director Allan Dwan. When Fleming directed Jean Harlow in Bombshell (1933), a scathing satire of the movie industry written by Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht’s only rival as a scriptwriter at that time, Hawks was impressed. He particularly liked the way the dialogue was layered, with voices overlapping to convey excitement, while every word was still comprehensible. He screened Bombshell over and over for his stars while making His Girl Friday in 1940. Hawks’ films are characterised by their fast pace, rapid dialogue, absurd situations, and concern with relationships. Adding depth, and greatness, to his comedies as well as other films he made, was an exploration of the bonds that form between people, often hidden and sometimes quite different to the feelings they express towards each other.

The difference between an actor and a film star can sometimes be of tragic consequence, and was in the case of John Barrymore, one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history as well as one of the finest actors we have record of. Revered by public and peers alike for his achievement in theatrical roles, including landmark Shakespeare roles such as Richard III and Hamlet, Barrymore achieved even more fame, and money, as a film star in over 50 films, and excelled in Svengali in 1931, Grand Hotel in 1932, Dinner at Eight in 1933 and Twentieth Century in 1934. But excess was to destroy him.  Bad liquor caused brain damage eventually, bad marriages cost a lot of alimony, and Barrymore is more remembered for later roles, undertaken for the money, when he was an ill man, characterised by failing memory and self parody. The four films I mention reveal him a master of every acting skill. A commanding presence even when silent, a nuanced and beautiful diction, ability to create whole scenes from his expression alone, mastery of action and physical comedy, able equally to fill a scene when necessary and give room to another actor when required. In Twentieth Century he overacts for comedy, but it should be noted this is not self parody or ‘ham’ acting. The object of the satire in this film is acting, illusion, and our need for it, and Barrymore shows supreme confidence in making fun of the very skills he uses to do so. He is of course satirising an impresario, not an actor, so his technique is closer to Chaplin’s Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940) than a prop chewer such as Jack Benny’s Tura in To Be Or Not To Be of 1942. Barrymore’s art is the opposite of the method actor. (Sir Laurence Olivier told Dustin Hoffman on a set where Hoffman hadn’t slept for three days to create the character part he was playing: “Dustin, there’s an easier way. It’s called acting”). You are conscious every second Barrymore is acting, and acting superbly, yet it never interferes with the role he is playing. It’s like watching an Olympic athlete go over the hurdles or move to the front in a foot race. A different style to modern naturalist acting, but just as compelling.

Talking about old films requires more explanation, as will today’s films in years to come should they last the distance.

Like a lot of films of the 30s it started as a Broadway play. Play and film script were both written by Ben Hecht (and other collaborators) who based it on an unproduced play about David Belasco, a  highly influential play producer and larger than life character whom people either loved or hated, often both at the same time. Rather than a burlesque on the impresario, not really enough to carry a play or film, Hecht has opened it out to portray the way directors, actors, their assistants and ordinary people such as we who view the film, depend on misrepresentation, on inflation, as a way of negotiating our lives. In other words, the film says we are all self dramatists, and as such, a little ridiculous. So if you watch this film, you will appreciate it a little more if you have the ability to laugh at yourself.

The film takes the form of a series of contests between its characters. Between director and producer; director and actor, producer and financial manager, and fundamentalist and railway officials. Hawks has described how he, Hecht and Charles MacArthur Hecht’s collaborator wrote the script. They played cards (or backgammon, or craps), took a break, and each assumed the part of one of the characters, or invented a new one, then tried to baffle or nonplus the others. They were all accomplished talkers and inventive writers, usually succeeded for a time, until one of the others would turn the tables.

The plot is based on the situation depicted three years’ later with great pathos in 1937’s A Star Is Born, the story of Esther Blodgett who wants to be a film star, and is befriended by luminary Norman Maine who later marries her and changes her name to Vicki Lester. Her career blossoms, she becomes very popular, while his withers. Depressed, he commits suicide, while she movingly refers to herself in a speech to her fans as Mrs Norman Maine. Hogwash, but you just have to cry right through it. Hollywood has always been concerned with the problems of fame, and there are faded names galore there, half famous, half forgotten. It’s quite poignant to reflect that this was about to be the plight of John Barrymore. Not when Twentieth Century was made, but very soon afterwards.

But although the plot of Twentieth Century could be milked for pathos, it wasn’t. Inspired perhaps by Victor Fleming’s Bombshell of 1933 it ridicules the pretensions of actors, producers and directors alike, and it does so unmercifully. There really were directors such as Oscar Jaffe. The director Fritz Lang, soon to arrive in America fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany, really did lay chalk marks down on the floor for his actors to walk along, and if he didn’t stick pins in his actresses’ behinds to make their screams more realistic it was only because he didn’t think of it. He reportedly threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs to make him look more authentically ravaged during the making of M.

Twentieth Century is the name of the Chicago-New York express train the  characters in the film all end up on. It stands for speed, for change and modernity, and exterior shots of the train are used very effectively to add to the sense of rapid transit expressed in the progression of the plot.

The plot itself is not that important. Oscar Jaffe is a Broadway producer who is wildly successful and succumbs to megalomania. He is surrounded by a subservient group of employees who pander to this. During the production of an awful melodrama set in the deep South he takes on a lingerie model called Mildred Plotka, renames her Lily Garland (surely not a reference to the artistic pretensions of Oscar Wilde parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience), imagines he makes her act (Hawks’ famous direction to the somewhat nervous Carole Lombard, overawed to be working with Barrymore: “Carole, stop acting!”), marries her and becomes so overbearing she flees, to Hollywood of all places. Any resemblance to Barrymore’s earlier role of Svengali to Lombard’s Trilby is purely intentional: she even says at one point “I’m no Trilby”. Don’t be fooled by this; she wants the role of Svengali for herself. In Hollywood Lily is even more successful, while Jaffe produces a series of flops, and is soon bankrupt. He flees his creditors, boards the Twentieth Century, and finds Lily is a fellow passenger. To entice her to sign a contract with him Jaffe invents a biblical melodrama which sounds suspiciously like several Cecil B De Mille films rolled into one. Lily finds it hilarious (in Barrymore’s hands it is – this is the scene where, in a 10 second aside, he does a perfect imitation of a camel), rejects the proposal, and Jaffe threatens suicide, brandishing a pistol melodramatically very like a character in the play he came in on. Thinking he is dying Lily signs the contract, Jaffe recovers, and the two end the film each trying to out histrionic the other.

This is clever writing from Hecht, full of references that most people never get a chance to notice, but notable for the opportunities it gives the cast, and Hawks, to develop scene after hilarious scene. I’ve seen the film several times, and couldn’t stop laughing the first few times. On this viewing it was less amusing. I was in a mood to see, not the manic action and counter action created by Hawks, but the dark satire intended by Hecht about how we, all of us, can’t help acting, even when it looses us the thing we try to gain by acting in the first place. Here’s black humour indeed, about a species that postures in the dark, invents phantoms to flee from, tries to manipulate others into giving us the thing they want to give anyway, accuses others of our own faults, and only succeeds in being consistently ridiculous.

When you consider that most scenes in the film are medium close up dialogue shots (though there are some superb exteriors of the train in motion) you appreciate that Hawks is relying on the frantic pace with which events move, and on the skill of his actors to make each scene work. It is a bravura job of expert directing: no fancy tracking, ostentatious long shots, pans or dissolves. It’s bare bones, and it’s brilliant. Like an expert bowler setting up a series of centre strikes, Hawks sets up great scene after great scene, and never misses.

To see what a great comedian can do with a great comic role I think of Peter Sellars as Dr Strangelove, or Jack Benny as Josef Tura in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe sounds like Benny’s Tura. But Tura is a ham, while Jaffe is an Ozymandias, full of ridiculous delusions. Tura can’t help playing himself playing Hamlet. Jaffe is playing Shakespeare playing Hamlet. This pretension is not unknown in Hollywood. Some stars seem to believe the stuff the studio publicity department hands out. Not apparently Barrymore, which is why he is so good at parodying it. This is a film for anyone to watch who wants to see what an actor is capable of, for Barrymore uses just about every device available to an actor. But he shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the other actors.

Carole Lombard had made over 40 films before she undertook this role, which made her reputation. I always remember the sublime job she did in My Man Godfrey for Gregory La Cava two years later in 1936. Here she is finding her feet. Her physical presence and reactions are right, but her dialogue is marred by a false accent at times as she tries to “express”. Lombard was apparently pretty gutsy, and talking proper doesn’t suit her. That’s OK, Barrymore compensates for any lack in their scenes together. She is much better in her scenes with Ralph Forbes, her boyfriend George. Her rage at the end of the film reminds me of the wonderful job Harlow did in Bombshell. Wonder if Lombard watched it?

Anyone who’s watched a Preston Sturges film knows a good film doesn’t need a star. Sturges filled his films with great character actors who gave them depth and texture no matter who played the lead. Walter Connolly was one of those kind of actors, reliable, skilled, and able to do a good job when given the opportunity, but never a star. Here he plays Oliver Webb, the great man’s accountant, and his scale goes from worried to apoplectic during the film. But he’s not just given reaction shots. True to Hawks own beliefs, Oliver is loyal to Jaffe, unbelievably loyal. Like Owen his press agent (Roscoe Karns). This loyalty helps lift Jaffe out of the mercilessly parodic role which would have limited his impact in the film. Jaffe is maniacal, but he’s also lovable. And his two assistants love him, as does Lily. Pity they can only express it like a drunk being thrown out of a grog shop. This feeling between the three male leads is typical of a Hawks film, and Hawks uses Connolly and Karns to show it while Barrymore sublimely recites ridiculous Hollywood publicity tripe as though he believed it. Add the black satire of Hecht to the brilliant pacing and exploration of character of Hawks expressed by a team of four brilliant actors and you have a very great film.

A film about the weird ways people sometimes relate to one another, and saying something about you that might make you smile a little, with a bit of luck. And a great way to move forward.

This is a film Howard Hawks really wanted to make, though he had regrets about it later, thinking he had erred in making the entire cast eccentric to the point of lunacy. I think that judgment was wrong. Look at You Can’t Take it With You (1938) or My Man Godfrey (1936) for instance. There is a myth that the film flopped on first release: it did very well in both east and west coast urban districts, but it did flop in the Midwest and showed a moderate loss. By its second run it was showing a moderate profit. The flop story derives from the fact the film wasn’t as wildly successful as everyone thought it was going to be before release.

Hawks had read a story in Colliers by a writer called Hagar Wilde, thought it would make a great movie and persuaded RKO to buy the movie rights. He then hired experienced scriptwriter Dudley Nichols and then  Our Gang director Robert McGowan to work on the script with Wilde. Hawks usually had a say in the script of his films, and in this case was involved in every phase of its development. He worked up scene after scene and changed the plot and characters to suit the material he used successfully. This worked because Hawks was both a good writer and a good director.

The film stars Gary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and is usually seen as the pinnacle of 30s screwball comedy. It started as a vehicle for Ronald Coleman and Carole Lombard in a story of a man whose fiancée lumbers him with a tame panther. But Coleman and Lombard were not available, and Hawks hired Grant, and, apparently with some hesitation, Hepburn. There is some question if Hawks had seen Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth released in 1937 just before Bringing Up Baby went into production. If so he would have seen Grant deliver one of the finest romantic comedy performances on record. In 1937 also Hepburn played in Stage Door for Gregory La Cava. Although she can’t compete with Ginger Rogers’ performance in that film Hepburn did put in a memorable comedy performance and had Hawks seen that film it would explain his choice of her for Bringing Up Baby.

Neither of these actors had ever played the fast paced Keystone Kops farce that Hawks had in mind, the reason he hired the Hal Roach director Robert McGowan to work on the script. Fortuitously though, Grant had started his career as an acrobat and mime, and well into middle age could still do handstands and double somersaults. Hawks traded on both actors’ current image as beautifully dressed sophisticates. He deliberately reversed it, perhaps inspired by Hepburn’s role in Sylvia Scarlett of 1935 where she shore her hair to pass as a boy. Bringing Up Baby was to feature cross dressing (Grant in a negligée), both actors’ clothing ripped (exposing in one scene Hepburn’s underwear), pratfalls that saw both sliding down a rocky slope on their behinds, then submerged in a river (“there used to be a ford here”), scenes of them taking a shower (separately – of course!), more shots of Hepburn in her underwear and more cross dressing (Hepburn as a gangster’s moll, Swing Door Suzie). This was Hepburn and Grant doing Laurel and Hardy, and would have been pretty outrageous in 1938 with these particular actors. In fact, because we know them now from more dignified later roles their incongruous image in this film is partly what makes it so funny still.

The basic plot premise was similar to 1936’s My Man Godfrey. A slightly scatty heiress meets an unlikely match, falls desperately in love with him, and does what seems necessary, to her at any rate, to woo him and win him. This is a reversal of the basic movie plot: girl meets boy, girl chases boy, girl gets boy. The humour in both films derives from how the girl woos the boy, and in both films the girl is the central character. In both films she is eccentric (the wealthy are eccentric, the middle class are neurotic and the poor are mad). In My Man Godfrey the parts are played by Carole Lombard and William Powell, and there is no doubt in my mind they do it better than Hepburn and Grant. In fact, if this was all Hawks did with the film it wouldn’t still be remembered.

In the exchanges of the two leads, Grant and Hepburn, there are many where they are obviously relying on improvisation, and the reaction is occasionally slow, all the more noticeable in that much of the other dialogue is so fast paced. Grant was good at ad lib, Hepburn not, and it occasionally shows. All the more remarkable in that the shooting was leisurely, went over schedule (and over budget) and there would have been time for retakes. Also disconcerting are both stars’ voices. Both have highly unusual accents that seem to mangle some of the vowels, and Hepburn was saddled with an unpleasant nasal tone that became more unpleasant with age; here it is only occasionally irritating. Both stars of course survived their limitations by creating something unique in this film. To call it ‘screwball comedy’ is to underplay their achievement. One of the joys of watching the film is to see the two stars gradually creating the style that would make each a legend of the golden age of Hollywood.

There are indication that the central relationship in the story was not that important to Hawks, except as a plot premise to start the film and then to wind it up. David is an example of repression, Susan of anarchy, and as a couple they will moderate each other’s behaviour, but this is implied, not stated in the film. Hawks had in mind a fast paced farce similar to a silent comedy (there is a story that Hawks actually filmed a pie throwing sequence then deleted it in the final edit).

What Hawks does next is to take all the elements, romance, farce, slapstick, and place them in a surreal world, a world of fantasy, a midsummer night’s dream. This is miles away from the original story, quite different from any other romantic comedy. Maybe My Man Godfrey done by Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand might be closest. Of course doing this is no great shakes. But doing it successfully, as Hawks, Grant and Hepburn do, is what makes this film one of the great achievements of cinema, one reason Hawks is revered, why Grant and Hepburn loved.

The film starts with dialogue. Establishing scenes that outline Grant’s character and situation are followed by sequences on a golf courses where Grant meets Hepburn. Two things are hilariously explored. Hepburn’s character Susie Vance is shown to be perfectly logical: it’s just that her logic has no relation to the circumstances she is involved in. For instance she plays Grant’s golf ball, and chides him for objecting and so disturbing her concentration. Later she drives off in Grant’s car with him clinging to the running board while they have an argument as to whose running board it really is. Hepburn gets away with it because she always talks over the top of Grant. This is the layered dialogue, from 1933’s Bombshell and used so effectively in 1940’s His Girl Friday. Here is is used to create Grant’s character, David Huxley and his sense of frustrated incomprehension. He’s a kind of unworldly type, like Henry Fonda’s Charles Pike in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941). All David knows with any assurance is dinosaur bones. Grant does a marvellous job of showing a man who starts off baffled and out of his depth who finally ends up having the time of his life. So Titania falls in love with Bottom with his ass’ ears: all things are possible in the forest of Arden on Midsummer’s Night.

By now the film has evolved into a romantic-slapstick-fantasy. The term ‘screwball comedy’ is not quite accurate yet (it should be remembered that calling any film by a genre name is to describe the less important things about it but ignore the film’s unique achievement). Enter Baby, a tame leopard/jaguar called Nissa who plays a dual role in the film and is one of the main actors. Another is Skippy, famous for his role as Asta in The Thin Man and Mr Smith in The Awful Truth. What is Hawks doing? He takes two big stars, ruins their image, and now gives equal billing to two animals. These are key roles, not marginal ones introduced for cuteness, and both animals perform magnificently. Had Hawks been influenced by Elephant Boy (1937)? He was working at the time on Gunga Din after all. He is certainly willing to let the film evolve, to go where it takes him.

True to his dictum, “one good scene, no bad ones”, Hawks had already given us the torn dress in the nightclub scene, the two idiots in a hotel room singing ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ to a leopard scene, and Grant going into a provisioners and buying 30 lb of beef and telling the assistant it would be eaten raw, while Hepburn swaps cars to avoid a booking from the local constable outside. Needless to say, Nissa the leopard is not acting as a leopard does naturally, but as a fantasy leopard in a comedy might. She is as real and natural as the people she’s with.

The cast, one seriously confused paleontologist, one certifiable, anarchic and smitten heiress, and a leopard in love with Grant’s character (as long as he sings to her) then arrive at Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth’s farm in the wilds of Connecticut. Susan steals David’s clothes while he is in the shower, then George the dog steals David’s rare brontosaurus bone. David changes into a negligée he finds in the bathroom, meets Aunt Elizabeth, changes into a hunting outfit, the only available male clothing, and follows George around the estate helping George dig holes in search of his missing bone.

We’ve stepped from the urban world of other screwball comedies into a magical world where fantasy reigns. The farm sequences are filmed mainly at night, and the lighting is superb. This really is a Forest of Arden. There follow the plot complication of the escape of a savage leopard and everyone thinking it is Baby, the tame leopard (twins were a staple of Elizabethan comedy as well), and the jail scenes where everyone is arrested, mostly for impersonating themselves, something Susie takes to another level as a gangster’s moll. A lot of this is not strictly necessary and has nothing much to do with the plot, such plot as there is. It looks like a vaudeville show where one act comes on after the other. This may have been the point of Hawks’ criticism of what he’d done, with too many eccentric characters.

Needless to say, Suzie gets her man, David loses his dinosaur, and they all lived happily ever after. An important point about the ending is that it is quite cursory and very unrealistic but highly romantic and deeply satisfying. This is the way all fantasies should end.

A landmark of screwball comedy, but more properly a fantasy slapstick romance. It’s unlike most other films, one of a kind.

There’s a bit of a mystery about just what His Girl Friday really is. It started life as a comedy drama about newspapermen. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a play based solidly on their collective experience working for newspapers, called The Front Page, which was a big hit in 1928. It’s been revived quite a few times and four movie versions have been made, but Howard Hawks’ version of 1940 is different again. The Front Page is set entirely in a newsroom and concerns a group of reporters working on the case of a convicted murderer due to be hung. One paper’s star reporter is about to retire and get married, but when the murderer escapes and takes refuge in the newsroom, the lure of a scoop proves too strong and he goes back to work. The play has quite a lot to do with the kind of people reporters are, their dedication to the job and camaraderie, but it is also about people who will do anything for a story, even if it misrepresents what’s really happening. True to form, Hecht has written a dark and cynical satire of corruption, in local government and in the yellow press.

Hawks changed the lead reporter from Hildebrand to Hildegaard and transformed The Front Page. Still a satire of newspapermen on the job and inventing news, depicted with an impenetrable coating of M.A.S.H. like cynicism that masks any feelings they may have, it is now also a study of the relationship between editor Walter Burns and his ex wife Hildy Johnson, an hilarious battle of the sexes, and a portrait of an unscrupulous editor which would have made William Randolph Hearst as uneasy as Citizen Kane did in 1941.

His Girl Friday displays Hawks’ interest in underlying bonds between people. It’s a simplification of this to imagine the film is in any way a love story between Walter and Hildy. The title is more explicit. Robinson Crusoe’s Friday is his only companion on a desert island, and gives him loyal support in his efforts to survive his stay on the island; the two are neither friends nor companions, but people who need one another in order to survive. Specific to His Girl Friday is that Walter is a news producing dynamo who can only express his emotions by using the same techniques he uses to manufacture news, and Hildy is the only person who can deter him from being so unscrupulous, though not for long.

Hawks’ film is usually placed in the screwball comedy bag, but a comedy about a man who shoots a policemen, is railroaded to an execution by a corrupt Mayor and Sheriff seeking re election, whose friend a streetwalker is goaded by the callousness of the reporters covering the case to suicide by jumping from a window, is stretching the term comedy to a meaningless degree. Like Hawks’ other comedies mentioned here it is clear that he was following opportunities to create good scenes without worrying for the time being just what he was creating in terms of genre. In that respect a bit like Shakespeare who also blended genres.

Most of the comedy is derived from the fact Hildy is getting married to Bruce Baldwin, an insurance salesman, and Walter is piqued, even jealous. Does he want her back because he loves her or because she was his best reporter? Walter truly doesn’t know, and it’s this ambiguity that intrigues us all through the movie. Although Hawks would have realised many people would have seen the central couple’s story as a love story, he himself seems to have believed more in the ambiguous nature of feeling between people, and manages to have it both ways in the film.

This relationship overshadows the original story’s look at the relationship between reporters, but that is still there in the film. Just as in Hecht’s Twentieth Century of 1934 Hawks has taken a satire and added depth to it by making it also a study of relationships, then added what seems a characteristic of his humour, the manic wordplay there in the original play, but notched up several degrees by continuous overlapping dialogue, rapid repartee, puns, in jokes and ad libs.

Walter: “I’d know you any time-”
Walter and Hildy: “any place, anywhere”.
Hildy: “You’re repeating yourself. That’s the speech you made the night you proposed”.
Walter: “I notice you still remember it”.
Hildy: “I’ll always remember it. If I hadn’t remembered it, I wouldn’t have
divorced you”.

Hawks’ film is thus a screwball comedy newspaper satire study of hidden bonds between people. Most people remember it for the rapid and witty repartee and the machinations of Walter eventually unmasked by Hildy.

The film stars Cary Grant, and he is a revelation in this film. With a  great romantic comedy role in The Awful Truth (1937) behind him, Grant manages to fully realise the part of Walter as envisioned by Hawks: attracted by Hildy, devoted to the paper, witty and debonair, yet unscrupulous and devious and consistently ambiguous. Who can tell if he is dedicated to toppling a corrupt city administration or building circulation of his paper. Who can tell if he wants Hildy back in his life or just needs an accomplished reporter. Grant is magnetic, a whirlwind, and the energy of his performance keeps all eyes on him. He has not yet fallen back on playing Cary Grant and coasting through his movies on charm alone. Hawks makes him work, even in such a predictable film as Monkey Business of 1952. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, of Hollywood stars, Howard Hawks showed Grant to be one of its greatest actors too.

All the more remarkable that Rosalind Russell is able to match Grant scene for scene, dialogue for dialogue, throughout the film, turning in one of the best female lead performances in a comedy ever screened. Almost all reaction shots, Hildy is in turn witty, acerbic, insightful, compassionate, obsessed, and loyal. So loyal that when Walter says they are going to remarry she gets as excited as the first time he proposed. Russell never had such a part, nor such a director, again.

One of the greatest performances in the film, despite the achievement of Grant and Russell, is Ralph Bellamy. Bellamy seemed destined to play as a foil to Cary Grant, and his two great roles are in the Grant films, The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. As Bruce Baldwin, a man who bears a decided resemblance to that actor Ralph Bellamy, he is superb, with his umbrella and galoshes, his determination to catch that train to Albany, his propensity for being swindled and getting arrested, and his simple minded idea that either Hildy loves him or she doesn’t.

In fact there’s not a bad part or a weak actor in the film. I thought Billy Gilbert playing Joe Pettibone was typical, a short scene, or actually two short scenes, a simple idea, yet perfectly paced and realised, and fitting into the mosaic of the film’s action perfectly.

One point worth making is that the film’s targets, corrupt city administrations, unethical and manipulative press, morally ambiguous manipulation of others and hidden and unrecognised feelings driving relationships are just as relevant now as when the film was made, and probably always will be. The film will be contemporary and relevant for years to come.

Another genre bender from Hawks, a darkly satirical press story in the vein of Nothing Sacred mixed with brilliantly witty repartee and directed like Hawks’ other films at breakneck speed, a satirical farcical relationship study. ‘Screwball comedy’ gives only the vaguest idea of all this.

Hawks made his early comedies at a key moment in American cinema. The ten or eleven great ‘screwball comedies’ were being made in the 30s and early 40s, which utilised a unique combination of dialogue and action not seen before or since. Starting from the 40s revival of the film noir American film makers preferred to go back to an earlier style of film making popular in the 1890s, where action predominated. But in the 30s, due to an influx of film makers fleeing oppression in Europe and inspired by a great age of stage productions on Broadway, words were as important as action. Howard Hawks excelled all others in making this type of film.

In the three films I have looked at, Hawks took a sardonic, ironical masterpiece of a play ridiculing theatrics, a mildly amusing story of a man and his panther, and a biting play which gives a mordant look at the rights and wrongs of sensational journalism, and transformed all three sources into idiosyncratic masterpieces of cinematic comedy of a type  never seen before.

He had no program, no ideology, no theory. He was a practical, professional film maker. “One good scene, no bad ones” was as far as he got in formulating what he was trying to do. Steering clear of the studio system, Hawks had fuller control than most over what films he made, and he took the opportunity to exercise an exceptional judgment about film and its potentialities by choosing exceptional colleagues. Himself a great film writer, he chose other great writers, Ben Hecht, William Faulkner. He had an unerring eye for actors, and made opportunities for Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant and others. As a director he bought out skills his actors didn’t know they possessed. As a film technician he pushed the technology of his day to the limit. Sound film had only been successfully utilised five years before Hawks made Twentieth Century in 1934, and yet his use of the famous ‘overlapping dialogue’ (not new by any means but not used in film making before him with any great success) is more advanced that in films made today.

Hawks didn’t make screwball comedies. He made Howard Hawks films. Full of slapstick, from an age of cinematic comedy Hawks grew up with, full of sophisticated wit from an age of theatrical comedy dominating the Broadway stage of the time, savagely satirical, ironical and cynical about how people expressed their emotions, Hawks was at all times willing to explore the more hidden, anarchic and unrecognised feeling we all have and try to hide.

Hawks was about to take these comedic gifts and utilise them in another genre altogether, film noir. The Big Sleep of 1946 featured Bacall and Bogart, a cynical crime comedy as fast paced as any of his earlier films.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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