To kick off this blog, I thought I'd start with one of my all-time favorite classic comedies.
There have been many attempts to bring Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 Broadway play, The Front Page, to the big screen, but the only one anyone talks about is Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940). And for good reason: it's one of the fastest, funniest, most perfect comedies ever produced. And while it certainly doesn't qualify as "neglected" or "underrated," it's worth noting for anyone born after, say, 1970 who might otherwise overlook a black-and-white movie. If that's you--or if you've simply never gotten around to seeing this paradigm of comic timing--then put it near the top of your Netflix queue, posthaste.
No, it's not a gross-out comedy. There's no cartoon violence or computer-generated talking wombats. But it's got Cary Grant at his sneaky, conniving, rascally best, with Rosalind Russell, as career-gal (and ex-wife) Hildy Johnson, matching him line for line. There's also hapless Ralph Bellamy (one day to appear in Trading Places) in what became forever known as "the Ralph Bellamy role"--i.e., the poor third wheel found in pretty much every romantic comedy ever.
There are tough-talking reporters, crooked politicians, scolding mothers-in-law, a suicidal sweetheart, and a death-row patsy. But most importantly, there's the guiding hand of director Howard Hawks, who ratchets the action up to eleven. His Girl Friday has long been called the fastest movie ever made, and even next to today's micro-edited movies, this thing flies. But instead of forward movement through cuts, it does it through dialogue--lots and lots of twisted, clever, machine-gun paced patter that overlaps into a giddy verbal stew that brings new discoveries with each viewing.
And if you're worried that, like a lot of old movies, it's going to feel dated, don't. Along with Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), Hawks was one of the few directors from Hollywood's classic era whose films require only a minimal "period filter" to watch them. The writing, pacing, and behavior stand on their own without having to make excuses for their being from another time. Sure, most of these films were in black-and-white, and there's no overt
sex, profanity, or violence. But the same can be said for most non-cable
TV shows (minus the black-and-white part), and that doesn't make them any less enjoyable.
Hawks, a master of genre who was in many ways the Steven Soderbergh of his day, had already defined the gangster movie with Scarface (1932), the screwball comedy with Twentieth Century (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), and only a year earlier had directed one of the era's most entertaining action-adventure films, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). He would go on to make his mark in musicals, westerns, and even horror. And while it's possible today to find better and more relevant examples of those genres, with His Girl Friday Hawks not only defined the newspaper comedy, he made one that no one has ever figured out how to duplicate.