His Girl Friday
The Love of Adventure
It may seem a little paradoxical to use Howard Hawks as an example of authorship and, specifically, His Girl Friday, an adaptation of a play, The Front Page, already filmed in 1931. Hawks was a director whose films were scripted by others and who worked in a variety of genres suggesting no great directorial imprint. While John Ford was chiefly a director of westerns, the odd war film and the occasional thriller, Hawks was much more flexible, offering masterful comedies (Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday), classic westerns (Red River and Rio Bravo), brilliant crime films (The Big Sleep and Scarface), as well as musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), star vehicles (Sergeant York) and even epics (Land of the Pharaohs). But what if we claim for all the range Hawks displayed, his best films are comedies, westerns and crime dramas? One can think of Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, Rio Bravo, Scarface and The Big Sleep. Paying special attention to His Girl Friday but attending also to some of the others, what is it that makes this flexible Hollywood friend (whose best work nevertheless shows a more limited repertoire) at the same time a filmmaker with a vision?
Certainly the magazine central to the auteur theory, Cahiers du Cinema believed Hawks was a major exemplar of it, with Francois Truffaut writing in 1954 that Hawks was "the most underestimated of Hollywood filmmakers" (The Films in My Life). Jacques Rivette said: the evidence on the screen is proof of Hawks's genius." (Cahiers du Cinema) In Theories of Authorship, apart from Ford, no filmmaker gets mentioned more often. Now when comprehending authorship it is important not to confuse the person and the work. The auteur is a 'critical construct' which needn't have much to do with the life of the director nor even a causality which would suggest the director was chiefly responsible for the work in front of us. While it might seem plausible to suggest that an auteur is someone responsible for initiating the project, working on the script and controlling the final edit, that has not been how auteurists have usually seen it. The purpose was to elevate the director to the status of the artist without regarding production history as the means to do so. What matters is a consistency of style and thematic preoccupation. As Truffaut says, "it is important to remember that Howards Hawks is a moralist. Far from sympathising with his characters, he treats them with disdain." His films are also often fast, partly why he could make screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, films we couldn't imagine Ford making. The latter, as both a play and an earlier film, had both leading roles played by men, Hawks chose to make the second male a woman, reckoning it would speed the film up and make the tensions more pronounced. As Hawks said, "we had an interesting thing during the making of it the newspaper-men, who looked on the story of The Front Page as a sort of Bible, were rather horrified at the idea of changing the reporter to a girl. We arranged a showing to the newspapermen, and we had the screen split into two parts. We ran the one picture on one and the other picture on the other, and they said, My God, your picture's so much faster than the other!" (Hawks on Hawks)
Hawks was also inclined to cast in the leads oppositional characters rather than augmentative ones and what might, in another film, be regarded as love interest, in Hawks' films often became a figure in the battle of the sexes. Women usually rise to the occasion in the man's world Hawks' films so often focus upon, surprising the men with not just their feminine wiles but a certain prowess often associated with masculinity but not exclusive to it. We find this is in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not with Lauren Bacall, with Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, and His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell. In a scene in The Big Sleep, after Bacall hires Bogart for a case, she assertively says goodbye and turns the lock of the door. It doesn't open. At first we might recognise female trepidation as she finds herself locked in, only for a second later to see that she needs to turn the lock above it, which opens easily. "Well it wasn't intentional," Bogart offers. "Try it sometime" Bacall replies. Obviously, this is also a film noir trope the woman insinuating that she is open to more than traditional femininity might allow but it also possesses that Hawksian idea that a woman is a man's equal and he would do well not to forget it.
In His Girl Friday, Walter and Hildy are a divorced couple, journalists in New York, and Hildy announces that she is marrying again and off to live outside the Big Apple. Walter isn't too pleased and for the rest of the film will find ways to get her back, doing so chiefly with the aid of a shared interest in journalism rather than on his especially seductive charms. "Played by anyone other than Cary Grant," Farran Smith Nehme says, "Walter might be the least likely love match imaginable; but he is Cary Grant, thank goodness." (Criterion) Walter may be played by Grant, but Hildy is played by Rosalind Russell, a woman who in her power suit and with pointed words and sharp mind can decide for herself whether she will give up journalism and settle for a life with the hapless Bruce or return to Walter not least for the cut and thrust of the newsroom and the thrill of the chase when it comes to a good story. Right from the beginning, Hildy is someone who knows she has got his number rather than a woman who would too easily give it out to anyone asking. When Walter plays up how much he made her the woman she is, Hildy doesn't thank him for his help but questions his motives and his version of events. "I took a doll faced-hick" he says, as he turned Hildy into a city journalist and Hildy notes that he wouldn't have taken her if she wasn't doll-faced. When he suggests she ruined things by marrying him she rightly points out that he was the one who proposed. But what choice did he have, Walter says, with her spending two years looking at him with fluttering eyelashes as he says he was tight the night he asked for her hand. She should have had the decency to turn him down as Hildy ends up throwing her bag at him. The point is she can give as good as she gets and better if necessary.
You don't charm a woman like Hildy, you compete with her, trying to get the better of someone that suggests sexual appeal is secondary to a proper power struggle. Language is central to this. Lea Jacobs suggests that Hawks's cinema really does begin with the word. "The absence of music in His Girl Friday with the exception of the final scene (and the relative dearth of non- diegetic music in Hawks' films when compared with those of most other directors in the classical period) contributes to the use of language as the predominant sonic rhythm." The remark appears consistent with Truffaut's about the lack of sentimentality in Hawks' work, as though music is a means by which to suggest the seductive while language in his films indicates the competitive. In one scene after Bruce, Walter and Hildy have had dinner, they get up and Walter holds her coat ready to help her into it. As Hildy offers a withering put-down he passes the coat over to Bruce while he gets the cheque. Walter has been briefly beaten and chivalry quickly falls away, to be picked up by the woebegone Bruce, who is collateral damage in the war of words. Seeing that Bruce is slow on the uptake, Hildy takes the five hundred Bruce has in his wallet well aware that Walter will find the means to access the cash. Bruce doesn't argue as Hildy knows that such human decency she finds in the man she is supposed to marry is no use in a Hawksian world that demands people fight their corner. Bruce is a big guy but a sluggish thinker, caught right from the start in Walter's mind games and verbal virtuosity. When Walter first hears Hildy is going to remarry he goes into the waiting area and congratulates an old man on his good fortune. The old man says he is married; Walter is disappointed, surely Hildy isn't going to marry a bigamist, and waits for Bruce to come up to announce that he is the one marrying Hildy. Walter interrupts him saying he is terribly busy; can he just leave his card with the boy. Eventually 'realising' who Bruce is, he looks at him surprised saying Hildy gave the impression she was marrying a much older man. Bruce is flummoxed, unaware quite how to take the insults, as if he first of all needs to find them. It is a dressing down over Bruce being buttoned up, as Walter comments on the risk-averse nature of a man who takes an umbrella with him on the off chance there might be rain.
Obviously, there are plenty examples in Hawks' work where the deed replaces the word, from Scarface to Rio Bravo, with a war of words secondary to a fight with guns. But in many of the more violent films, like Rio Bravo and Red River, words matter. If an action filmmaker today were to watch Hawks' cinema it wouldn't be to see how he does action or set-pieces (much better to go to Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Peckinpah for that) but how he deals with conflict. Before the final shootout in Rio Bravo, John Wayne negotiates with various other characters how best to proceed, and even during the shootout there is still plenty dialogue and not a little comedy as the old sheriff thinks he has the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks only for Wayne to tell him the fireworks are right next him a cart full of dynamite, dynamite which then helps them take out the villains. In Red River, the tensions between the older Dunson (Wayne) and the young Garth (Montgomery Clift) are resolved not by knocking each other about but Garth's girlfriend pointing a gun at the pair of them and telling them to admit that there is love between them more than hate. They need to learn to talk to each other we might assume.
In that sense, there isn't a lot of difference between Dunson and Garth and Hildy and Walter, even Marlowe and Vivian in The Big Sleep, as though animosity is often no more than masked affection and people just need to find the language to reveal it. Just as Hawks often indicated that a homosocial environment had a place for women if they could tolerate the milieu, so he proposes that both love and hate could be dichotomies that dissolve. It is partly why conflict is a better word to describe what is interesting about his work rather than aggression. "For Hawks the highest human emotion is the camaraderie of the exclusive, self-sufficient, all male group" Peter Wollen says. "Hawks's heroes are cattle-men, marlin fishermen, racing drivers, pilots, big game hunters, habituated to danger and living apart from society..." (Signs and Meanings in Cinema) But, of course, there are numerous women in Hawks' films and playing important roles Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, a small but significant one for Garth's girlfriend at the end of Red River, and nobody more than Hildy in His Girl Friday: halfway through the film Grant all but disappears for fifteen minutes, with Hildy very much our central character. It is not so much that Hawks' has no place for women, it is that they find their place in adjusting to a masculine environment. Wollen also notes that "in Hawks's adventure dramas and even many of his comedies, there is no married life. Often the heroes were married or at least intimately committed, to a woman at some time in their distant past..." but maybe it is less as Wollen suggests "once bitten, twice shy" than that the men are looking for women who can enter into the masculine milieu; as if marriage will never be a domestic existence but a further adventure.
At the end of His Girl Friday, Walter and Hildy are back together again, but they won't be retreating from journalistic life to have a family, nor even to take a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, but to chase yet another story. Hildy is the woman for him because she is more than anyone else willing to tolerate, even enjoy, the professional life. Hawks acknowledges there is a place for women but they have to prove themselves by becoming equal to the adventure rather than just desirous of the man. Stanley Cavell has talked about the 'adventure of love" (The Pursuits of Happiness) in His Girl Friday and other remarriage comedies like Adam's Rib and The Awful Truth, but in Hawks the adventure of love is also the love of adventure. It is less about settling down than settling a few scores. If the woman can give as good she gets then she is someone who gets the hero. A damsel in distress would be of little use in the Hawksian world, but a woman who can take care of herself needn't be a source of endless worry and complication. Some may see at the end of films like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep a neediness on the part of Hildy and Vivian, a sense in which the man will get on with his life but the woman realising they have no place without them. Hildy bursts into tears at the idea of Walter sending her off to Albany with Bruce. Vivian asks what about me when it looks like Marlowe has thought of everything but the woman who is increasingly by his side. What we make of such conclusions is a question for gender but with the auteurist vision of Howards Hawks the women are saying they are equal to the task of entering the man's world, not insistently pulling them into a more feminine universe of family and the domestic life. Such an ending would be close to a tragedy, the sort of fate that befalls the journalist Sweeney, someone Walter speaks about earlier in the film: "his wife just had twins. Isn't that terrible." Walter has made the story up (Sweeney has only been married for four months) but the point holds: for Walter children aren't the future; they are the curtailing of it in Hawks' world, and His Girl Friday is an exemplary instance. Rivette insisted "what other man of genius, even if he were more obsessed with continuity, could be more passionately concerned with the consequences of men's actions...?" (Cahiers du Cinema) These are consequences that must lead to more actions, and women who are up for the adventure.
© Tony McKibbin