The Studio System • His Girl Friday
Greenscreening Series #09
October 14, 2022
October 14, 2022
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Synopsis: One of the fastest, funniest, and most quotable films ever made, His Girl Friday stars Rosalind Russell as reporter Hildy Johnson, a standout among cinema’s powerful women. Hildy is matched in force only by her conniving but charismatic editor and ex-husband, Walter Burns (played by the peerless Cary Grant), who dangles the chance for her to scoop her fellow news writers with the story of an impending execution in order to keep her from hopping the train that’s supposed to take her to Albany and a new life as a housewife. When adapting Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's smash hit play The Front Page, director Howard Hawks had the inspired idea of turning star reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman, and the result is an immortal mix of hard-boiled newsroom setting with ebullient remarriage comedy. - The Criterion Collection
Find His Girl Friday via Reelgood
Buckle up, because this film is fast. In a genre that involves fast-paced verbal jousting between the sexes, this film is the fastest talking of them all. In fact, the film set a record for the fastest pace of speech, at more than double the words per minute of average human conversation. They turned a 191-page script into a brisk 92 minute film.
His Girl Friday is one of the quintessential screwball comedies.
Screwball comedies emerged during the Great Depression and in the wake of the formal adoption of the Production Code Administration. The PCA forced Hollywood films to become much more chaste. Writers had to depict courtship and relationships in a less explicitly sexual way.
They invented a new form of comedy film that became known as screwball.
Screwball was an adjective for insane or eccentric. It was also the term for a type of curvy baseball pitch that was difficult to control and even more difficult to hit. In fact, it was so difficult to hit that in the 1934 All Star Game, the best screwball pitcher in history, Carl Hubbell, struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, and three other future hall of famers in a row.
At the center was the battle of the sexes, in which two people who often couldn’t stand one another would discover their love through a series of misadventures and foibles, all while battling and arguing their way through it, trying to get the upper hand.
In screwball comedy, everything is turned upside-down. Rather than love at first sight, the thesis is opposites attract. Men and women who seem perfectly matched in the first act are doomed, while those who can't stand each other at the start find themselves unable to escape the other person, and over the course of the film realize they might just need someone to make them this miserable.
The battling women and men at the center of these films are often placed in farcical situations, like in Bringing Up Baby (1939) where Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant play an heiress and paleontologist chasing a leopard on the loose in Connecticut, or in My Favorite Wife (1940) where Irene Dunn plays a woman who was missing and presumed dead for seven years who returns home on the day her husband (again Cary Grant) is remarrying.
The genre is marked by strong women who dominate the male leads. This is one of the enduring appeals of the genre - the strong female characters. They're smart, affluent, and very capable of making it through life independently. They're on at least equal footing with the men, who are unprepared to deal with the women. Perhaps this is what the men find appealing.
Screwball comedies satirized social norms of the time and challenged traditional notions of gender, relationships, and marriage. The title, His Girl Friday is ironic, as the term "girl Friday" referred to an assistant or secretary, which Hildy is certainly not. Many screwball comedies dealt with divorce, remarriage, and even bigamy. Writers used farce to subvert the Production Code -- while you couldn't explicitly make a film that encouraged divorce, if that was your starting point and the characters somehow ended up back together, that was a different matter. Similarly, the PCA wouldn’t allow a film to show cross-dressing, but if a man falls into a pool and has to borrow a woman’s robe, well, that's comedy.
Dialogue is typically the shining element of screwball comedy. Remember that Hollywood was still learning to talk after the advent of sound. They turned to Broadway, where most of the best writers were working, and which was a source of material they could now use on screen. These writers showed off their talent through witty dialogue and double entendres.
A few other distinctives of the genre: Screwball comedies are frequently set in New York and depict an upper middle class, overeducated, mostly independent lifestyle. Characters often use disguise or masquerade, and attempt to deceive others or hide their motives. And there is often a lot of threats of physical violence and pratfalling.
If these traits sound familiar, you might be thinking of contemporary romantic comedies. Screwball comedy is in fact the precursor to the romantic comedy genre we know. Consider one of the classics, You’ve Got Mail (1998). The film revolves around wealthy New Yorkers, has a strong female lead who runs a business that competes with the male lead’s business. The two are enemies secretly in love through email.
In fact, You’ve Got Mail is a remake of the screwball comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940). And You’ve Got Mail gets increasingly screwball once Joe Fox learns his pen pal’s identity, and begins trying to help (or hinder) Kathleen Kelly figure out who she loves.
Between 1917 and 1948, and in particular once sound was pioneered in 1927, Hollywood enjoyed a golden age. Coming out of WWI, Hollywood dominated the global production and distribution of movies, setting the standard for film narrative and style (sorry, Soviets).
Hollywood was the dream factory, the land of stars - and it was the studio system that made it all possible.
In order to keep people coming back to see their films, studios became content factories, making movies on an assembly line.
If you’ve heard the term "B movie" before (not Bee Movie), that comes from the studio system, in which the production duration and budget were classified by letter, with A pictures getting the best talent and 4-6 weeks to shoot (occasionally longer), B movies getting 2 weeks, using existing sets and the next tier of talent, and even C pictures, mostly Westerns, which would be shot in a couple days, often with little to no dialogue.
Studios controlled every aspect of production, distribution, and exhibition. They had a roster of writers, directors, actors, and crew who they could quickly deploy to any project. Executives would review rough cuts of films and suggest changes. And studios released films aggressively, both to theaters they owned across the country, and by forcing independent theater owners to rent a studio's entire output for a season, a practice called block booking; to get the best pictures, they also had to rent the second-rate movies as well.
The major studios were: Warner Bros., Universal, Columbia Pictures, Paramount, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), 20th Century Fox, and RKO. Each carved out a unique brand identity and personality; Warner was the tough studio, with gangster films and their shield logo. Universal with the globe signified its interest in horror - in stories that made you look at our world and everything terrifying in it, monsters that threaten humanity’s very existence. MGM was the home of the stars, its signature lion representing its privileged status among studios. When Disney emerged as a player, the studio adopted as its brand identity a castle and its founder’s signature - the mark of an artistic animator.
Studios hired actors, writers, and directors to multi-year contracts, invested heavily in talent development. Studios controlled every aspect of stars’ publicity, down to their names and their looks, what kinds of pictures they appeared in, and how they behaved in public. influencing who they dated, and in some cases, married. We saw some of this in Singin’ in the Rain, with the contrast between the public-facing version of Don Lockwood’s relationship with his co-star, Lena Lamott and their behind-the-scenes conflicts.
Image was everything. As we discussed earlier in the series, the stars were the movies, and people expected the personas they loved on screen to exist in real life. People didn't want Chaplin, they wanted the Little Tramp.
This brings us back to type. We can't watch a screwball comedy with Cary Grant as the star without thinking about type. After all, Cary Grant was in several classic screwball comedies - not just those listed earlier in this edition. Grant was adept at playing a good-looking but helplessly overmatched man. Studios hired and developed talent to reliably portray a certain type of on-screen persona, and exploited this image by having stars play a similar type across pictures. You weren't going to see Cary Grant play a monster in a horror movie - you would see him in a screwball comedy or a romance. However, later in Hollywood, some directors began experimenting with casting actors against type, and Grant's career benefitted from Hitchcock and others casting him in suspense / thrillers in the 1950s, often capitalizing on his combination of debonair, sex appeal, and capacity for getting flummoxed.
Studios also signed stars to strict morals clauses. After the scandals in the 1920s and pre-Code era, Hollywood wasn't about to jeopardize its prized position.
The Studio System worked for the better part of three decades, from the 1920s through the late 1940s. The American movie industry was once again a trust.
His Girl Friday is the second film in this series directed by Howard Hawks.
Hawks was a unique director in the studio era because he resisted the pull of studio contracts, and instead released films for many, and worked across genres.
Hawks got his start right around the switch from silent to sound, and of course had a breakout with Scarface in 1932. Hawks had some successes in the 1930s, and a bomb with the now-classic Bringing Up Baby, but really broke through with His Girl Friday in 1940, the first in an almost unparalleled string of massive hits. He is one of the few directors to have made a classic film in every genre, including the gangster film (Scarface), comedy (His Girl Friday), noir (The Big Sleep), romance (To Have and Have Not), war (Sergeant York), western (Red River and Rio Bravo), sci-fi/horror (The Thing from Another World), and musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Hawks wasn't particularly lauded by Hollywood, earning just a single Best Director nomination in his career. In the 1950s, French film critics championed Hawks as one of the great American directors, which led to a critical reappraisal of his work. He has since been held up as an example auteur, or central artistic force behind a film. However, it's difficult to look at Hawks' films and see quite the same obvious directorial style that you see with other auteurs of the era, like Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. Hawks once described his definition of a good movie as "three great scenes, no bad ones."
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson describes Hawks' appeal well: "he is the greatest optimist the cinema has produced... Not that he fails to notice tragedy. The optimism comes out of a knowledge of failure and is based on the virtues and warmth in people that go hand in hand with their shortcomings." And regardless of genre, Hawks would infuse this sensibility into his works, turning genre on its head.
Hawks is probably most closely identified with his "Hawksian women" characters, the kind of strong, smart, independent, tough-talking leading lady Rosalind Russell plays in His Girl Friday. Some have championed him as a proto-feminist. Hawks wasn't willing to accept the label (or really any academic or intellectual label); instead simply stating that strong female characters were so much more interesting to watch.
Hawks' biggest legacy is his influence on later generations of filmmakers, including Jean-luc Godard, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and John Carpenter. He inspired a generation of filmmakers to think differently about representations of gender on screen, how to tell a unique story within the constraints of genre, and to tell a good story simply.
What do you think happens at the end of His Girl Friday?
Where do you see the influence of screwball comedy in contemporary films, or in the classic romantic comedies of the 1990s?
His Girl Friday was released in 1940. Films had come a long way since Fred Ott's Sneeze, and even since Metropolis 13 years earlier, and Chaplin's City Lights at the start of the 1930s. What do you make of the style of a film like His Girl Friday? How is the viewing experience different from watching something like Birth of a Nation or Metropolis? What's different about the acting, the story structure, the editing, and the set design?
Now that we've seen two films by Howard Hawks, how would you describe his filmmaking style?
If you've already seen His Girl Friday, or you'd like to see other screwball comedies, check out one of the following:
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