His Girl Friday As A Classical Hollywood Film

While a large part of His Girl Friday's charm resides in its synthesis of witty, fast-paced dialogue with rapid editing and quick camera movements, another way of understanding why the film is so enjoyable and engaging is to see it as a quintessential example of a classical Hollywood film. According to André Bazin, "what makes Hollywood so much better than anything else in the world is not only the quality of certain directors, but also the vitality and, in a certain sense, the excellence of a tradition. . . . The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system."14

Bazin's point is that Hollywood films had certain rules, formulas that had to be followed by directors working within the confines of the Hollywood studio system, and in compliance with the production practices of Hollywood companies between the 1920s and the 1950s. In order to create motion pictures on a mass scale, film production was highly sys-

temized in a manner that resembled the division of labor in a factory. But the most gifted directors, Bazin argues, thrived under the studio system's restrictions and restraints. Rather than enslaving them or inhibiting their creativity, the limits of the system brought out their best. In their influential book The Classical Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson note that Bazin's ideas were validated when the studio system was in decline and hitherto venerated filmmakers such as Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, and George Cukor began turning out mediocre works. They quote François Truffaut: "We said . . . that the American cinema pleases us, and its film makers are slaves; what if they were freed? And from the moment that they were freed, they made shitty films."15

His Girl Friday has all the features of the classical Hollywood narrative film, as set forth in The Classical Hollywood Cinema.16 Bordwell and his cowriters justify their use of the term "classical" to define the Hollywood cinema as follows: "It seems proper to retain the term in English, since the principles which Hollywood claims as its own rely on notions of decorum, proportion, formal harmony, respect for tradition, mimesis, self-effacing craftsmanship, and cool control of the perceiver's responses—canons which critics in any medium usually call 'classical.' "17 To construct a model of the classical Hollywood film, Bordwell and his colleagues randomly selected one hundred films made in Hollywood between 1915 and 1960 and studied them on a viewing machine, recording in detail stylistic features as well as summarizing each film's action scene by scene. Below is a brief and necessarily simplified summary (the book runs in excess of five hundred pages) of the results of their research.

The Hollywood cinema is first and foremost a psychological cinema. Its plots tend to focus on a central character, with clearly delineated psychological traits, whose desires motivate the action, setting off a chain of cause and effect. Bordwell calls this trait "character-centered causality." In most of the plots, the central character lacks something vital which he or she must overcome obstacles to obtain. Whatever it is the character is after, he or she has a limited amount of time in which to acquire it: this deadline enhances the Hollywood film's dramatic power. Two lines of action often intermingle in the Hollywood film, one involving the public world (success in a job, politics, art, etc.) and one involving love between a heterosexual couple, the "heterosexual imperative" of the Hollywood film. Usually the two lines of action are intricately intertwined, as when a man who wants to make a success in business falls in love with the boss's daughter. The ending of the Hollywood film, contrary to the impression most people have, is not necessarily happy. The plot does, however, end in closure, with all loose ends tied up, all questions the plot poses answered, and all mysteries solved. In the majority of Hollywood films, the ending seems inevitable, a definitive outcome of what we might expect, given the clearly delineated personality attributes of the protagonists.

Thus defined, classical Hollywood films share a basic plot synopsis: they share certain characteristics of content. The cinematic style of the classical Hollywood film is just as well defined. In addition to the familiar glossy images, three-point lighting,18 and generally high production values, Hollywood style comes down to this: An illusion is carefully constructed to convey the impression that we are gazing into a three-dimensional world that seems utterly real and unconstructed. It is as if we were looking through an invisible plate-glass window into "life," that is, at events that would occur whether or not we were there to see them. (In Don Delillo's novel White Noise, the narrator remarks that the dead have great power because the living imagine the dead can see everything they do. As spectators at a Hollywood film, we are something like Delillo's dead.)19 In most classical Hollywood films, the narrator is omniscient, an overseeing presence who knows everything, and who can pick and choose exactly what information to share with the spectator and in what order. The narrator's omniscience is expressed by omnipresence. That is, the camera is not restricted to the point of view of one character or set of characters, but is free to move around in space to reveal information to the spectator that is not shared by the characters in the film.

Yet, while we seem to be looking at life flowing by, at a story not "told" but just "happening," at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we find ourselves perfectly positioned to see everything important that happens in the plot from the best perspective. The action we see appears as an uninterrupted flow of life. In fact, it is constructed from multiple shots taken from many perspectives, whose order and selection are carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic and thematic effect of the film. The illusion is created primarily through the match cut (invisible editing) and other techniques Griffith pioneered, which were discussed in chapter 1. While Sergei Eisenstein strove to make his cuts noticeable by deliberately creating graphic or thematic conflicts in adjoining shots, Hollywood-style editing went more in the direction of the self-effacing realist style favored by André Bazin, and employed by Charles Chaplin, among others. Hence the seemingly artless artfulness of the Hollywood film.

His Girl Friday has all the traits of the classical Hollywood film set forth above, and illustrates how a brilliant director like Howard Hawks exploits the conventions for maximum effect. Two lines of action, one involving love and one involving work, are ingeniously intertwined. There is a heterosexual love plot (Will Walter and Hildy get back together?) and a plot concerned with public success (Will Walter and Hildy get a scoop, prevent Earl Williams from being hanged, and rid their city of the corrupt politicians who seek to hang an insane man in order to get themselves reelected?) The goals of the protagonists are clearly set forth at the beginning of the film: Hildy wants to break her ties to Walter and the newspaper by marrying Bruce, an insurance salesman, who will give her a conventional life as a wife and mother. Walter wants Hildy back, as a newspaper reporter and a wife. The personalities of the protagonists are clearly delineated. We know in the first ten minutes that Hildy only thinks she wants to leave the newspaper to marry Bruce and have babies. Her true desire resides with Walter and the newspaper. Walter will do anything in his considerable power (lie, cheat, shamelessly manipulate people) to win Hildy back.

There are not one but two deadlines in His Girl Friday, which puts the machine of the plot in high gear, lending it urgency: Hildy is getting married to Bruce the very next day, and Earl Williams is to be hanged at dawn. Both of these deadlines are shortened as the film progresses. Walter learns not only that Hildy is getting married the very next day, but that she is leaving on a train with Bruce (and his mother) in the next few hours. It is all the more remarkable that, after Walter receives this bad news, we hear him confidently tell his manager Duffy over the telephone that "Hildy is coming back." This information sets up a wonderful anticipation in the viewer's mind. How, we wonder, will Walter accomplish this task in so little time? In the second line of action, once Earl Williams breaks out of prison, the corrupt sheriff gives orders to shoot him on sight and announces a $500 reward to the person who does it. Earl's "deadline" could occur any minute.

The urgency of deadlines in His Girl Friday is made even more compelling because time passes in this film at a quicker rate than it does in real life. When Bruce and Hildy exit the elevator at the beginning of the film, the clock behind them reads 12:35. When Hildy returns to Bruce after her scene with Walter, a conversation that takes eleven-and-a-half minutes in real time with no time ellipses, the clock has jumped ahead to 12:57. Twenty-two minutes of story time have elapsed in just over eleven minutes of real or screen time. Time is rushing by at nearly twice the normal speed.20

Hawks uses the omniscient, unrestricted narrator deliciously to thicken the plot. For example, as Bruce sits alone in Walter's office, shortly after he has received a huge certified check from Walter (partial payment for a life insurance policy), there is a cut to Walter lifting up Louie, Walter's "heavy," to the window. This, we infer, is so Louie will be able to recognize Bruce, the better to pick his pocket later and return the check to Walter. Thus the spectator is given information that Bruce does not have. Interestingly, just before this scene, Hildy has called Bruce to advise him to keep the check not in his wallet but in his hatband. We realize in retrospect that Hildy has anticipated Walter's treachery. The battle of the sexes is launched. Walter will stoop to the lowest means to keep Hildy from leaving him and the newspaper, but Hildy, at this point, is one step ahead of him.

The editing technique of His Girl Friday conforms to classical conventions of "invisible editing." Most shots flow together so smoothly that most people are unaware of the cuts unless they are specifically pointed out. The first shot of the film, for example, a lateral tracking shot of the length of the newsroom, is joined to the second shot (of the women at the switchboard) by a dissolve, which smoothly blends one shot into the next. The smoothness of the cut is further enhanced because the camera tracks at the same speed in the two joined shots, thereby encouraging the spectator to concentrate on the uninterrupted flow of the camera movement and not on the cut. The cut between the second and third shots is hardly noticeable because Hildy's movement is carefully matched. Her action of walking away from the women at the switchboard in shot 2 is smoothly continued in the medium shot of Hildy in shot 3. Again, our eye tends to focus on Hildy's continuous movement rather than the cut. Other types of cuts that appear frequently in the film, such as point-of-view shots, shot/reverse shots,21 and the cross cut, seem smooth mainly because they have become so conventional in Hollywood films that we are hardly aware of them. Even when the cuts are not technically smooth or seamlessly matched, they are strongly motivated by the plot or a line of dialogue, and hence invisible. After Walter announces to the befuddled Bruce that he will be taking Bruce and Hildy to lunch, for example, the next shot is of the threesome arriving at their table at a restaurant. So strongly is this shot motivated by Walter's words that the cut goes unnoticed. (A quick dissolve between the two shots also smoothes out the transition.)

As noted above, invisible editing techniques help create the illusion in the Hollywood film that we are watching "real life," not a movie. But occasionally, the Hollywood film does call attention to its status as fiction, making viewers aware that they are watching a movie, not "real life." These moments are rare, however, and tend to occur only at the beginning or end of classical films. Thus, His Girl Friday opens with a written title card which tell us that the story we are about to see "all happened in the 'dark ages' of the newspaper game." The title then calls attention to the fact that we are watching a "picture" (not real life) and even ends with those time-honored words that signify a story—"Once Upon a Time." But when the film proper begins, all such signs disappear and we are plunged into a hyperrealistic, three-dimensional, deep-focus view of what looks like a highly efficient newsroom.

Hollywood comedies, as opposed to serious dramas and melodramas, are given more license to call attention to themselves as movies, not life, and Howard Hawks makes wonderful use of this license in two moments in His Girl Friday. In the first, Walter is trying to give Louie's blond girlfriend a means of recognizing Hildy's fiancé Bruce. Unable to come up with a good description (because Bruce's features are so nondescript), he finally asks, "Do you know what Ralph Bellamy looks like?" When the blond nods her head, Walter says, "Well, this fellow looks just like him." The joke, of course, is that the actor who plays Bruce is Ralph Bellamy. In the second such moment, the mayor, who has caught Walter red-handed in a conspiracy to obstruct justice by hiding escaped murderer Earl Williams, says, "You're through." Walter retorts, "The last man who said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat." This is an insiders' joke for those aware that Archie Leach was Cary Grant's real name before the studio changed it.

At the end of His Girl Friday, as at the ending of most Hollywood films, there is closure. Everything is resolved. Hildy becomes aware that her true vocation in life is being a reporter and she and Walter plan to remarry. Walter and Hildy expose the mayor and sheriff as corrupt (getting their scoop and hence succeeding in work as well as love). Earl Williams gets a reprieve from the governor. Bruce, who is characterized as a momma's boy throughout the film, is reunited in the end with his mother. We see them embracing as the door to the criminal courts newsroom closes on them, shutting them out of Hildy and Walter's world forever. Here the closure at the end of the film becomes literal. As in the majority of classical Hollywood films, the ending seems inevitable, fulfilling all we might expect given the way Walter and Hildy's personalities are defined at the start of the film.

The conventions of the classical Hollywood film became relatively fixed because they offer us so much pleasure. The device of the deadline makes the plot especially compelling, as do the two intertwined lines of action, involving the hope for success in love and in work, important goals in everyone's life. As spectators identified with an omniscient point of view, gazing at people to whom we are invisible and about whom we have superior knowledge, we experience the feeling of having a power, perspective, and knowledge that we lack in life. The closure at the end of a Hollywood film makes the world seem more just, predictable, logical, and often more hopeful than it is in fact. No wonder billions of people love Hollywood films.

At the same time, if Hollywood conventions are adhered to too rig-orously—if the characters are too predictable, the closure at the end too pat—Hollywood movies can seem silly or empty, too obviously escapist. The best Hollywood directors were able to exploit the intrinsic appeal of established Hollywood conventions while injecting original or personal elements into their films, adding something of themselves to give their films an edge. The films we value most not only calm and reassure us, but unsettle and challenge us too, even (or especially) when they are comedies. Now that I have discussed how His Girl Friday follows the conventions of the classical Hollywood cinema, I'd like to conclude with a discussion of how these conventions are inflected with the personal imprint of its director, Howard Hawks.

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  • Greta
    Why is His Girl Friday a narrative style film?
    9 years ago
  • aatos
    Why is his girl friday a classical film?
    8 years ago

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