Since Watergate begat All the President’s Men, American movies have maintained a wary respect for journalism. So Cary Grant’s performance as Walter Burns, the democratic newsman in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, throws back to a forgotten archetype: He’s the journalist-as-scamp. He’s with his ex-wife and ex-ace Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell)—she quit him and his paper—and you can’t look away from his scheming eyes. Every time Johnson suggests she may stay to help with one last story, they light up with the intensity of a Looney Tunes cannon blast. Grant’s scene-stealing is as unscrupulous as his character’s morals: We’re so caught up in the minutia of his performance that the dialogue often shoots by unacknowledged.
And the narrative speeds by and snaps back like a tight-springed typewriter, shifting direction with every line break. Local politicians are working to execute an unstable man on the eve of their next election, and Burns—for reasons of pride, spite, and circulation—is advocating for a last-minute reprieve. He’s a general fighting a war for the sake of self-interest. So when Johnson shows up one morning, he hatches a battle plan to win her back: keep her at the Post, and Burns can service his personal, professional, and sexual causes all at once. He’s an unabashedly self-serving deviant, and the only problem is that the radically type-A Johnson loves him for it.
When Johnson left Burns the first time around, she made him into a man without a partner, and in Hawks’ world, that’s equivalent to a swift death. Just look at Mollie Molloy, a friend of the criminal awaiting execution, who—after the endless proddings of innumerable news outlets—throws herself out a window. Hawks’ camera gives us a rare dynamic angle, staring down at the wreckage. But moments later we’re back in reporter mode, trying to keep up with Johnson and Burns as they immediately go back to work, forgetting the tragedy before it’s been cleaned off the street.
His Girl Friday plays at the Brattle Theatre this Monday and Tuesday as the start to the theater’s “Screwball Summer.” Screwball comedies are a subgenre we reference often: A general description would be to say that they feature pairs—usually mismatched acquaintances or recent divorcees—who flirt their way through the sexless stage of their relationship, all while their desires for consummation are frustrated by the forces of society and nature. The curiously celibate romantic action comedies of Edgar Wright and Peter Bogdanovich, the rhyming wordplay of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, even the farcical intersections that occur among the social outsiders that feature in Tangerine: They all owe their existence to screwballs.
But the subgenre is not an exact science, and each of its creators had their own way of practicing it. A Hawks screwball is not like an Ernst Lubitsch screwball—say, Trouble in Paradise or The Shop Around the Corner (Aug 4 and 5)—which draws its characters with an understanding warmth that almost gives color to the soft, sympathizing black-and-white cinematography. And it is not like a Preston Sturges screwball (The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, Aug 24 and 25,) which balances romantic melodrama with lowbrow slapstick and highbrow turns of phrase to concoct brazenly kinetic cinematic sugar-rushes.
Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies may as well be a subgenre of their own—and what separates them from the other works on display is Hawks’ entirely unique sense of romantic anarchy. In most screwball comedies, life’s greatest risk is falling in love: You get left, cheated on, jealous, etc. But the danger in Hawks’ screwballs is elsewhere: aging (Monkey Business), the military (I Was a Male War Bride), crime (Ball of Fire), or a tiger (Bringing Up Baby). The danger isn’t falling in love; it’s everything else.
The perpetually roving images in his films often observe the action from a distanced remove, as though we were an intimidated reporter—chasing the action without daring to interrupt it. And it allows Hawks to accentuate his emphasis on the interplay between the collectives that get created to weather the storm of his chaotic universes: In Friday he ends up fitting no less than seven rival reporters into one frenzied composition, like a Greek chorus on speed. There are too many people in each frame, too many words in each sentence, too many dangers lurking around each edit—a cinema of too much-ness, with the only respite being the rare warmth of friends and partners. Among all that, there’s no room for sentiment or reverence, for institutions, professions, causes, or anything else.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. MON 7.20 @ 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, AND 9:30PM. TUE 7.21 @ 3 AND 5PM. NOT RATED. 35MM PRESENTATION.