Made for Each Other: Comparing Howard Hawks’ Two Great Comedies

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the past week, our Great Directors course has screened a handful of screwball comedies, including Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934) and two from director Howard Hawks, “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) and “His Girl Friday” (1940). Students appear to have warmed up to “Bringing Up Baby” more, and who could blame them?  The conflict between Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant produces some of screwball comedy’s greatest set pieces–Hepburn’s ripped dress, Grant in drag, and the couple’s serenading of a pet leopard to the tune of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.”  Yet I am sure “His Girl Friday” is Hawks’ better film.  Its dialogue is sharper, the performances, especially from the supporting cast, are better, and shot for shot, “His Girl Friday” realizes more completely its various conflicts.  “Baby Up Baby” has its dinosaur bones and a feline antagonist.  But the mise-en-scene of “His Girl Friday” is richer.  The barbed exchanges of Walter Burns (Grant) and Hildy Johnson, superbly played by Rosalind Russell, are made sharper by the weapons of the newsroom.  However antiquated the newsroom technology of “His Girl Friday” appears to us today, the telephones and typewriters are ideal correlatives for the violence that can done by a “free” press.  They are banged upon, yelled into, even destroyed as when Russell pulls out the cord of the phone midway through a conversation.

Most recently, “The Social Network” (2010) presented an amoral universe through the objects of our contemporary digital landscape.  Characters sat at computers, sometimes in pairs, but often alone, clicking at shifting images, “like”-ing their lives away, like figures from Plato’s cave, mistaking shadows for reality.  In that universe, an amoral antisocial borderline psychotic could be king.  In “His Girl Friday,” Hawks captures that same mean-spirited business of gossip and reputation by juxtaposing the tangled wires of telephone wires and shouting voices with the smiles and double-takes of Grant and Russell.  Hawks makes perfectly clear that a journalist is as deadly as the hangman, as evidenced by the presence of the scaffold just below the newsroom’s offices.

 And let’s face it:  as charming as Grant is in his turn as paleontologist in “Bringing Up Baby,” his performance as the manipulative snake in Walter Burns is more memorable.  Such a role was dreamt up on the set of “Baby,” when Grant, jealous at the fun Hepburn had as that story’s comedic puppeteer, whose schemes to delay the marriage produced that movie’s dramatic tension, pushed Hawks to give him a juicer role next time around.  The role of Burns in “His Girl Friday” certainly gave Grant some juice.  Unlike the role of Dr. Huxley, Burns gives Grant a character with volition, a will of his own.  Understandably, Hawks’ decision to cast a woman not a man in the role of Hildy is often credited as the film’s stroke of genius.  But it is Grant’s presence as the plot’s architect that makes the film work as well as it does.  His schemes, delivered by the anxious numerous ticks, shifts, and phony put-ons, show him to be an equal to his female counterpart in Russell.    In “Baby,” Hepburn’s character is too remote from Grant’s to make the conclusion believable.  The conclusion of “His Girl Friday” makes better sense, not as a reflection of “real life,” but as a destination for two equally-matched characters.  By focusing on two and not one machiavels, Hawks builds “His Girl Friday” on the conflicts of equals, not, as is the case in “Bringing Up Baby,” on opposites.

That difference is one of the reasons why many audiences prefer “Bringing Up Baby” over “His Girl Friday.”  Though less believable, the Hepburn/Grant relationship satisfies our sentimental ideals about courtship and marriage.  Opposites can learn to get along and live happily every after!  “His Girl Friday” satisfies no such optimism.  Divorced once, Russell/Grant will try again.  They belong together and deserve one another.  Their comedy of remarriage resists the easy allegorization of opposites–represented in “Baby” as the contrasting images of the dinosaur skeleton and the leopard–and instead pairs together a more perfect, and disturbing, union of snakes.  We admire their collective wit and ingenuity but we wish them a happy and long life together at the expense of their future victims.  In the end, the venom of their courtship–so effective as an expression of the war of the sexes–contaminates “happily ever after.”

– Dr. Mark McCullough, Assistant Professor of Literature
Ave Maria University

 

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