30 March 2011

31. His Girl Friday




The setting: a newspaper office. We've got Hildy and Cary Grant, who we discover are divorced. At minute 10, we get the stakes: she's quitting the paper biz and moving upstate with her fiancee, who she's marrying tomorrow.

By Grant's protests (and by the fact that the guy she's marrying is slow), we know that he's still in love with her. And he immediately sets his plan to get her back in motion.

This is smart: we have two characters who we like (because they are movie stars, because they have clever banter, because they work in a glamorous [at the time] profession), we have a main character with a goal (Grant, getting his lady back -- both to work and in his arms) and we also have a timeline.

Debate: he takes them to lunch, to stall, to coerce: "Hildy, are you sure you want to quit?" Time compresses further, as they reveal they are leaving on the train upstate in two hours.

Grant sets up a phony phone call, tries to get Hildy roped in to do an article on a murderer, and she discovers his ruse. Then they agree to a scheme where she writes it in exchange for her fiancee doing an insurance policy on Grant, which means big money for them for their move upstate. And further stalling by Grant.

So we are now at Act 2 -- the stakes are slightly higher (shorter timeframe), and there's a new task by Hildy, to write this story. Grant's goal remains the same.

We get some exposition about the murder case -- Hildy joins the boy's club that is the press room (poker, smoking, etc.). Her fiancee, Bruce, gets a check from Grant, puts it in his hat. Hildy visits the killer. He's crazy. Killer's fake girlfriend visits crass, jaded reporters in the press room. Grant has Bruce arrested on a fake charge to delay things further, Hildy picks him up, bails him out, and tells off Grant: she's done with the newspaper biz, is out the door.

The stakes are at their highest point now: the main objective of the movie, to get the obviously fated lovers back together, is now almost broken.

And then: midpoint. Jailbreak! The killer, Earl Williams, has escaped.

So Hildy immediately returns to work, because that is her nature, and Grant goes back to scheming, as that is his nature.

The police capture Williams, even though he's just been given a reprieve due to insanity. The mayor orders a shoot to kill, to show he's tough on crime.

At minute 60, Williams comes into the pressroom, gun on Hildy. So who do the police have trapped?

Killer's girl jumps out the window, survives, Grant shows up. "Tear up the whole front page!" Grant and Hildy are working together again, the rush of the story is their main connection, this is where they belong, where they are best. They fit. Bruce returns, is ignored. "I'm taking the 9 o'clock train." No one cares, he leaves.

Williams is in the desk. The cops come and discover him, put Grant and Hildy in handcuffs. The dimwit the politicians paid off returns, Williams is reprieved, Grant and Hildy could reveal the ruse so they are let go, they're going to print a morning edition fucking over the politicians.

Hildy remembers the good times, wants to stay. Grant lets down his guard, is honest and sincere for the first time the entire film. He tells her to go. A kiss. She will stay. And they go back to work.

There's a lot to examine here. The dialogue is certainly notable for being quotable, but as in Tarantino films, Mamet films and even "Juno", dialogue is just the icing on the cake, the little bonus after you've done all the real work of writing a movie. In other words, you have to create great characters, you have to have a tight plot, you have to use the proper structure, you have to setup and payoff, you have to escalate the action, you have to use dramatic irony, you have to keep the audience guessing. Only then will the audience admire the dialogue, otherwise it becomes empty.

Mostly, I'm enamored of classical Hollywood cinema like this due to the economy of character and plot. The character's actions drive the plot, the setup comes fast, and everything derives from it. And the action rises and rises, and then we end at the right time.

And finally, what's not to love about making the main character a trickster? They get away with it because a) it's Cary Grant b) because he has a clear objective that he's using his wily ways to gain and c) because that objective is love, and it's love with someone he's obviously destined to be with.

And, as the book says, tricksters make this world, and that's why he's successful, and why there is a happy ending.

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