THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (And Then There Was Hollywood: First Rumination)

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

(Note: I got a request to review this, which is not exactly a chore, but as it didn’t fit any existing category, I decided to create a new one. No idea how often I’ll update it, but it could grow into something. Not everything is a western or a noir, after all, no matter how hard some folks insist on having it otherwise.)

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I’ve now seen His Girl Friday six times.

That’s three more times than I’ve listened to Never Mind the Bollocks and seventeen times fewer than I’ve seen Rio Bravo (yes, I keep count–on the movies no matter what, and on the albums if it doesn’t go over three). I only mention this to place it on a scale: I like screwball comedies better than punk rock and not as much as westerns.

I’ll let you figure out what that says about me.

One thing I’ve figured out for myself, though, is that the twenty-something me did not predict the fifty-something me.

At twenty-something, I didn’t have much awareness of directors, let alone auteurs. If such awareness had existed, Howard Hawks almost certainly would have been my favorite.

Makes sense.

At twenty-something, dreams tend to occupy the lion’s share of a romantic sensibility and, at twenty-something, it’s hard to accept–even if you can imagine it–that those dreams will one day be memories.

Mostly memories of what might have been.

Unless, of course, the dreams come true (fat chance), or you don’t quite grow up (I had my doubts but, curse or blessing, it happened to me).

Which is all a way of saying that the part of me that once wholeheartedly embraced Hawks’s happily-ever-after world view generally and His Girl Friday specifically, now has a tendency to hold him at arm’s length, His Girl Friday–which, with the possible exception of To Have and Have Not, I once embraced most wholeheartedly of allnot excepted.

Oh, it’ s still great fun. As pure fun goes, I can’t imagine greater. I’m sure I’ll watch it several more times before my dreaming ends–in any case, way more times than I’ll listen to the Sex Pistols. I’ll always keep it in a special box, well-lit and carefully tended, in part because it’s such a perfect distillation of a cultural confidence and cohesion the loss of which I so regularly mourn here.

I mean, who doesn’t want to be (or be with) Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading memories and wisecracks and secret nods and winks at the expense of the rubes and charlatans who are forever running amok in this world? Who doesn’t want to believe that our perfectly idealized selves aren’t capable of rising to any challenge, whether it’s coming up with the next zinger in the fastest-talking movie ever made or running rings around corrupt politicos or saving an innocent man from the gallows even if–maybe especially if–he’s a consummate rube himself?

And who doesn’t want to believe that the elements of a world that made such a movie possible still exist somewhere, waiting to be drawn forth at any moment even if, in our heart of hearts, we know there is nobody left who could imagine anything remotely similar, let alone write, produce, direct or act in it? I mean, it’s a testimony to just how great His Girl Friday is that it makes it possible to wonder if the war and famine that were loose in the world when it was made might actually be worth enduring again if we could just get the dream life it depicts so beautifully back to stay.

Would that there were still room for fairy tales.

Of course, none of this makes me immune. Hawks’s Rio Bravo–take it from somebody who’s done serious research for western fiction–is not a whit more susceptible to anything approaching “realism.” And, yes, I have seen it twenty-three times.

That’s probably because it’s at least grounded by a streak of melancholy.

You don’t find much of that in Hawks’s work prior to the late fifties. (You could measure the psychic distance between Hawks and his perpetually melancholy friend, John Ford, by their WWII “combat” movies. Hawks’s Air Force, made a few months after Pearl Harbor, ends in triumph. Ford’s They Were Expendable, made just after Japan’s surrender, ends in defeat. All that was before Hawks worked Red River in such a way as to prove he could wring a happy ending out of literally anything.)

And you don’t find a trace of melancholy, or any other form of doubt, in His Girl Friday.

So you have to lay the world aside, sure, but once you do, the movie still takes flight and never touches down. It may not have much to do with this world, but it sets you down in one any dreamer would want to live in, one where you’re always Cary or Roz and never Ralph Bellamy or, God forbid, Mother!

No small feat for a movie about a bunch of hyper-cynical newshounds covering a hanging!

I wouldn’t say the film takes any big chances. Not for nothing was Hawks the most reliably commercial director in Hollywood for two decades. He always kept the rules straight. No masks allowed.

In a Hawks’ movie, you always know who the winners and losers were going to be from the first breath.

But Hawks had the rare gift of making formulas work for him by never forgetting the inherent limits of those formulas–by making them work for him. Give him a cliche and he didn’t push outward, try to explode it. He doubled down.

By God, if he was stuck with a sad sack loser convict then he was going to get John Qualen and nobody else to play him because that would make him the greatest sad sack loser who ever lost.

If there was gonna be a corrupt mayor in this thing, then he was going to get Clarence Kolb and nobody else, so he’d be sure you were watching the most corruptible mayor who was ever corrupted.

And so on and so forth, and you don’t even have to know who those people are to know  what they are the second they show up.

Hawks being Hawks, you also don’t have to worry about whether they’ll change up and surprise you.

Oh, the circumstances might change. The mayor might weasel all the way to the right before he’s forced to do the about face you knew he had in him and weasel all the way to the left. But you know where they fit right off the bat.

Which means you can, among other things, relax, turn off your mind and float downstream without the assistance of hallucinogens.

If it’s not exactly brimming with moral force, at least there are no distractions or pretense. No Hollywood mantra was ever more surefire than “give ’em a good time,” and His Girl Friday was just about the best time that could ever be had.

Still is, despite everything.

Because of course I still want to be Cary Grant–especially this Cary Grant, i.e., Walter Burns, who has not a single redeeming virtue except the greatest redeeming virtue of all, which is his Cary Grant-ness. And of course, I want to be with Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, especially this Rosalind Russell, who would be such an impeccably perfect match for my Cary Grant-ness!

And I’ve read enough reliable reportage from enough Hildy Johnson wannabes to know the reverse works just as well.

If I don’t tend to include His Girl Friday in my personal Top Ten anymore, or think of Howard Hawks as my favorite director anymore, it isn’t really the fault of the director’s particularly sunny vision or his most perfectly realized dream-scape.

They didn’t really get any older….

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I did.