Stop the Presses!: Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Columbia 1940)

In my opinion, Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, a full speed ahead movie that’s pretty much got everything a film fan could want. A remake of the 1930 Lewis Milestone classic THE FRONT PAGE (itself an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway smash), Hawks adds a delightful twist by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into editor Walter Burns’ ex-wife… and casting no less than Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the roles!

The two stars are in top form as the bickering ex-spouses, with their rapid fire banter nothing short of verbal dynamite. Grant in particular spouts off words quicker than a rapper (where did he get all that wind!) and his facial expressions and comic squeals (reminiscent of Curly Howard!) are simply priceless! Roz is more than his match as Hildy, with one lightning-fast zinger  after another. Miss Russell stated in her autobiography she didn’t think her part was funny enough, so she hired a writer to craft some good quips for her  character. Hawks didn’t mind, and encouraged the pair to ad-lib at will!

There’s a lot to love for classic movie fans, including some laugh out loud in-jokes sure to leave you in stitches. Charles Lederer turns his screenplay from  the original 1930 version on its ear by changing Hildy’s gender, which in turn gives Ralph Bellamy a chance to shine as Hildy’s fiancé Bruce Baldwin, a boring insurance salesman from Albany. The contrast between high-octane, high-strung Grant and gullible bumpkin Bellamy is vast as the ocean, and Ralph’s just as funny as the two stars. The press room is packed with character actors like Cliff Edwards , Porter Hall , Frank Jenks, Roscoe Karns , Regis Toomey, and Ernest Truex, as big a bunch of reprobates as your likely to find. John Qualen plays the meek murderer Earl Williams, Gene Lockhart and Clarence Kolb represent the crooked political hacks determined to hang Williams, Abner Biberman essays Grant’s devious but dumb right-hand man, Alma Kruger is a scream playing Bellamy’s oh-so-proper mother, and veteran comic Billy Gilbert has a juicy bit as the governor’s messenger.

I’d like to single out Helen Mack here for her dramatic turn as the tortured, doomed prostitute Molly Malloy, whose kindness she showed to Earl Williams is exploited by the press hounds. Miss Mack, star of 1933’s SON OF KONG, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t get to play for laughs, instead giving an emotional performance as Molly, dogged by the newspaper reporters and sacrificing herself to save the now escaped and hidden Earl by doing a swan dive out the window. While everyone around her is in full comedy mode, she adds some gravitas to the proceedings. It must have been tough to keep a straight face amidst all that comedic talent, but Helen Mack pulls it off, and deserves some recognition for her efforts.

Hawks certainly keeps things moving with his fluid camerawork, bringing what could’ve been too stagey to roaring life. And yes, there’s that trademark overlapping dialog of his, with Grant and Russell constantly talking over each other during their exchanges. Hawks made some great films in virtually every genre, but of all his screwball comedies (TWENTIETH CENTURY, BRINGING UP BABY, BALL OF FIRE, I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE, MONKEY BUSINESS), I love HIS GIRL FRIDAY the best. It’s a sure-fire cure for the blues, a non-stop frolic of fun, and without question a screen classic you can’t afford to miss.

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

CasablancaPoster-Gold

Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

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  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942
  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???