. . . His Girl Friday

. . .

Alice Waters's daughter -- what was her name? The one with the wart on her?: More than any other director, Howard Hawks recognized that the art of the talking moving picture doesn't depend on still-photography's visuals or on theater's words, but on the inherent musical structure of moving talking pictures: the patterns of pacing and tone, of rhythm....

At least, that's what I always say. I always just say it, 'cause talk is cheap and research is expensive.

So let's all be grateful to Lea Jacobs, who went ahead and did the research. Since Hawks's films are voice-driven, she realized that she could use words-per-second as a fairly decent measurement of tempo. And by focusing on His Girl Friday, she obtained a perfect compare-and-contrast stooge in Lewis Milestone's original film version of The Front Page. With semi-solid numbers and a control case to back her up, Jacobs is able to go to town without making a pompous ass of herself, bringing in such non-verbal rhythmical elements as gestural density and character movement, and making occasional references to other Hawks masterpieces (e.g., To Have and Have Not's big lust dialog saunters at 1.6 wps; the immediately following scene breaks the mood at 3.8 wps).

As expected, His Girl Friday is faster than its predecessor: in a sample sequence of twelve scenes, Hawks conducts nine of them at 4-or-more wps, Milestone only two of them. But of more interest is Jacobs's structural analysis: Hawks not only uses more fast tempos, he modulates between tempos more organically, over greater length, and to greater dramatic point. Molly Malone's suicide attempt is devastating in Hawks's film, stagey in The Front Page, but, as Jacobs points out, it's more clearly motivated by the latter's script. Hawks motivates it structurally instead, by steadily ratcheting tempo and dynamics up to "intolerable" levels; he then punches the shock home by only allowing the briefest of pauses before bringing those levels back again (an old Beethoven trick...) and plunging us into the out-of-control world of the movie's final stretch.

(If you're a computer professional, you can probably afford Northern Light's fee for viewing the article. If you're in a university, you might already have access to the periodical Style for Fall, 1998 -- I know it sounds like some kind of Vogue rip-off, but it's not. Otherwise, if you know Lea Jacobs, maybe she'll let you see her copy.)

Update, Feb. 2015: Now there's a book!

. . .

There is, I think, a critical term which can cover McTell's character-driven vocals, his interest in performance rather than songwriting, his playfulness and close observation, even his eclecticism, and it isn't "blues," but "negative capability."

What goes on to distinguish McTell from Keats's idealized poet (if not from Keats himself) is the intelligence he brings to the job, an intelligence he's unwilling to sacrifice to sentimentality or method acting. How to marry the empathic and analytic impulses, fleshly weakness and rational judgment? In a dance rhythm, of course, but how else?

How else but with our old acquaintance irony? And McTell's is a particularly supple and slippery irony, clinging to bring out the subtleties of each gesture. It leaves him lightfooted and assured, free to underplay or overplay as seems appropriate, less chameleon than cosmopolitan: a human of many parts.

w Helen Edwards  
Given that, it's interesting to hear McTell try to negotiate the territory of sacred music, which would seem to require at least a pretense of sincerity. Though a few of his religious numbers drown in lugubriosity, he's successful with "Motherless Children" (never the most theocentric of songs) and with the restrained mournful reasonableness of "(Might as Well Live a Christian) You Got To Die"; in both, he frequently hands off responsibility for "lead vocals" to his slide guitar, as if fearing a slip in tone.

But -- on sacred ground or not -- sardonic observation is allowed to run riot in "God Don't Like It," whose monstrous church lady bad-mouths each tippling member of the congregation and clergy while her quailed minion McTell peeps assent beneath her glare.

Returning from sheep to goats, comic distance also softens the sting of "Southern Can." An ancestor to the mellow thuggery of G-funk, its celebration of woman-beating is burlesqued by its own hyperbole and reduced to near whimsy -- like the little sword-swinging man in the Thurber cartoon -- by McTell's vocals, which are held to a light drawl even when he claims "I'm screaming." What's being observed here, with amused-but-absorbed detachment, isn't violence but the threatener of violence.

The best example of McTell's dry-eyed empathy and focus on the telling detail may be "Little Delia" (2MB MP3). It's another ballad with a varied history, but here McTell's adaptation doesn't emphasize the narrative. Instead, he fractures it into a collection of vignettes rippling forwards and backwards from the central drop-in-the-bucket -- a verse is accidently repeated without noticeable damage -- each principal and accessory given a piercing glance and passed by.

He changes the story's protagonists to professional lowlifes -- gamblers, "rounders" -- and then emphasizes their typicality, most insistently in the single-line chorus (that lyric form beloved of Yeats) "She's one more rounder gone." No one is granted dignity -- Delia's parents seem less upset by Delia's death than by her not having the decency to "die at home" -- and Delia herself is utterly disposable, only of interest to a court that, in turn, is only interested in punishing her unrepentant killer. But everyone is granted their given moment of fully-engaged attention, and in her very disposability Delia seems to drag an entire implied world of arbitrary injustice down with her. At her deathbed, as at Jesse's, McTell approaches transcendence through (as Manny Farber wrote of His Girl Friday) a sort of voluptuous cynicism.

Delia, Delia, take no one's advice.
Last word I heard her say was: "Jee-zus Christ!"

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Holes

Despite my adherence to movie-is-a-movie book-is-a-book orthodoxy, what a pleasure, after suffering through a long run of incoherent film-schooled star-indulgent crap, to encounter a script so devoted to its source novel.

Oh, the staging of the script had its discords, starting with the obtrusive music. The cast was charming, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for the overgrown hulk somewhere who'd been denied his big break when apish Stanley Yelnats was assigned to a more conventional willowy teenager. And although the desert made convincing desert, standard-issue F/X exaggerated the gruelling trial-by-mountain into Schwarzenegger fantasyland.

But Louis Sachar's transplanted machinery carried on, doing its job: the low contrivance of melodrama built up and extended, gear by chute by trip-board by flywheel, until it became the high artifice of comedy. It's a practical, if currently neglected, aspect of information theory that, while a little complexity creates suspense, increased complexity either collapses into noise or crystallizes into laughter.

Our anxiety and our relief, being pure products of storytelling technique, float free, ready to attach to whatever sentiment we find close at hand. In a screwball comedy, we associate them with romance, which is why screwball comedies are traditional first-date films and the Three Stooges aren't. Holes, on the other hand, induced in me a strong, and more than slightly disconcerting, upflux of patriotism, and I left the theater in as flag-waving a mood as I've felt in some time.

My reaction isn't easy to explain. It's true that Sachar's elaborate multi-generational farce pivots on important aspects of American history, but lynchings, anti-immigrant prejudice, land barons, and chain gangs make weak propaganda. Maybe there's a bit of Stockholm Syndrome here: America caused the story's anxiety, and so I associated America with the story's relief. After all, I'd be at least as hard-pressed to find positive aspects of sexual love in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby.

Maybe by interlocking our national horrors with the comic survival of individuals, the movie hit at the heart of the particular sort of patriotism I call my own: a love of what Americans have managed to achieve despite all the crap they've gone through; a hope that sheer mobility is enough to release children from the chains and curses of their parents; a fractured fairy tale of chance recombination leading to something better than hostility unto the final generation.

At the very least, it might be worth trying out as a replacement for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the Fourth of July.

. . .


You wouldn't imagine the life of a cynical newspaper reporter a congenial match for Henry James's late style, and Henry James's imagination concurs. Having been lured or coerced into the subject, it spends the entire length of "The Papers", hampered by age and weight, trying to find its way the hell back out. Recommended to those who expected His Girl Friday to end with Walter and Hildy in an Albany retirement community.

. . .

That fellow in the movies, what's his name

Two of Ralph Bellamy's dozen 1933 credits:

Headline Shooter (1933)

A Lee Tracy vehicle with William Gargan pushed unconvincingly behind the wheel. It runs fast and loose regardless, and Frances Dee exhibits a memorably feral enthusiasm for tabloid scoops. But what really makes this INTERESTING? is the debut of what we would come to know as the Ralph Bellamy Character, anticipating the triangle (and a pivotal dialog line) of His Girl Friday, although this initial incarnation poses a more credible threat than poor Bruce Baldwin would: competent, brave, strong, generous, and articulate; completely at one with his community; incapable of distinguishing mores from morality in short, the sort of pillar-o'-society who'd cover up lynchings, vote for segregationists, and decry outside agitators. Watching him flop provides unalloyed pleasure.

(For a neatly contrasting role in an even better newsroom melodrama from 1933, see Picture Snatcher.)

The Narrow Corner (1933)

One of the sleazy-tropical-exile pictures which lost their reason for being after the Code came down. Structurally incoherent and ambitiously talkative (one outlaw translates the Lusiads; another informs the hero that "Life is short, nature is hostile, and humans are ridiculous"), its most remarkable aspect appears when Douglas Fairbanks Jr. rises naked from the sea and finds recently naked Patricia Ellis completely at ease with his nakedness, upon which hunky Dane Ralph Bellamy enters and strips down. Soon the two lads are comparing muscles, wrestling, and making a home and gymnasium together. Through the miracle of bash-it-out studio production, the scum-of-the-earth premise has somehow blended into a Tahitian promise of innocent promiscuity and thence into a Guy-Davenport-ish bisexual utopia.

The tragic or is it happy or what ending makes no sense given what came before it, but we were prepared for that given what came before it.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.