pseudopodium
. . . Lea Jacobs

. . .

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!

 

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.