Two With Grant by Hawks: 'His Girl Friday' & 'Monkey Business'

Reviews
by Peter Bogdanovich
June 1, 2012 12:04 AM
8 Comments
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If you miss Cary Grant as much as I do——and I mean not only the movie star, the actor, the man, but also the kind of civilized style and ebullient, urbane and witty persona the name calls to mind——then here are two good opportunities (out of many more) to see the original article.  Both were made by Grant’s favorite director (they did five pictures together), the legendary “gray fox of Hollywood,” Howard Hawks.

The major attraction, and one of the fastest, most irreverent and enduringly fresh of screwball romantic comedies, is the 1940 classic, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (available on DVD).  This was the third Hawks-Grant picture in two years (preceded by screwball classic Bringing Up Baby and aviation classic Only Angels Have Wings). The picture was based on one of the certifiable masterworks of the American stage, Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s newspaper tour de force of sardonic comedy, The Front Page (filmed twice under that title, each one far inferior to this incarnation).

But here Hawks altered the play in one huge and fortuitous change he thought of--accomplished with the aid of Hecht and his protégé, the brilliant screenwriter Charles Lederer: the two main characters were switched from a male reporter-male editor battle of wits to a female reporter-male editor battle of the sexes--the two having once been married. Famously, Hawks had been reading some scenes with a girlfriend to demonstrate that the play had some of the best modern dialog, and after awhile exclaimed, “Hey, it’s even better with a woman and a man than two men!” Charlie Lederer later came up with the premise that solved the notion: that the two had been married and divorced.

Grant never again played a character with quite this kind of larcenous panache or sense of irrepressible mischief. It is a remarkably daring performance, sometimes broad and even outrageous, but accomplished with amazing equilibrium and wit. In four short years—1937-1940—Cary dazzled breathtakingly in five very different kinds of roles, all somehow fitting into his dashing persona: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, George Cukor’s Holiday, and Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday. I can’t think of another actor with a run as rich and exciting. (Some would include George Stevens’ Gunga Din, first prepared by Hawks with Hecht and MacArthur, and shot during this same period, but I don’t feel that it reaches the same level of perfection as the other five.)

Rosalind Russell gives her finest and probably most defining performance as Grant’s ex-wife, about to leave the Chicago newspaper world and settle down with an insurance man in Albany. Of course, he is played by that ultimate square second lead, Ralph Bellamy (doing a variation on his role opposite Grant in Leo McCarey’s perfect screwball of three years before, The Awful Truth). In fact, there’s a very funny direct reference to Bellamy by name in the picture--as there is to Grant’s real name, Archie Leach. But Roz Russell brings off her difficult part with perfection, a real Hawks woman, who can give out as well as take it; a consummate professional journalist and entirely believable as the best writer of the bunch.

The famously long screenplay——at 180 pages (the average being under 120)——plays in an incredibly swift 92 minutes; in fact, it’s probably a trifle too fast for the small screen and can wear you out if you’re not fresh and ready for the race.

The final Hawks-Grant collaboration (after 1949’s hilarious though lesser-known red-tape classic I Was A Male War Bride), came three years later with the scientist-youth potion comedy, 1952’s Monkey Business, and was for my money unfortunately the weakest of the five. But the French New Wave counted it among their favorites nevertheless, and certainly it has more good things in it than most comic pictures. Especially memorable are the sequences featuring Grant with Marilyn Monroe in her first really successful comedy performance as aging professor Charles Coburn’s ultra-nubile secretary.

The trouble is that these scenes with Grant and Monroe are so much fun and have so much electricity that co-star Ginger Rogers’ stuff pales in comparison.  Still, the movie has marvelous Grant-as-absent-minded-professor sequences; he has accidentally (or rather, a lab monkey of his, has) invented a youth potion to disastrous results.  Underneath everything, believe it or not, is a sober celebration of maturity in marital relationships.
    


 

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8 Comments

  • Jesse L | June 11, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    When you think about Grant in only two of the films you mention here, His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings, you see what remarkable range he had. We always remember him as the breezy and urbane Cary but man, he could really play so many different characters - all of them fun to watch. Over the years I have heard this actor or that touted as "the next Cary Grant." Please. There will never be another like him.

  • PB | June 10, 2012 7:13 AMReply

    Bill, I don't know why; his THE CROWD ROARS (see my blog) and TIGER SHARK aren't
    available either, nor his THE DAWN PATROL: all Warner Bros. films, so they're the ones to
    ask and petition. Good luck!

  • Salty Bill | June 9, 2012 9:49 PMReply

    Peter, why is Hawks' Ceiling Zero unavailable on DVD in the USA? I've never seen this.

  • MAK | June 2, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    Peter - Somehow I never thought of it until reading this column, but Grant really played the Walter Burns character twice since GUNGA DIN is yet another FRONT PAGE rewrite - and that means that the recently engaged Douglas Fairbanks, Jr character is in the Rosalind Russell role! Well, it's still Hildy Johnson, at least, structurally, with the bosses now split in two as Grant & Victor McLaglen, and still trying to keep their protege from getting married.

    Hecht & MacArthur sure got a lot of mileage from that play!

    BTW, since you go up to 1940, you should probably include Grant in Cukor's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY where he's remarkably different than he was in HOLIDAY, which has so many similar elements. It's always seemed odd that HOLIDAY has always lacked the prestige & general popularity of PHILADELPHIA, yet it's such a stronger play and film. And the early Talkie version (1930) directed Edward Griffith is remarkably good, as well. Having Mary Astor as the fiance who's all wrong for Johnny (nicely played by Robert Ames) makes a huge difference in balancing the romantic triangle.

    And how 'bout a tiny plug for John Cromwell's IN NAME ONLY from 1939. In a decade of film programming (back when there were thriving University film clubs), the biggest audience reaction we ever got came when mean Kay Francis refused to allow the doctors to help Grant because she would rather have him die than be happy with Carole Lombard. One third of the full house actually stood up at this point and started to yell at the screen. Okay, okay, not a great film, but what a moment!
    www.MAKSQUIBS.blogspot .com

  • PB | June 2, 2012 2:10 AMReply

    Well, Blake, I don't really disagree with you: I like MONKEY BUSINESS too, just not as much as some of the other Hawks comedies with Grant, and without; I love TWENTIETH CENTURY and BALL OF FIRE. In fact, it's hard to find a Hawks picture I don't like. And you're right, I was being kind to GUNGA DIN; only the last twenty minutes really work. Also I agree wholeheartedly about THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: two of my all-time favorites!

  • Blake Lucas | June 1, 2012 5:13 PMReply

    Of Hawks' comedies, HIS GIRL FRIDAY is my favorite and I agree with everything you said about it. It's dazzling--I don't think there is a better comedy of this type (Lubitsch's THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER of the same year is such a different type of comedy--but it would be in the select few of top tier for me as well). But although I do like all of Hawks' comedies with Cary Grant, I will disagree about MONKEY BUSINESS, because it's my second favorite. For me it's really funny, Ginger Rogers good enough in her regression scenes and very good overall, even if she doesn't have the flair of Grant--and what you well describe as the "sober celebration of maturity in marital relationships" is not only well-handled but unusual for Hawks. Marilyn Monroe is actually funniest in that one scene with Charles Coburn ("Anyone can type"), who was always a great actor and wonderful in comedies. Best of all is that scalping scene with the kids and the one-of-a-kind George Winslow--it's really audacious. In any event, I think most of us have favorite Hawks films we all agree are great but should also be entitled to a few personal favorites on our lists that not everyone would name, so I guess this is one of mine in that category. By the way, I think you're kind about "Gunga Din"--and I like all three of the leading actors and love good adventure movies but I just don't like that movie; it's labored and interminable and I've never understood its reputation. It's not remotely on a level of those five other Cary Grant movies you named 1937-1940, which are all great; speaking of adventure movies, "Only Angels Have Wings" is especially great.

  • Mr. Wu | June 1, 2012 4:37 PMReply

    I have seen many of the Howard Hawks pictures with Cary Grant but not all of them. Looks like I need to get busy. One of the most redeeming qualities about the movies is that there is always more work to be done, more treasures to unearth. It truly is boundless.

  • Karen | June 1, 2012 10:51 AMReply

    Yes. I do miss the urbane, witty, civilized leading man as much as I miss the urbane, witty, civilized movie. I love all the films you mentioned with the exception of the Monroe vehicle which I can't seem to watch all the way to the end. My favorite Grant film is Leo McCarey's "The Awful Truth" with Irene Dunne. They were so wonderful together. Ms. Dunne was the best of all his co-stars. I laugh every time I see them together.

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