Friday, April 17, 2020

Hildy’s Game: “His Girl Friday”

“Molly’s Game,” which I watched while flipping through Netflix offerings, is a 2017 feature based on the real-life story of Molly Bloom. No, not the earth-mother figure in James Joyce’s Ulysses. This Molly Bloom is a former champion skier, one who was derailed by a freak accident from her quest to join the U.S. Olympic ski team.  Looking for challenges in warmer climates than her native Colorado, she decamped to  L.A., where she soon found herself shepherding a high-stakes celebrity poker game. Though not a gambler herself, she was soon risking her reputation and her legal standing in order to keep raking in a small fortune in tips.

It’s a fascinating story, though one I couldn’t always follow. And I’m still not exactly sure what the film was trying to say.  A corny scene between Jessica Chastain’s Molly and her psychologist dad (played by the always earnest Kevin Costner) didn’t strike me as helpful. Was his attempt to explain her life-choices in analyst-speak meant to seem astute, or oblivious?

In any case, the film was the directorial debut of writer Aaron Sorkin, known for his screenplay for The Social Network as well as such stellar TV as The West Wing. Those who are familiar with Sorkin’s work know that his characters are smart, sassy, and speak very fast. More than one review of the film, which earned an Oscar nomination for Sorkin’s screenplay, mentioned that its characters deliver their lines as if they were part of the cast of His Girl Friday. Exactly! This sparkling Howard Hawks film from 1940 is set not in a high-price gambling den but in the world of journalists and daily newspapers. The cast, led by Cary Grant as editor-in-chief Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as ace reporter Hildy Johnson, speak their lines at a breakneck pace, as though the fate of the world depends on what they have to say. And perhaps, in a way, it does. Though the portrayal of newsmen in the film is hardly sugar-coated—they’ll do just about anything to scoop the competition—there’s still the sense that the news they deliver is important, that the fate of a city (if not the world) hangs on the stories they uncover. Brutal competition is part of the game, and sometimes they may happen to get their facts wrong. But this hardly means they’re manufacturing Fake News. Theirs is an honorable profession, and Rosalind Russell’s Hildy is the best of the best.

The complication is that she’s Walter Burns’ ex-wife, and is on the brink of marrying a much more sedate type, an Albany insurance man played by Ralph Bellamy in the usual Ralph Bellamy role. (Who knew that 20 years later he’d leave behind his boring-nice-guy image by portraying FDR in Sunrise at Campobello?) Walter wants Hildy back, both as an ace reporter and as a wife, and a dramatic jailbreak by an accused murderer arouses her passion for newsgathering just in the nick of time. You can guess how it all ends.

His Girl Friday was based on a hit play of the era, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. The play is an effective melodrama, climaxing with the jailbreak. In adapting it for the screen, someone had a bright idea. Since it featured a newspaper editor trying to hang onto his star reporter, why not make that reporter a ballsy female, as well as the editor’s former wife? That brilliant stroke foregrounds the interpersonal story, relegating the murderer’s plight to a secondary role. As always, the battle of the sexes makes for boffo cinema.

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