Saturday, July 7, 2012

TV Bites: His Girl Friday

Hot Open-Faced Roast Beef Sandwich w/Roasted Shallot Brown Gravy

So, I'd say it's hot here in Montreal, but considering how horrible it is elsewhere I won't. Working hard on assignment for National Geographic (links here) and seeing some great music here at JazzFest. But I've got some good films and good food as this here's part one of a two part classic romantic/screwball comedy double bill.

Wow. Back to Howard Hawks. I had no idea when I started this adventure I would be covering so many of Hawks' films so soon. I always thought I loved his work, but it certainly seems as if it's more than I thought. Hitchcock, of course. But this was a surprise for me. (The previous picks were Rio Bravo and To Have and Have Not.) I mean, I have yet to write about one Stanley Kubrick film, you know? It's also my fourth film to feature Cary Grant - and that's no surprise to me.

Also, there's Ben Hecht. He was the first screenwriter I think I recognized. I started reading up about him, reading his essays, novels, nonfiction, articles - whatever I could get my little hands on. Actually, I'm gonna say it started when I first saw Gaily, Gaily (based on Hecht's life) which I saw as a young man. I wanted to live the exciting life of a writer. (Ah, the sweet naivety of youth.) Seriously, if you want to know about screenwriting, he's the man to study. Jean-Luc Godard once said Hecht "invented 80 percent of what is used in American movies today."

Without a doubt, His Girl Friday is one of the top ten favorite movies ever. What can I tell you? It just drops me into an ice cold bucket of feel good. Yup. That's what it does. Just leaves me smiling as the credits roll. "Anytime. Any place. Anywhere," as Cary Grant's character is prone to say.

You can stream or download His Girl Friday for FREE at the Internet Archive and it's available to purchase (this is one of the better prints and includes some nice extras) from Amazon.


"You've got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever - 'til death do us part.' Why divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy. Just a few words mumbled over you by a judge."

Let's go back to the 1910's. Ben Hecht and Charles (Charlie) MacArthur were newspaper journalists in Chicago. It was a wild time to be in the newspaper business then, especially in Chicago (see Background & Context below). But both writers dabbled in other forms of writing - theater, fiction - it wasn't about art as much as it was about making a buck, mind you. Then in 1927, as that era of journalism was fading into history, the two men decided to write a sort of rollicking memoir of what it was like as a play. They based the characters on actual people they knew (see Background & Context below) and entitled it The Front Page. It became a big hit that year on Broadway.

Hecht recalled their writing the play in his biography of MacArthur: "Our procedure was established on the first day. It continued, unchanged, through 20 years of play and movie writing. I sat with a pencil, paper and a lap board. Charlie walked, lay on a couch, looked out of a window, drew mustaches on magazine cover girls and prowled around in some fourth dimension. Out of him, during these activities, came popping dialog and plot turns.

Hecht had already gone and moved to Hollywood while MacArthur preferred New York and his place at the Algonquin Round Table (though in 1928 he moved upstate with his new wife, actress Helen Hayes). Hecht's first credited screenplay was the 1927 film Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg. It earned him the distinction of being the first screenwriter to receive an Academy Award for Original Screenplay. Another young writer also had a hand in that script, though uncredited, Howard Hawks. A few years later, Hawks, now a director, helmed another Hecht screenplay, Scarface, in 1931, the same year The Front Page came to the screen.

Now we'll jump ahead eight years. “I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written," recalled Hawks, "and I asked a girl to read Hildy's part and I read the editor and I stopped and I said, 'Hell, it's better between a girl and a man than between two men,' and I called Ben Hecht and I said, 'What would you think of changing it so that Hildy is a girl?' And he said, 'I think it's a great idea,'and he came out and we did it."

Let's note, as mentioned in previous posts of his films, Mr. Hawks was yet another of those folks who never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and whether this story has any basis in fact has been disputed by experts, such as biographer Todd McCarthy. I've also heard it was Harry Cohn's idea to do the remake. But let's let Hawks tell his story....

So after a few days," Hawks continued elsewhere, "I ran into Harry Cohn and I said, 'You said anytime you want to make a picture... I want to make on.' He said, 'Good, you started today.' And I said, 'No, I started a long time ago. I'm going to do Front Page.' 'A remake?' he said. I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'You don't want to do that.' 'OK, Harry, I'll go some other place. I've already bought the story.' 'Now wait a minute, wait a minute, if you want to do it, do it.' And he said, 'Walter Winchell could play the editor and Cary Grant could play the reporter.' And I said, 'You're batting pretty well. You're .500' 'Why' he said. And I said, 'Cary Grant, I'll get him to play the editor and a girl to play the reporter.' 'Are you nuts?' he said....

"And the only thing that helped was I called Ben Hecht up and told him what I was going to do, and he said, 'I wish I'd thought of that.' And he said, 'You want some help?' I said, 'Sure.' He said, 'I need some help. I'm working on a story I can't solve. I'll come out there, and you help me and I'll help you.' Well, he helped. He suggested that they had previously been married. And it made a whole great big different in the whole bloomin' picture. And I help on his story, so we got along fine."

Actually, truth be told, Hecht wasn't available at first to come out and work on the film, so Hawks drafted Charles Lederer, who often cowrote with Hecht and had done a polish on the script for the original version of The Front Page (and it so happens he was Marion Davies' nephew). But then Hecht was briefly available (between rewrites on Gone With the Wind) and joined Lederer and Hawks out in Palm Springs to work on the script. Lederer then finished the first draft on his own. Hawks then turned to another great comedy writer of the time, Morrie Ryskind, to do rewrites.

Now the ending and last line of The Front Page, was and is considered a classic bit of screenwriting. (Here it is in the 1974 Billy Wilder remake as originally written for the 1931 version - go to 10:30 till the credits.) First off, since the original had been made, the Hayes Code came into being and the last line, "The sonofabitch stole my watch," was unable to be used. Plus, everyone knew that line. So it was decided a new ending had to be written, but it also had to be as good or better than the original. Ryskind wrote an ending he thought was it. Walter and Hildy have their wedding in the newsroom but then break into a huge fight as they say, “I do.” The last line would fall to Diamond Louie: “I think it's gonna turn out all right this time.”

However, according to the story, Ryskind shared his idea with some other writers one day and one of them stole that ending and the closing line for another movie (but he doesn't say what movie that was and I couldn't figure it out). So, Ryskind explained, “I devised one of a guarded marital reconciliation between Walter and Hildy. This was kept under wraps until Howard filmed it. Both Howard and I agreed that the romantic flavor of the new ending worked out better than our previous one, so in a way, I'm grateful to that writer at Columbia – who shall remain anonymous – for giving us the impetus to make a great film even better.”

Speaking of the Hayes office, as usual, they got all upset about stuff like Hildy bribing the jailer, the idea of smuggling Earl Williams out of the building, and other meaningless details, but they eventually relented.

Cary Grant was in from the beginning and Hawks wanted his second cousin - Carole Lombard - to play Hildy Johnson but she turned him down. So did Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, and Claudette Colbert. Harry Cohn wanted Jean Arthur (who had just been in Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings), but she wasn't interested in working with Hawks again. Finally, with only two weeks left before shooting would begin, it was suggested that Rosalind Russell be considered.

Russell, who was visiting her sister in Connecticut when she got the call to come back to Hollywood, said she was very excited about it until the following day when she took the train into New York and read in The New York Times (along with all the other passengers on the train, she angrily noted) the list of all the other actresses who'd turned down the part.

She arrived in LA in a pissy mood and went to see Hawks (and according to the story, with her hair wet). He just looked at her and said, according to Russell, “It'll be all right. You'll be fine,” then sent her down to wardrobe with instructions on what kind of outfit to get. But she wasn't happy.

We'd been shooting for two days when I began to wonder if his instructing me that my suit should be kind of hard-boiled-looking was the only advice I was going to get from Mr. Hawks,” Russell wrote. “He [just] sprawled in his chair, way down on the end of his spine, and his eyes were like two blue cubes of ice, and he just looked at me.”

So she asked Grant, who'd worked with Hawks before, “What's with this guy? Am I doing what he wants?” Grant assured her that if he didn't like it, he'd say something. “I can't work that way,” she said and marched over to the director: “I have to know whether this is all right. Do you want it faster? Slower? What would you like?” Hawks replied simply, “You just keep pushin' him around the way you're doing.

But from the time she first read the script, Russell felt, specifically her part, needed a little help. She did something rarely done in those days – she hired her own gag writer. The writer she brought in (an advertising writer who was a family friend) added such lines as “slap-happy” in response to Bellamy's line that Grant's character would make some woman happy one day. He also suggested later in the scene when Grant is making fun of her honeymoon in Albany “with mother,” that instead of making an audible response, she explained, “all I do is take my hand, which I'm holding up against my mouth, and unfurl a couple of fingers and thumb my nose.”

Soon enough she started to relax and before she knew it she was having a grand old time. Russell recalled elsewhere, “We went wild, overlapping our dialogue, waited for no man. And Hawks got a big kick out of it.” And, she added, “Hawks was a terrific director; he encouraged us and let us go.”

She said of Cary Grant that he “was terrific to work with because he's a true comic, in the sense that comedy is in the mind, the brain, the cortex." And continued, "Cary loved to ad lib. He'd be standing there, leaning over, practically parallel to the ground, eyes flashing, extemporizing as he went, but he was in with another ad-libber; I enjoyed working that way too.... And Hawks got a big kick out of it.” (Grant also introduced her to her future husband right after they finished the film and was the best man at her wedding.)

Of the overlapping dialogue technique Hawks noted, “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."

When I first started in pictures," Cary Grant said, "an actor didn't have the freedom to interrupt the dialogue. But in His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell and I were constantly interrupting each other. The sound men would say, 'We can't hear you.' And we'd say, 'Well, you're not supposed to hear us. People do interrupt each other, you know.”

The poor sound man did have quite the job. They wound up using multiple microphones rather than one overhead boom while shooting to capture the rapid fire dialogue better. The sound man had to manually switch from mike to mike on cue. Supposedly, some scenes required as many as 35 switches.

And it wasn't just the sound man who had problems. Joseph Walker, the Director of Photography on the pictures recalled, “His Girl Friday was tough because you never knew where the actors were going to go” because of all the improvisation and the mood of letting the actors just do their thing which Hawks promoted on the set.

Co-star Ralph Bellamy recalled one of the great ad libs Grant made in the movie: “On my day off I went to see the rushes from the previous day. What I saw was a complete surprise. Cary was asked to describe my character and he says, 'He looks like, er, that fellow from the movies... you know, Ralph Bellamy.' Well, that was Cary's contribution. It was one of the biggest laughs in the picture.”

However, Hawks noted in an interview that Ben Hecht had written that line. But as I've said already, we can't always trust his stories. Whoever thought it up, it's still a really funny line. (The other bit with a "real name" is when Cary Grant refers to Archie Leach, which was the name he was born with - and also is John Cleese's character's name in A Fish Called Wanda - a previous Chef du Cinema pick - his homage to Grant.)

As strange as it may seem today, His Girl Friday didn't receive any real recognition at the time. No awards, not even any nominations. Yet today it is considered one of the great motion picture comedies of all time.

In 1998, it was loosely remade as the mildly amusing movie Switching Channels and later was adapted by playwright John Guare into a stage play first performed in 2003 in London. And, as mentioned above, The Front Page was remade in 1974 by Billy Wilder with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.


As you watch His Girl Friday you might feel it very theatrical. It's a yarn. Certainly reporters and reporting in the United States weren't as screwy as all that. But truth be told (and that's what I'm here to do), it was. And, as I mentioned above, Hildy and Walter were based on real living people.

I'll also mention that in the opening of the film there is a title credit that begins: "It all happened in the 'Dark Ages' of the newspaper game - when to a reporter 'getting that story' justified anything short of murder." This is about to be explained....

The following is excerpted from an article (PDF) in the Chicago History magazine from 1998 written by Richard Digby-Junger:

At [the beginning of the 20th Century], a new reporter culture emerged in Chicago known as jazz or muscle journalism. Initially, a circulation war had an impact on reporters and the press club. According to Colonel Robert R. McCormick, as quoted in Wayne Andrews’s Battle for Chicago, as many as twenty-seven newsdealers were gunned down or killed in Chicago between 1902 and 1913 as the Tribune and the upstart Hearst–owned Chicago Examiner fought it out on the city’s streets for morning circulation dominance. The cut-throat competition moved from the streets into the newsrooms, albeit on a less violent scale, as Chicago’s newspaper industry peaked and then began to decline after 1920. To maintain circulation, reporters stopped at nothing to get news, from falsified quotes and staged photographs to crime scene manipulation and the impersonation of public officials. Pranks on the competition became a popular spectator sport when news was slow. The press club remained a focus for all of this activity as reporters swapped stories, boasted of their expertise, and laughed about the tricks they played. The trickery had little impact on the press club’s reputation with news sources since there was a general ethical decline in business and politics during the 1910s and 1920s.

"As journalism evolved, a Chicago literary renaissance flourished. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Chicago started attracting a generation of talented writers, including the Globe’s Theodore Dreiser and the Daily News’ Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht.... From the flowery, affable references to Chicago in the late nineteenth-century, the city’s prose became dark, unforgiving, and guttural in early-twentieth century newspapers. [Chicago Daily News reporter] Ben Hecht, who once referred to Chicagoans as “a pack of dogs,” was one of the chief practitioners of the new newspaper realism. The culmination of all of these influences on Chicago muscle journalism was The Front Page, written by Hecht and coauthored by press club member Charles MacArthur [a court reporter for the Herald & Examiner]. The authors modeled editor Walter Burns after MacArthur’s Herald & Examiner editor Walter Howey, and based reporter Hildy Johnson upon a Herald & Examiner reporter named Hilding Johnson, with many elements of MacArthur as well. The script is autobiographical to the end, when Walter Burns has Hildy Johnson arrested for stealing his watch while Johnson is leaving on his honeymoon. Hecht and MacArthur based this episode on a real-life incident involving MacArthur’s first marriage to a Herald & Examiner reporter named Carol Frink.

"Drawing from real-life exploits, The Front Page chronicles the brash character of Chicago journalism in the twenties, complete with corrupt politicians, colorful gangsters, and hard-drinking, hard-hitting reporters who will stop at nothing to get a good 'scoop.'


Well, this was kind of easy. Early in His Girl Friday, Burns (Cary Grant) takes Hildy and Bruce out to lunch. There, they order roast beef sandwiches. Burns orders his "rare on white bread.... And bring some mustard too, Gus."

Being that it's summer and all, I'm being a bit lazy. So should you. And what I'll offer to you is an option.

If you want to make the roast beef from scratch, I have already provided you with an excellent roast beef recipe which I paired with The Lady Eve last summer. If that is the case, I will recommend that you sauté some onions in butter, then add some of the au jus, and finally add some cornstarch in there to thicken it up into gravy.

Otherwise, you are perfectly permitted to purchase at your local market some sliced roast beef from the deli section. How easy is that? All you have to do is make the gravy as directed below.

Also, I wrote about the history of roast beef at The Lady Eve post, so you can drop by there and read up, if you care to.

It's been about 10 years since I've been to Chicago. Too long. But for a time I was going there somewhat regularly and I don't know if the restaurant in the movie is a stand-in for any particular restaurant in Chi-town, but in those days I fell in love with Berghoff's Restaurant. Then it closed. Now it's reopened. It was a place where reporters used to drink and eat back in the day. They made their own beer and it was damn fine. They also had a hot roast beef sandwich on their menu. And they do now. Nowadays, it's a little fancier than in the 1920's, but I bet it goes well with one of their brews.

So here we are. As always.... cook, eat, watch, and enjoy!

Hot Open-Faced Roast Beef Sandwich w/Roasted Shallot Brown Gravy
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

2 pounds roast beef, thinly sliced (See above - either make from my recipe or buy at market)
8 slices good-quality white, rye, or sourdough bread

for the gravy:

4-4 1/2 ounces shallots, peeled and ends snipped
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons AP flour
2 1/2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons cooking sherry
1-2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (to your taste)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat over to 425F.

In a bowl, toss shallots with olive oil to coat, sprinkle with thyme, then arrange on some aluminum foil or nonstick roasting pan. Place in over for about 20-25 minutes until soft and caramelized. Return to bowl and mash.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add flour, stirring regularly, for about 5 minutes or until you get a medium tan color. Add shallot mash and stir to combine. Cook for another 2 minutes.

Whisk in beef broth, then the sherry, and then the Worcestershire sauce. Simmer, occasionally stirring until the gravy thickens, about 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

To serve: On each plate, place two slices of bread. (If you want to be like Burns and Hildy, have some mustard on it. Bruce, of course, has his without. Me, I'll have a dab of horseradish, thank you.) Equally divide roast beef over the bread. Then pour the gravy on top. I recommend accompanying with some kind of potato - mashed, roasted, scalloped, or fries. White or sweet. Your choice.

Also, I'm fine with beer, but if you want to drink what Burns and Hildy have, pour yourself a hot cup of java and add a little rum (no rum for Bruce)... because you never know when it's gonna rain.

His Girl Friday Screenplay
Alan Arkush on His Girl Friday
TCM's His Girl Friday Page
AO Scott's NY Times Critics' Pick His Girl Friday
The Front Page (PDF), A Study Guide, by Aaron Carter
His Girl Friday: Screwball liberation, by Tom Powers @ JumpCut

His Girl Friday DVD
Charlie:The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur, by Ben Hecht
A Child of the Century, by Ben Hecht
The Front Page: From Theater to Reality (The Art of Theater Series), edited by George W Hinton
Howard Hawks (Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television), by Robin Wood
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy
Howard Hawks: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series), edited by Scott Breivold
Life Is A Banquet, by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase
Evenings With Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best, by Nancy Nelson

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