His Girl Friday: How to Jam a 3-Hour Script into a 92-Minute Classic

When you’re working on a screenplay the rule
of thumb is that one page of dialogue equals about one minute of actual movie time. So, let’s say you have a 90-page screenplay,
you can safely assume that’s going to be about a 90-minute movie – a traditional movie length. Well, when director Howard Hawks started production
of His Girl Friday, the screenplay he was working with as 191 pages long. Now if you use that rule of thumb of one page
equals one minute, we’re looking at a movie that would be about a little over three hours
long. The thing is, His Girl Friday isn’t three
hours long. It’s only about 90 minutes long. So how did Howard Hawks jam a three-hour movie
into an hour and a half? Well that’s what we’re going to talk about
today here on A Million Movies, so stick around. Before we begin, I want to give you just a
little bit of background. His Girl Friday was actually the second time
the story had made it to the big screen. The story began as a play – a play called
“The Front Page” that premiered in 1928. In 1931, Howard Hughes took the play and made
a film version of it, also called The Front Page. And the 1931 version did really well. In fact, it was nominated for three Oscars,
including Best Picture. So when Columbia Pictures comes to Howard
Hawks and says we want you to remake The Front Page, remake this Best Picture nominee from
eight years earlier, Howard Hawks was less than thrilled about the idea. That was until one night when he had a dinner
party. And during dinner, he started talking about
how Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the two playwrights who had written “The Front Page”,
were some of the best writers of modern dialogue around. And to give a demonstration of that, he had
the group after dinner come back and he had them start reading some of the scenes from
the play. The play is the story of an editor and his
reporter, and it’s written for two men. He knew one of the ladies at the dinner party
was a decent actress and he asked her to read the reporter part and he would read the editor
part. Again, just to show how great the dialogue
was. As they’re reading it though, Howard Hawks
stopped mid-scene and just says, “Oh my gosh, this is it.” He realized that when you make the characters
a male and a female instead of two men, it adds a whole new dynamic to the story. With two men, you’ve got essentially a love
story (a platonic love story) of a seasoned pro and his cub reporter, and they really
care for each other and they want each other to do their best. But when you add in a male/female relationship,
you keep that original professional relationship element there, but you add in a romantic element
as well. And he knew that would make a much better
picture. Director Howard Hawks was focused on the dialogue. He wanted these characters to sound like real
people. To do that, he was going to use a technique
called overlapping dialogue. Hawks knew, just like you and I know, that
when two people are talking, there’s usually things that are happening that overlap the
dialogue. They interrupt each other, a person that asked
a question is maybe interrupted by someone answering it before they even get to the end
of the question. Rarely are people polite enough to wait for
Person A to finish their sentence, then Person B responds, and then Person A responds to
that. There’s muddiness. There’s conflict in the dialogue, and Hawks
wanted that to be reflected in this movie. Oh Walter, you’re wonderful in a loathsome
sort of way. Now, will you please be quiet just long enough
for me to tell you what I came up here to say? We’ll have some lunch.. I have a lunch date already… Well break it… I cannot break it… Will you take your hands off of me? What are you playing? An osteopath? Temper. A lot of people think His Girl Friday was
the first movie to have overlapping dialogue – and it’s not. It’s one of the first ones. It was definitely something that was unusual
for the time, but other movies like Frank Capra’s 1932 movie American Madness had used
overlapping dialogue, but not to the degree that Howard Hawks was going to use it in His
Girl Friday. To get this effect, Hawks and screenwriter
Charles Lederer loaded up the script with dialogue. They wanted lots of words for the actors to
say. To give you an idea of what happened with
this, when you look at a normal movie, and in a movie, characters will say between 90
and maybe 150 words per minute. In His Girl Friday, there are scenes where
you can hear 250 words per minute. That’s super-fast. Lots of words coming through all at the same
time. Not only was the script jam-packed with dialogue,
but Hawks encouraged the actors to ad-lib, to improvise additional lines for the story. Now, Cary Grant had come out of vaudeville
and he was used to being quick on his feet and thinking of fast, funny lines. And a lot of his ad-libs were inside jokes
– particularly jokes about Hollywood. A classic one is one scene right after an
escaped convict is found in a desk. Whistling in the dark. Well, that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. Listen, the last man who said that to me was
Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat. Is that so? The inside joke here is that Archie Leach
is Cary Grant. Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach and changed
his name to Cary Grant when he got into movies. Another great ad-lib from Cary Grant is this
scene. Hey Vangie, come here. There’s a guy waiting in a taxi in front of
the Criminal Courts Building. His name is Bruce Baldwin. What’s he look like? He looks like that fellow from the movies
– you know, Ralph Bellamy. Oh, him. Can you handle it? I’ve never flopped on you yet, have I? The inside joke there is that the actor that
they’re pointing to is Ralph Bellamy himself. Now, Rosalind Russell was not as good an ad-lib
performer as Cary Grant was. She didn’t come out of vaudeville and she
wasn’t used to having to ad-lib. But after a couple of days on the set, she
realized that his ad-libs and his sense of humor were stealing every scene. If she wanted to be in this movie, she needed
to come up with some ways to get some ad-libs herself. So, one day she actually threw her purse at
Cary Grant. Howard Hawks loved it, Cary Grant added a
line at the end of it, and they decided to keep it in the movie. Why you…. Uh uh, you’re losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that. Hello! Yeah, what? Sweetie? Rosalind Russell knew she needed to come up
with more gags and ad-libs, but she was really struggling. So, she went out on her own and hired a private
writer – someone to help her out, look at the script, and give her ideas of things she
could say or do that would be funny for the story. No one, Howard Hawks or anyone on the cast
or crew knew about it, but ultimately Cary Grant did figure out what she had done, and
as she came to set every day, he’d be waiting for her asking, “What have you got for us
today?” From a technical perspective, this faster
dialogue was a real challenge for the audio guys. These are the days before multi-track audio
where you could just have all of the mics input into a single mixing board and raise
or lower the audio of each mic as you needed it. They only had one input. They could have multiple mics, but fi you
wanted to switch between the mics, you had to do it manually at a control board. So what they would do is they would set up
the mics, and especially if they were doing a scene with a lot of people talking in it,
and they would switch which mic was being recorded based on the cues of what was happening
in the scene. For His Girl Friday, that means in some scenes,
they were making 35 switches of the audio track in a single scene. This fast dialogue is heard throughout His
Girl Friday with the exception of one scene. There’s a scene where Rosalind Russell is
confronted by a convicted killer. In that scene, the pacing and the dialogue
slow down dramatically. And when you watch that scene in the context
of the whole movie, it’s like someone put the brakes on the movie. What it does is it creates a huge emotional
impact for the audience, and more importantly, it separates that scene from the rest of the
movie for the audience. One final aspect that I wanted to talk about
with His Girl Friday was something I found myself doing the last time I watched this movie,
and that was that I spent more time watching the person not talking than the person talking. Both Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are fantastic
at being active listeners when they’re in a scene. And it you watch this film again, divert your
eyes a little bit. Look at the person not talking and you will
get so much more out of this movie. You can see their eye movement, or things
they’re doing with their hands. Nothing that would distract you – nothing
to try and steal the scene – but they add elements. You can see them scheming or thinking of alternatives,
or reacting like they totally don’t believe something the other person is saying. Instead of just being wooden, they are really
in the middle of the scene, and it’s just something that’s so much fun to watch, and
so different that what you would normally see from a lot of other actors. And, if you love classic movies like I do,
and you love His Girl Friday, I want to invite you to take a look at the TCM Classic Film
Festival. It’s coming up in April, and His Girl Friday
is going to be shown at this year’s festival, so you’ll get a chance to see this fantastic
movie on the big screen the way it was intended to be seen. I got my pass this past weekend. I’m already excited. It’s still several months away, but I’m already
making my plans and getting excited to go and see some of these fantastic movies and
to meet people who are into classic movies as much as I am. So, if you do end up going, I hope you’ll
look for me. I’d love to say hello and find out a little
bit more about the movies that you love. And with that, I want to thank you for watching
A Million Movies, and hopefully we’ll see you again here soon.

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