His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday – 1940

Director – Howard Hawks

Starring – Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy

So this is one of those movies that I started, stopped, re-started, and re-stopped, before finally sitting down and watching the whole thing.  There was no particular reason for my continued in-ability to sit through it, it just worked out that way.

In the end, all it took for me to finally sit down and dedicate and hour and a half to watching this movie was the simple little task of falling in love with a girl, patiently waiting 5 years or so for her and I to be single at the same time, start dating, immediately get engaged, and having her suggest that we show it at our wedding.  Simple.  At that point all I had to do was watch it.

For the un-initiated, His Girl Friday is a comedy of the screw-ball variety.  It’s fast paced, and quick-witted with none of the rather dumb short-comings of another Howard Hawks / Cary Grant screw-ball comedy from 2 years earlier, “Bringing Up Baby”.  Where that film was populated with infuriatingly stupid and aggravating characters grating on each other’s (and my) nerves, His Girl’s characters are smart, and they only build upon each other.  Even when the characters are working at cross purposes, which considering it’s a screw-ball comedy means it’s quite often, nothing is dumbed down.  Hokey slapstick is set aside in favor of smart dialog and strategic scheming.

Cary Grant, ever the charmer, plays the crafty, hard-nosed, newspaper editor, Walter Burns.  When he finds out that his best reporter, not to mention former wife, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) is set to marry meek insurance man, Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy), and  settle down to a life of mediocrity, Burns jealously tries to stymie the couples wedded bliss.  He tries to lure Hildy back into the fold of the newspaper by dangling the biggest story of the decade in front of her.  To her credit, Hildy sees what he is trying to do, but to her detriment she is tempted, and ultimately gives in to the chance to crack this story wide open.

Russell and Grant play fabulously off of one another, each regularly topping the other with calculated sarcasm and well placed wit.  The rapid fire dialog is punctuated with priceless reactions that only illustrate just why these two people are made for each other.  Both are driven, career oriented, people who are going towards the same goal, and in the process clashing with each other along the way to get there first.

Bellamy’s meek, milquetoast, alternative to Burns, is at once pitiable and loathsome.  It’s easy to understand how this rather tame, safe alternative might have been attractive to a woman of Hildy’s strength and conviction as a break from Burns.  After all, he is safe and controllable.  He is a dramatically different choice from Burns’ fiery, aggressive, competitor.  Although, while Hildy may have had moments of frustration with Burns, it is exactly that competition and desire that pulled them together initially and continues to pull them together.  It is exactly this rivalry that intrigues them both, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that poor Bruce Baldwin doesn’t stand a chance.

Along with the two strong leads, and equally watchable secondary character, His Girl Friday has a whole cast of tertiary characters that really work to fill out the chaotic, hilarious universe in which this film exists.  The bumbling sheriff, crooked mayor, shady cohort of Burns, convicted murderer, and unhappy mother in-law all weave together a dense enough tapestry to be at once believable and compelling.  Hilarious and frustrating.  Each of these characters does his or her part to occupy Hildy and Walter for the sake of the story without distracting them from each other for too long.

This film is a super strong testimony in favor of romantic comedies as being legitimate works of art, and currently resides as my favorite screw-ball comedy of all time.  It goes a long way to rectifying my bad attitude (and Cary Grant’s reputation with me) in regards to Bringing Up Baby, not to mention it introduced me to Rosalind Russell who I had never seen in anything previously.

Perhaps the biggest benefit His Girl Friday has afforded me…I got to watch it with my favorite person, and the coolest girl around, and future wife.  And I didn’t even have to trick her (much) into getting married.  Bully for me!

“Our wedding movie.” – Ashley

Paths Of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory – 1957

Director – Stanley Kubrick

Starring – Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, and Adolphe Menjou

In the history of film, there are numerous examples of films showing the futility of war, the cost in human lives, and the brutality of man against himself.  Lots of films are well-known for their stance on the issues of war, a film like Apocalypse Now, puts the surrealism and carnage of war on display while Dr. Strangelove choses to highlight the ridiculous nature instead.  Other films such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist choose to show the lasting and horrible effects of war, but most all of these films labelled as important choose to stand as anti-war examples, attempting to illustrate (many of them do it quite well, too) just how pointless a lot of these conflicts actually are.

While looking back on the contributions to this list, Stanley Kubrick stands out with three prominently placed films on this list.  The first two, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket are no-brainers, but the third is a much lesser known film directed before Kubrick had really solidified his style.  Paths of Glory, while closer to Spartacus in style is full of substance and themes that Kubrick would touch on for the remainder of his career.

Kirk Douglas plays the beleaguered Col. Dax, a French officer stationed at the front line during World War I.  His men, already worn thin from months of fruitless fighting, have been ordered to take the “beehive”, a useless piece of land controlled by the Germans that has already switched hands numerous times preceeding this attack.  The order to carry these attacks out, given by General Mireau, is given in the hopes of earning him a promotion should the operation be a success.  The problem comes in when, after the French battalion is easily wiped out by the German forces holding the “beehive”, General Mireau grows angry with the losing effort and decides to motivate his own troops by firing upon them himself.  Once the action has subsided, Mireau, still furious over the loss, makes an example of three men by trying them for treason.  Col. Dax is the lone voice of reason, and as such, steps in to act in the defence of the men at the trial.

Kubrick’s contempt for the policies and cowardice of war makers, and war itself is made obvious in this film.  The bleakness of the battlefield, is echoed in the outlook of the soldiers on trial.  This grim worldview is a common theme, if not an outright through line of Kubrick’s subsequent body of work.  The more reasonable Col. Dax tries to be, the more absurd the situation becomes.  Reasoning seems to be thrown to the wind in favor of the keeping up of appearances and out of pure spite.  Kubrick seems to be saying that wars are run, not fought mind you, by bureaucrats and those seeking gains be they money or prestige.

The imagery in this film reaches it’s peak in the battle scenes taking place in the trenches and in the deserted and alien no-man’s land in-between the opposing armies.  Filled with twisted, distorted shapes, themselves distorted and twisted by light and shadow, these scenes have a the structure and appearance of a nightmare.  Despite the fractured appearance, the goals of the soldiers remain fairly upfront and straight forward.  Kill or be killed, live or die.  The relative normalcy in the appearance of the courtroom scenes flip-flops this.  Absurdity in normal, everyday locations is not only accepted, but encouraged.

While it maybe isn’t as indelible as some of Kubricks later films, Paths of Glory surprised me by being generally better and deeper than I thought it would be.  Early on, the film seemed only to promise mediocre action scenes, but as the plot progresses our characters are led slowly and inevitably through a series of visually stunning and tension filled settings to their doom.  If you liked the bleak and disenfranchised nature of this film, they can also be found in the works of director Jean-Pierre Melville.  Le Samouri, Bob le Flambeur, and my personal favorite Le Cercle Rouge.  Check all of them out, you won’t be sorry you did!

P.S. – Paths of Glory receives the award for having one of the coolest posters ever!  You have to admit it’s pretty eyecatching.