Thursday, May 13, 2010

Anecdote of the Week: "I don't want to kill the woman."

Enter Howard Hawks--partly because y'all are being so nice in that thread down below it is, frankly, getting embarrassing, and partly because the Siren is enjoying the hell out of TLRHB's "Walter Burns of the Day" on Twitter.

Notes from the set of His Girl Friday, courtesy of Rosalind Russell in her autobiography Life Is a Banquet:

We had been shooting 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.

He sprawled in a 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.

After the second day I went to Cary Grant. 'What is it with this guy? Am I doing what he wants?'

'Oh sure Ross,' Cary said...'If he didn't like it, he'd tell you.'

'I can't work that way,' I said. I went over to where Hawks was sitting. 'Mr. Hawks,' I said, 'I have to know whether this is all right. Do you want it faster? Slower? What would you like?'

Unwinding himself like a snake, he rose from his chair. 'You just keep pushin' him around the way you're doin',' he said. I could hardly hear him but I could see those cubes of eyes beginning to twinkle.


Hawks was a terrific director; he encouraged us and let us go. Once he told Cary, 'Next time give her a bigger shove onto the couch,' and Cary said, 'Well, I don't want to kill the woman,' and Hawks thought about that for a second. Then he said, 'Try killin' her.'


DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh that's so great.

Hawks is really quite subtle. The French loved the way he used the basic "plan americain" (medium long shot) so creatively that it became an essential unti of cinema for him. He was always concerned with the way his actors inhabited the frame and moved within it. Consequently he never needed fast cutting or complex camera angles to build suspense or pick up the pace. His Girl Friday is a perfect example of this.

Of all the New Wave directors Rivette learned the most from Hawks. His masterpiece Out One is redolent of Hawksian mise en scene to the Max.

Arthur S. said...

Jean-Luc Godard in Notre Musique had a nice gag about His Girl Friday where he says that two sides of a conflict inevitably resembled each other but he hoped to discriminate unlike Hawks, "that a woman is different from a man." Referring among other things to the fact that Hildy Johnson was a male character in the play The Front Page but thanks to Hawks' genius idea, transformed into Walter Burns' brilliant ex-wife who is also his star reporter.

Along with To Have and Have Not, His Girl Friday is my favourite of Hawks. It's really amazing and exciting to watch. And as David E. said about the movement of actors in the frame, well this film is all movement.

What's amazing about the film is the way it has two main characters who are complete masters of their spaces. The first scene where Russell moves through the office, she has this sense of belonging there, which of course conflicts with her wish to quit, the purpose of her visit there. Then of course the press room at the Jail, which becomes her and later Burns' domain.

The Siren said...

What you both said. :)

WelcometoLA said...

Wow, was I supposed to do one every day? I thought it was sort of weekly. Well, the Morning Post expects every editor to do his duty!

Peter Nellhaus said...

And speaking of the women in Hawks' life at that time, did you ever read the biography of Slim Keith?

Noel Vera said...

David E., you read Brian Dauth's position on Hawks in Dave Kehr's blog? Claims His Girl Friday plays around but ultimately insist on the heteronormative status quo. I argued that Rosalind Russell wasn't necessarily a woman (well, she is, you can't ignore that, but she's every bit Grant's equal) and that the 'status quo' at the end wasn't a conventional marriage, but a collaborative partnership.

Noel Vera said...

And Siren, many thanks for the mention. When you finally get to see your first Filipino film, please let me know.

And that still from Breakfast at Tiffany's reminds me, that's Damien Bona's all-time favorite film, isn't it? For some reason his choice stuck in my memory. Mean to see it again, one of these days.

Yojimboen said...

The reputed template for most of Hawks’s women was Slim (Hawks) Keith – the most stylish American woman in history.
(Vreeland? Paley? Fonssagrives? Hepburn? Wallis Simpson? Jackie O?… Ptooey!)

She was pursued by (to name a few):
William Powell
William Randolph Hearst
Clark Gable
Gary Cooper
Cary Grant

But she married Howard Hawks,
Then talent-spotted Betty Bacall on the cover of Harper’s. Thus in THAHN Bacall’s character is named Slim.

Left Hawks for Ernest Hemingway.
Left Papa to marry Leland Hayward
Then married Sir Kenneth Keith
Hence “Slim Keith” the name she is most known by.

There’s a ‘major motion picture’ begging to be made of Slim’s life; her beauty, her loves, her cool, her intelligence and her influences on fashion, on society (café and high) but most of all, on Howard Hawks’s heroines.

The Siren said...

Larry, I figure if Simon wants me to commit to 50 years of blogging the least I can demand of others is a Walter Burns of the Day! ;)

Noel, I am totally on your side re: the ending of HGF. Key line is "If you want me, Bruce, you've gotta take me as I am instead of trying to change me into something else. I'm no suburban bridge player. I'm a newspaperman. Darn it."

As for Slim Keith -- yes, I read the bio. The fate of her little brother still leaves me cold with horror just thinking about it, and it seems to have had a real impact on her life. I confess to not finding her all that compelling a figure--more interesting for what men made of her than what she actually was. But she was certainly beautiful and chic.

Sheila O'Malley said...

God, I love Roz Russell's book. I love the story she tells about how she knew she wasn't first choice for His Girl Friday, so when she was summoned for a meeting with Hawks - beforehand, she jumped in her pool, swam around, then got dressed, and went to meet him, hair still wet. "I'm not gonna dress up for you, Mr. Hawks, I know you don't want me!!" her outfit and appearance said. As a matter of fact, they sat down for a chat, and she said right up front, "You don't want me for this, do you." And he replied, "It'll be all right. You'll be fine" and sent her directly to Wardrobe to get fitted for the character.

I love that. No big conversation, no ego-soothing exchange, nothing - just her showing up with wet hair, him doing a double-take, and then sending her to Wardrobe.

I suppose her sassy lack of vanity appealed to him. He was no dummy!!

The Siren said...

Sheila, I have special affection for that book too. It was my parents' first movie-book present to me, bought by mother on the strength of my affection for Auntie Mame and His Girl Friday. Your story is a perfect case in point--other female stars will tell you how strong & independent they were, Russell *shows* you. Her tribute to Jean Harlow is one of the loveliest things I have ever read about that actress. "She was a sad girl, driven by her mother, madly in love with a man who wouldn't marry her, and she spent the last nine months of her life drinking too much. I went into a lot of bars to try and get her out." And there are so many funny stories. I love the one about how she accidentally wound up on the cover of Life the same week the Nazis invaded Poland. Her sister was working at the magazine and had to cover her ears to avoid hearing Roz cursed up and down the halls, very much a la Walter Burns: "Get that [expletive] actress off the cover!!!"

Sheila O'Malley said...


Yes, she really was her own person. You can tell that from how she talks about her upbringing, which sounds chaotic and fun. I love her older sister. The one everyone called The Duchess. She was even more memorable a character than Rosalind was - loved her.

And Russell's sashay through the office in the first scene of His Girl Friday, barking wisecracks, laughing off the insults, giving as good as she gets - is just a masterpiece. I have to have seen the movie countless times now, and I never get sick of watching her first entrance.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not sure what Brian Dauth's getting at with that. To me hetornormativity is ideology at its most intense. I don't het that with Hawks at all. He's no radical when it comes to the crunch but he's far from doctrinaire. He loves to tease with gender roles and such but won't cross any reall bug lines. No surprise there. What IS suprising is that he allowed Cary Grant to ad-lib "Because I wet GAY all of a sudden!" in Bringing Up Baby.

Sheila I can go you one better than Roz and Hawks. Barbara Steele tells me that on 8 1/2 there was no audition at all. Fellini called her into his office, took one look at her, and snet her right off to make-up and costumes.

I love a man who knws what he wants.

The Siren said...

"He's no radical when it comes to the crunch but he's far from doctrinaire." Yes, well put.

Sheila, and anyone else who knows what I'm talking about -- (Yojimboen?) -- I wonder who that "tippling screenwriter" was that Russell claimed she got to doctor the His Girl Friday script? You can access both the shooting script and the final transcript online and there are a lot of differences, which could be just all the ad-libbing but I never saw any reason to think Russell was lying about putting in her own own gags. She claimed she later told Harry Cohn about the script doctor and then Cohn hired him too.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Yes, it's awesome!

Hawks did a similar thing with Dean Martin for Rio Bravo. The mere fact that Dino had flown in from Vegas early that morning, (I think their meeting was set for 9 a.m. or some such ridiculousness), after performing the night before in Vegas, showed Hawks how much he wanted the role - sent him right off to Wardrobe.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Siren - yes, I've wondered that, too. I love how Cary Grant got jealous a bit, like: "you're having this guy write YOU all the best stuff!"

Yojimboen said...

One of my favorite HGF stories came from none other than John Qualen who reminisced in later years how, during the Earl Williams escape sequence, Roz Russell told Hawks she didn’t want Qualen to have any bullets in his gun. “She thought I was a little off and I was liable to shoot her.”

The Siren said...

Y., so you have no guesses about the drunken gag writer on HGF? I have wanted to know for years.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Roz's intensity is her most compelling quality. She throws herself into His Girl Firday and The Women with a "Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!" air the sets the screen ablaze.

You can see this in her dramatic roles too, especially Night Must Fall and Dorothy Arzner's superb version of Craig's Wife. She makes the unsympathetic worthy of sympathy by not holding back.

Her most popular role is and always will be Auntie Mame which she swims through like a warm luxurious bath.

Arthur S. said...

The point about His Girl Friday is that it's about a couple whose romance, goes entirely into the work leaving little for real life. The lack of completeness in that relationship when they're not working(not in the sexual sense because I don't think there's any problem there) is the conflict because if Russell didn't work in the newspaper business, Hildy and Walter Burns would never have gotten together.

On the other hand when they work together, they are a pair, they complete each other, they understand each other totally and have no problems of communication(unlike many couples who have all the time in the world). So there's a utopian quality in His Girl Friday regarding work, and this comes as a result of women being allowed to be as competitive and tough in a work place. I would say it is hetero but not normative at all. It's a film that sees the workspace as utopian fulfillment for relationships as opposed to say, some private island in the middle of nowhere.

That's actually the key Hawks theme, community formed through professionals, in HIS GIRL FRIDAY it's romance where in BRINGING UP BABY, it's a chaotic film about romance destroying everything the hero holds dear. Hawks macho boys club philosophy in general sees women as interfering especially ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS where Jean Arthur doesn't fit at all in that gang, despite the deeply unconvincing ending. But HIS GIRL FRIDAY and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT are significant exceptions(which is why I like them best of his movies).

Yojimboen said...

Chet La Roche, by all reports, "an advertising man" - very funny guy (I don't know about the tippling) - was RR's brother-in-law and the uncredited script doctor on HGF.
Here they are drinking tea in Connecticut.

Karen said...

It's tempting to say that if one doesn't love HGF, one doesn't love life--it's so overflowingly aburst with it.

I tried to screen it for my nephews, but they couldn't follow the dialogue; it just went too fast for them. Their ears aren't yet trained. I followed up with Torrid Zone, since that's basically The Front Page on a banana plantation, and it was marginally more successful. Pat O'Brien defeated them. Lord knows what they'll do when they finally run into Lee Tracy!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Especially in The Half-Naked Truth a little gem Gregory LaCava directed with Lee Tracy as a carney barker who passes cooch-dancer Lupe Velez off as exotic royalty before an ever-credulous press. Could have been made yesterday.

Yojimboen said...

Somebody once counted it, Karen, the dialog comes in at 240 words per minute - twice as fast as the average.
Here, count for yourself.

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, many many thanks. I have wanted to know that factoid for eons. He does look a bit lit in the picture but they seem convivial.

Karen, I think one of the reasons HGF rewards repeat viewings is that you keep picking up dialogue you missed before. I can't remember how old I was when I first saw it, but I was older than your nephews.

Vanwall said...

Russell was very particular about her publicity shots - Hurrell would have them re-touched so heavily, you couldn't put any more lead on the front, so he'd have to add from the back! And all for little teeny imperfections.

Speaking of "The Women", Shearer, Crawford, and Russell were in a sort of competition as to who would control the photo sessions with Laszlo Willinger - Russell showed up fashionably late to find she was alone - "Jesus, where are the others?" she asked. Willinger went outside and found Shearer and Crawford being driven around and around the stage, trying not to be there before the other. After that was straightened out - Strickling literally stood in the middle of the street - then came the one-up-womanship. Street clothes was the call out, so Russell shows upsteps out in an evening gown, and the other two huffed.

As I remember reading, at MGM, the billboard for the films was the primary format for all the publicity shots, everything else was gratis, so Willinger had to adapt the group photos to match the billing order - Shearer was like 5'1", Crawford was 5'5", and Russell was 5'8" - so sure enough Rosalind decides to wear a high hat with feathers! Shearer ended the shoot early by remarking in a stage whisper, "Don't you think it's time you started working with the stars and sent Miss Russell home?" Crawford seemed to enjoy all the cut and thrust. The primary benefit went to canny Goddard, who ended up with the most shots by making herself available for lots of them.

I always like Bombshell because it had Lee Tracy and Pat O'Brien - snappy and fast dialog from two of the best at it. "Riffraff" with O'Brien and Anne Jeffreys is a another fave for crackling paced dialog.

Yojimboen said...

Great anecdote, VW – and here they are, suitably tamed and framed by Laszlo Willinger.

Sorry, but my heart will ever belong to Roz. The other two couldn’t carry her hatbox.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-topic, but what-the-hell, I've been working on this all week.

After reading it some of you may not wish to communicate with me again.

So be it.

Karen said...

I love The Half Naked Truth, David! It's actually startling to me how timeless a lot of Lee Tracy films are. Blessed Event is another one for the ages. Film Forum screened a bunch I'd never seen before in a recent series called "The Newspaper Picture," but of the four I hadn't seen before I only got a chance to see The Night Mayor, where Tracy's basically playing Jimmy Walker. Delicious.

Y., thanks for the 240/wpm fact; I'll share that with my nephew Mikah to reassure him that the fault lay in its stars not in his ears, which are only human.

Noel Vera said...

David, I'm guessing Brian thinks he does flirt with openmindedness when it comes to gender, but not much more. Good points about the film being more about professionals than about husband and wife.

No shout-outs for Ralph Bellamy? Was he all that clueless about his character, or (as I suspect) was he totally in on the joke, so totally in he's quietly hilarious in his own demented corner?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ralph Gets his revenge in Rosemary's Baby. What a wicked piece if casting THAT was!

X. Trapnel said...


I'm wondering if by the time of R's Baby audiences had begun to think of Bellamy as FDR. Still a wicked piece of casting.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh that Roman!