Friday, June 17, 2011

The most boring birthday since Ralph Bellamy

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Ralph Bellamy, who was born on this day in 1904. TCM honored him last year in prime time on his birthday, but I'm surprised to see that I didn't mention last year that the day was Bellamy's birthday. I don't think I've ever blogged fully on the sparkling comedy His Girl Friday either, so this would be a good time to rectify that.

Bellamy, as always, plays the third wheel. The star is Cary Grant, playing newspaper editor Walter Burns. He's got a big story he wants written, that of death row inmate Earl Williams (John Qualen). There's only one person who can get that story the right way: Burns' star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). There are only two problems: first, Hildy is about to retire from the journalism racket to get married to insurance salesman Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Second, Hildy used to be the former Mrs. Walter Burns! So, it's up to Walter to come up with some ruse to get Hildy to stay just one more day to do this one last story.

If that were all there is to the movie, it would be a pretty good movie. But there's a lot more going on beneath that. It turns out that Williams' case is controversial. The governor is ordering clemency for the prisoner, but there's an election coming up soon, and the mayor doesn't want to be seen as soft on crime, so he's trying to keep anybody from finding out about the stay before Williams can be executed. Most of the press doesn't care about Williams' possible innocence, seemingly content to let him fry.

The commentary, however, is buried beneath a whole bunch of comedy, thanks to the writing of Ben Hecht and the direction of Howard Hawks. Hawks' style is well-known for being extremely rapid fire, and His Girl Friday might be Hawks at his most rapid pacing; there are constantly characters talking in orthogonal conversations, most often on telephones from the prison news room. All this is certainly helped by having leads who were both quite adept at comedy.

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