by Mel Gilden
While I do not think of myself as a movie expert, I do like movies and being a writer, I notice writing. One movie that I believe is worthy of study is His Girl Friday, staring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It was directed by Howard Hawks, and it can be quite an education for anyone who believes that older movies are always a little slow.
His Girl Friday is adapted for the screen by Charles Lederer from the stage play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In the screen version Russell plays Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant plays Walter Burns, who is both her former boss and former husband.
While the entire movie is fun and fast-paced, my favorite part is the first ten minutes. In many indifferently written plays, both for the stage and for the screen, the first ten minutes can be a trial to get through because it is all exposition. In the worst of these scenarios the maid answers the phone and explains everything the audience needs to know to whoever is at the other end — perhaps that the master is not at home because he has gone to Europe with his young daughter and his second wife, a former chorus girl at the Gaiety.
(In many second-rate science fiction stories this expository lump is handled by having the hero ask the wise old professor how the world or the solar system or the galaxy came to be in its current mess. This gives the professor an opportunity to lecture for as long as it takes to explain things.)
In His Girl Friday, the exposition comes packed into verbal salvos rapidly fired off in a scene which not only gives us plot and character all at once, but is also hilariously funny. It is easy to guess right from word one what kind of relationship Hildy has with Walter and what kind of snappy, wisecrack-toting characters they are. She begins by standing in the doorway of his office and saying in a good loud carrying voice, "Your ex-wife is here. Do you want to see her?"
Of course it doesn't hurt that two of Hollywood's best comedy actors are delivering those lines, and they are being directed by one of Hollywood's most energetic directors — but certainly the fact that they were performing a near perfect script was helpful.
I've learned that reading good stories is almost as important as writing good stories. It is always helpful to have a good example before you rather than an awful warning. His Girl Friday is not the only good example out there, but I commend it to you as one to take a look at.