His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks is a film that has gained a reputation for the rapid and frenetic style in which it unfolds. This reputation creates the impression that it would be difficult to follow. However through his use of the techniques such as the classical narrative system, continuity editing and many other simple yet clever cinematic techniques Hawks was able to create a film that despite its pace was very easy to follow. The structure of this film is typical of the Hollywood classical narrative system.
The temporal order is very structured and simple. There is a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. In the opening scene we are introduced to practically all the major characters and the love plot between Walter and Hilby. We also learn of the Earl Williams case and see how Walter may use it to seduce Hilby back into the journalistic profession. So in effect the foundation or cause of the films narrative is laid down in the very early in the film. The middle of the film comprises of the effects of this cause.
The end supplies resolution, Earl receives a reprieve and Walter wins Hilby’s heart. This cause and effect style of narrative is typical of the film as a whole. At the end of each scene or even during a scene there is a cause that is soon followed by an effect. An example of this, even if insignificant, can be seen in this segment. Hilby’s farewell in the newsroom is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot causes the effect of the room being sent into panic. Through this simple style of narrative events become easy to follow despite the frantic nature of the film.
Another technical aspect of this film that aids ease of viewing is the editing. In this film Hawks uses very simple, unobtrusive editing techniques. This is ideal for a narrative based film as it allows the dialogue to dominate. During the course of an entire scene Hawks will only ever use a straight cut and he will seldom use a temporal ellipsis. This gives the impression the scene is in real time and makes it quite simple to follow. The only situation in this film in which he differs from this is in between scenes, where he generally uses a dissolve.
This style of real time like editing during a scene followed by a dissolve is perhaps a remnant from the fact that the film is an adaptation from a stage performance. Another clue to the film’s ancestry is the fact that the takes are very long and Hawks seems reluctant to make a cut. However at some stages during this film Hawks uses very fast editing to create an impression of rapidity. This can be observed during the segment where the journalists are on the telephones reporting the news of the jail break. Hawks uses a series of rapid cuts between different journalists and an impression of haste and pressure is created.
Despite this impression the continuity is not affected, the cuts still seem fluent. This is due to the use of eye line matches and matches on action. Another remnant of the film’s forerunner on the stage is the very simple mise-en-scene. For the most part the films action occurs indoors in relatively simple sets; most of the action that occurs is off screen. For during this segment we do not actually witness Earl’s miraculous jail break. Hawks is more interested on the effect of the action on the characters than the action itself.
Another aspect of mise-en-scene is the actual acting. It seems that the most important interaction during this film is between Hildy and Walter. This is reflected in the almost over the top style in which these two characters are acted. This contrasts well against droll nature in which most of the other characters are depicted. This contrast emphasises the chemistry between the two estranged lovers. Hawks clearly finds the characters of Hildy and Walter to be the most interesting and this is also seen through the staging used on screen.
Walter and Hildy are rarely seen anywhere but at the centre of the screen. This can be observed in shot 6 of the segment where the other journalists are all strategically placed to give a clear view of Hildy at the centre of the screen. This accentuates the fact that she is the centre of attention. The lighting in this film is typical of its romantic-comedy genre. The sets are generally well lit, with high key lighting predominant. One exception to this is during shot 9 of the segment where the jail yard is cast in darkness except for the light of gunfire and spotlights.
This is probably the most action orientated shot in the film. Hawks stylistic concerns can also be seen through his use very simple cinematography. For the duration of the film Hawks rarely differs from using a straight on angle shot at around eye line, these are also generally medium shots. This again indicates that he is major concern is the dialogue between the characters. In this segment the only shot in which a significant change is to the angle is during a point of view shot where the journalists are looking down at the prison yard.
The technically simple style of this film is again evident in sound. Throughout the film the sound is always diegetic. Obviously Hawks decided that the dialogue was sufficient on its own and did not require music to create mood. Sound is one of the most important elements in creating the pace of this film. The dialogue generally sounds somewhat accelerated and in some cases the sound of one character talking is overlapped by the sound of another character before the first character has finished. This technique creates a frantic atmosphere.
This can be observed in shot 11 to 16 where the sounds of the journalists reporting new on the phones are cut incredibly close together to accentuate the rapidity of the situation. His Girl Friday is a film that although being renowned for its frantic pace is also very easy to follow. Hawks has been able to achieve this feat through his use of clever use of simplicity and his emphasis on narrative rather that complex techniques. As Hawks said “The best thing to do is to tell a story as though you’re seeing it, tell from your eyes… Just tell it normally. ”