The phrase “gallows humour” has a particular resonance in regard to Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s famous 1928 play The Front Page, which is punctuated by the recurrent testing of a gallows in a courtyard of the Chicago courthouse on which death row prisoner Earl Williams is very soon to be hanged for murdering a policeman.
The Shaw Festival’s current adaptation of His Girl Friday offers a good excuse to revisit the 1931 movie The Front Page as well as the more famous and definitive 1940 movie His Girl Friday, in which the lead character, ace reporter Hildy Johnson, is cast as a woman instead of a man. (Director Billy Wilder reverted back to a male Hildy in his 1974 version of The Front Page, which starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but the result was lacklustre. “I’m against remakes in general,” he later remarked, “because if a picture is good, you shouldn’t remake it, and if it’s lousy, why remake it? … It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of.”)
In the 1928 play, the male Hildy Johnson is determined to quit the newspaper racket to get married but his boss, Walter Burns, resorts to underhanded trickery to get him to stay at least long enough to cover the hanging. The action begins as Hildy makes what is supposed to be a quick farewell visit to his buddies in the courthouse press room as his fiancé and her mother wait in a taxi-cab outside.
Suddenly shots are heard and alarm bells ring: Earl Williams has escaped from his jail cell in the courthouse. (The convicted man, asked to re-enact the crime, had been inadvertently handed a loaded gun.) The adrenalin-charged reporters rush out after the story, leaving Hildy alone. A moment later the escaped prisoner clambers into the window, giving Hildy the scoop of his life.
The play’s cynical and darkly humourous portrayal of newspapermen and politicians made it a great hit. The 1931 movie, starring Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns, seemed to define the late-1920s American urban newsroom as a manic place where soulless reporters happily bartered their own mothers, or at least their future mother-in-laws, for a sensational story.
In His Girl Friday, director Howard Hawks brilliantly transformed the story into a screwball romance featuring a female Hildy (Rosalind Russell), newly divorced from newspaper editor Burns (Cary Grant) and about to marry a hapless insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy).
The Shaw Festival’s His Girl Friday is an adaptation by playwright John Guare that combines aspects of the original play with the 1931 and 1940 films, and keeps Hildy as a woman. But it doesn’t respect the period: the action is set in 1939 and a few superfluous references to Hitler and the war in Europe make the characters more self-absorbed and vainglorious than necessary. More added baggage comes in the form of a shapely woman who crosses the set at key moments, interrupting the action and transforming the newsmen into howling wolves.
The cast, led by Nicole Underhay and Benedict Campbell, is superb in the delivery of the trademark rapid-fire dialogue. However, the production, directed by Jim Mezon, keeps up its frenetic pace for more than two and a half hours with little contrapuntal relief. As in a Marx Brothers film, farce and screwball comedy should be counterbalanced with at least one realistic person or situation.
Hecht and MacArthur depicted a world in which politicians and reporters are equally indifferent about social justice. It emerges that Williams was not the crazed political radical that the mayor, seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform, painted him to be. In truth, he shot the policeman by accident and in self-defence.
The reporters write stories filled with sensational lies just to sell newspapers. They urge the justice department to move the hanging from 7 to 5 a.m. so it will make the early editions. And the mayor is just as corrupt and scheming as newspaper editor Walter Burns. Found to be hiding Williams in a roll-top desk, Hildy and Walter are arrested for obstructing justice, but they beat the rap because they know the mayor had tried to stifle the governor’s last-minute reprieve of Williams.
In the 1940 movie, Hildy always manages to score hard-to-get interviews and spin them into exquisite front-page stories. Alone among her colleagues, she interviews Williams in his jail cell, then tells his story sympathetically and truthfully to the world, demonstrating a compassion that sets her apart from the wolf-pack. But these essential redeeming features are lost in Guare’s adaptation.
Other plays in the Shaw Festival’s current season include Ragtime, Present Laughter, A Man and Some Women, The Millionairess, Hedda Gabler, Trouble in Tahiti, Misalliance, French Without Tears, Come Back, Little Sheba, and Helen’s Necklace. For more information please visit shawfest.com
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Arts in Brief
• “People of the Comic Book: Jews and the Graphic Novel,” with Keith Friedlander. Thursdays, 6:30 to 8 p.m. July 26, “Will Eisner’s Contract with God.”Aug. 2, “Art Spiegelman’s Maus I.” $12, students $6. Registration, 416-924-6211, ext. 0.
• The Tony-award winning play Two for the Seesaw, by William Gibson, a rare 1950s-era Broadway hit that features a leading Jewish character. Classic Theatre Festival, Mason Theatre, 13 Victoria St., Perth Ont. (an hour from Ottawa) Until Aug. 5. www.classictheatre.ca, 877-283-1283.
• Active Seniors presents an illustrated talk about the life and work of Picasso. Miles Nadal JCC, Thursday Aug. 9, 1:30 p.m. 416-924-6211, ext. 155.