“It’s Not Just Who But When…”
This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”
Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.
This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.
My feelings about Rosalind Russell are really just something tied up in my feelings for HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).
I have an overwhelming sense of devotion to this film because I believe it is a masterwork of dialogue, pacing, plotting, and performance. It’s a shame we sort of lost our way with the screwball comedy, but I guess it is understandable. The things that make HIS GIRL FRIDAY so distinct were things that became so copied throughout the rest of the decade that it to modern audiences it just seems so… I dunno… contrived? dated? old timey? what have you? I don’t feel that way of course, but it’s naive of me to think that certain film languages would hold up to everyone given the texture of today’s films. (Footnote #1) Still, I really do believe that HIS GIRL FRIDAY’s script holds up better than the lot. Despite being an adaptation of a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the screenplay was written beautifully by Charles Lederer who’s got his fingerprints on a whole bunch of excellent stuff. Lederer’s contribution to this classic, however, is only half the story.
It seems Rosalind Russell was not the first choice to play quick witted dame Hildy Johnson (Hawks wanted K-Hep or one of the usuals) and tired of feeling like an “aslo-ran” she hired her own writer to punch up her weak part and simply included these brilliant lines during the ad-libbed takes of the movie. That’s moxie kid. And more importantly she did the film a great service as the tete-a-tete performances between Cary Grant (who was aware of the little scheme) and Rosalind have become legendary. Make no mistake, this is Cary Grant’s best performance and usually he is one most remembered of the film, but Rosalind is the one who makes it all happen for him. She sets him up for every great line, gives a perfect facial tick to every one of his slights. Never mind simply getting out some of the tongue-twisting reparte on display, that sheer audicity of hers is what feeds the entire procution. The film has become famous for it’s “natural” sounding speech, but this is only in the sense of their overlapping dialogue (2). Truly the dialogue is anything, but natural because no one could be that witty, that self-assured, and that funny.
Rosalind would work steadily throughout the decade, but most of the attention and goodwill from the movies success were given to director Hawks and Mr. Grant. So much of what she gave the film went unnoticed simply because she was “the third scoring option” on the team. Of course, the film wouldn’t have worked without her. And had they cast one of those major stars, who knows… it might have just been another notch in their belt and most likely a substandard version of the incredible film we got. By the 50s Rosalind where her career slowly petered out. But truthfully, her career and real life persona seem like an abstract to me. There is only Gilda in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Perhaps that kind of thinking is just what undermined what could have been a much more significant career, but I can’t help it.
In 1940, in that movie, there was no one better.
(1) A great example of this dynamic is with the film BODY HEAT (1981) where it’s slow brooding pace, warm colors against dark sets, and bad jazz score were all ripped off to high heaven for decades by cinemax and USA films. The effect renders a modern viewer complete incapable of separating BODY HEAT’s texture from the steaming piles of trash found on late night cable. When in reality BODY HEAT was a superbly made film with an updated sensibility that got copied endlessly for a reason. 40’s screwball comedies meanwhile became so perfunctory as to render their stylings “quaint” to the viewer, nullifying their once potent affectation.
(2) No, Altman wasn’t the first one to do it folks.