Amy and Hildy, by Scott Nye
Last night, the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles screened a double bill of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) and Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940), and if you’re thinking to yourself, “why on Earth would anyone screen those two pictures back-to-back?”, well, just know you’re not alone. Looking over the theater’s schedule this month, you’ll see a lot of very obvious connections in their double features – Steve McQueen/Sam Peckinpah collaborations, racing pictures, 1994 20th anniversary celebrations, and plenty of director-focused nights. But what does Sternberg’s morose, downbeat love story have to do with Hawks’s zany newspaper comedy, besides being made within ten years of one another?
Turns out, they’re telling the same story.
Sternberg has a reputation as one of those European immigrants Hollywood employed in the pre-WWII era to give their pictures a spark of exoticism and flavor, but Vienna-born Sternberg was a permanent U.S. resident by the time he was a teenager. He worked his way up the ranks at an independent film company based in New Jersey before moving over to Paramount, where he quickly churned out now-classic silent films like Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York (collected in a gorgeous box set by The Criterion Collection). His career stalled after his 1929 feature Thunderbolt failed at the box office and, at the suggestion of The Last Command star Emil Jannings, Sternberg took a job in Berlin directing Jannings in The Blue Angel, alongside the woman who would define his career as much as he would hers – Marlene Dietrich. This was, as far as I can tell, the first and only German film Sternberg would direct, and even then, he was making an English-language version right alongside it.
So when he and Dietrich took Hollywood by storm in the early 1930s, that “European flavor” that was so prized in Sternberg was due entirely to perception; and, of course, to the presence of Dietrich. Morocco was their first American collaboration, and it is in many ways an inverse of The Blue Angel, while deepening the thorny nest of emotions. There, Jannings played a distinguished, uptight schoolteacher who sacrifices everything (not least of all his basic dignity) after he falls in love with Dietrich’s nightclub singer, Lola, who has no real affection for him. In Morocco, Dietrich is still the same performer (here, named Amy Jolly), but it is she who debases herself and gives up her livelihood in the pursuit of a man (this time, Gary Cooper as a member of the French foreign legion) who doesn’t treat her especially well.
By the time they meet one another, we’ve already come to understand them through a couple of brief interactions – she, fresh off the boat from Europe in the titular African country (then, a French protectorate), shrugging away offers from the wealthy Kennington La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou); he, negotiating with prostitutes on the street while his commanding officer isn’t looking. He first sees her onstage, in a pair of close-ups so sensual you could hear the audience moan. She returns his gaze first with knowing compliance, then with equal desire. Gender roles are quickly overturned – she’s entered the stage in a tuxedo, and kisses a girl in exchange for a flower, which she soon gives to Cooper, who wears it in his hair. By the time she offers him an apple for no charge, we get the idea they’re not really talking about apples. That he immediately bites into his while the other buyers politely caress theirs tells even more. She passes off a key to her apartment, and seals her fate.
It’s not that Tom (Cooper) is all bad. He certainly doesn’t know how to express whatever goodness he has. He thinks his actions will suffice, so, as men are wont to do, he glazes over his feelings with cynicism and lust. In probably his most overtly symbolic moment, he quickly uses playing cards and empty shot glasses to cover a table carving of Amy’s name encircled in a heart. Amy isn’t much more forthcoming, though she can at least admit that, when she does push Tom away, it’s to prevent herself from totally falling for him. Of course, she then abandons her engagement dinner (Menjou proved more convincing over time) to chase him across the continent just on a rumor that he might be injured, so her actions may speak a bit more loudly than Tom’s.
But it all really comes down to the last scene, which, along with the aforementioned nightclub scene in which Tom and Amy meet, is really one of the best things Sternberg has ever done (which puts it high in the running for one of the best things anyone has ever done). Sternberg got his start in silent cinema, and this scene could completely work without any dialogue. All you need is the wind blasting across the desert, a quick glance from Cooper, and a long shot of Dietrich watching him march away to another land. The dramatic nature of Dietrich’s final decision, and the suddenness with which Sternberg concludes his picture, makes it startlingly modern, and the final fade to black literally caused members of the audience last night to gasp.
His Girl Friday rests on a similar conflict. Like Amy, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) has to choose between two markedly different men, one representing safety, security, and a nurturing environment, the other a more troubled, but infinitely sexier and more exciting path. As sexy, harmful adventures go, you could hardly do better than Cary Grant’s Walter Burns, but she’s been down that road before. They were married once, and spent their honeymoon chasing a coal mine cave-in. All the excitement seems to have dampened Hildy’s ability to gauge what turns her on, as she hasn’t just “settled” in picking her latest beau; she’s practically slipped into a coma. At least Amy’s safety pick was a man as charming as Menjou. Poor Hildy is on a path to marry Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), an insurance salesman from Albany, where everyone takes out a policy fairly early in life (“yes, I could see why they would,” Walter replies).
The set-up indicates that Walter will simply charm Hildy beyond her capacity for restraint, but that’s not the way that Hawks and his team play it. Walter is every bit the son-of-a-bitch Hildy makes him out to be in their knock-out first scene together. Every step of the way, Walter’s brain is devising ways not so much to win Hildy back, but to prevent her from marrying Bruce. “Is there any way we can stop the 4:00 train to Albany from leaving town?” he asks his right-hand man at the paper. “We might dynamite it!” he replies. “Could we?” Walter says, with a gleam in his eye. He does everything but. Even when he’s on the right track, when he has Hildy on exactly the path he wants her, falling back in love with the newspaper business they both love, he can’t help but do something totally destructive to his scheme like get Bruce thrown in jail, which naturally arouses Hildy’s sympathies. Every chance he gets to make the plot seem like mere province, he reminds her exactly why she hates him.
But, like Morocco, this is not a story about a woman who acts in her own best interests. This is a woman who can’t help but give into her desires, even if she knows how destructive the path is. Walter and Hildy may very well live happily ever after together, but somehow I doubt it. Hell, they’ve no sooner planned to remarry than Walter gets the hint of a hot story, and already redirected their honeymoon away from Niagra Falls and toward a worker’s strike in, wouldn’t you know it, Albany.
Hildy, however, while somewhat more sympathetic than Walter, is fundamentally still guilty of the same sins as he, as far as using the lives of other people in as sensationalist a manner as possible to chase that ever-valuable reader base. The story everyone’s chasing in the film revolves around the pending execution of a possibly-insane cop-killer, and the scene in which Hildy interviews him is a master class in balancing empathy, cynicism, and curiosity, so that Hildy’s specific motivations with each question could be read as totally calloused or genuinely caring. Later, when the killer’s girlfriend confronts the prison’s press room about the way they’d lied about her in the papers, Hawks’s sympathies are absolutely with her. When she walks out the room crying, he lets the scene rest for nearly a full minute as the newspapermen awkwardly shuffle about the room and try to ignore how right she is. That this sort of scene exists so comfortably within the confines of a screwball comedy is staggering – exponentially so that it feels so natural to the film’s rhythms.
And even though Hawks raises the comedic stakes in the scenes to come, the experience does color the way we perceive them. “No, no, never mind the Chinese earthquake,” Walter yells into his phone, rearranging the newspaper’s layout following a development in the local story. “Look, I don’t care if there’s a million dead.” Oh, it’s funny, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not quite the innocent fun it once felt.
It’s just as bitter as Morocco, perhaps more so. Like that film’s Tom, Walter can only express his affection glancingly, refracted off something mean or self-serving. He expects that the fact that he’s trying to keep Hildy from marrying counts as an “I love you.” Meanwhile, like Amy, Hildy can’t help but run towards the guy who is making her life miserable and returning little of whatever affection she may feel. Like Amy, she leaves the possibility of comfort, stability, and contentment for a man’s twisted idea of a career and the possibility of excitement. She doesn’t mind being treated bad, not with the kind of rush she gets around him, around that life. What could come off as anti-feminist is instead an open declaration of passionate sexuality; they just want what most turns them on. Unlike the films of today, women were allowed their lust back then, their ability to act wildly, passionately, and irrationally. You know, like people. And even if that desire may lead them down dangerous emotional paths, well, all the better. Good decisions are so often the enemy of good drama.