When analyzing the blocking of a screwball comedy, one is sorely tempted to focus on the slapstick moments. In the case of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, one thinks immediately of the scene in which newsman Walter Burns (Cary Grant), in an effort to keep an escaped convict concealed inside a desk, directs his stooge Louie to drag Burns’s ex-wife Hildy’s (Rosalind Russell) mother-in-law-to-be bodily out of the room.
But I’m interested in what blocking reveals about a movie’s theme — and Hawks’s theme, as Jacques Rivette was the first to point out, is “the adventure of the intellect”; specifically, the drama and comedy that result when a highly civilized society (i.e., one marked by wit, irony, and sexual sophistication) is invaded by an avatar of altogether less civilized forces. In His Girl Friday, bland insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), Hildy’s fiancé, may seem like a harmless sweetie, but he’s one such avatar.
For those worried, at whatever level of consciousness, that Weimar Germany’s fate might one day be America’s, the blocking in this scene — in which Grant inserts himself bodily between Hildy and Baldwin, then comically arches his eyebrows, smirks, and waggles his cigarette until Hildy begins to fall out of love with Kultur and back in love with Zivilisation — is propaganda of the most dramatic and welcome kind.