Screenwriting, One Step at a Time, Part Two

by David Joyner

In the previous post, we discussed His Girl Friday (1940), a film in the public domain whose script is also online. It is a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell. This post will talk more about that film and its script.

His Girl Friday is based on the 1928 play The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (also made into several other movies). MacArthur won one Academy Award for writing (with Ben Hecht) and was nominated for two others. His brother is John D. MacArthur, co-founder of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the benefactor of the “genius awards.” Ben Hecht, another widely admired writer, won two Academy Awards and was nominated for four others (all for writing).

FADE IN:

INT. ANTEROOM CLOSE SHOT SWITCHBOARD

Two telephone operators sit at switchboard busy plugging in and out answering calls.

1ST OPERATOR

This is the Morning Post . . . The City Room? Just a moment, I’ll connect you.

(plugs in call)

2ND OPERATOR

Morning Post . . . Sports Department? Just a moment —

(plugs in call)

CAMERA PULLS BACK to disclose the rest of the anteroom. To Camera left are the elevators at back wall directly behind switchboard are chairs and a table for visitors. Next to switchboard are stairs leading downward to the next floor. A waisthigh iron grill with a gate in it separates the switchboard from the anteroom, a similar grill separating it again from the city room which stretches on beyond switchboard. At a table in the switchboard enclosure sits an office boy, about fifteen, doing a crossword puzzle. The big clock on the back wall shows that it is nearly one o’clock.

CLOSE SHOT OFFICE BOY

as he bends over paper. We catch a glimpse of the squares of a crossword puzzle.

Although the movie did not follow this verbatim, it is pretty close to what the first 20 seconds of the film looks like. A few things are worth pointing out.

  • First, notice the font. For reasons not entirely clear to me, two and only two fonts are “allowed” — Times Roman and Courier (12 pt). No bold, italics, etc. Richard Walter, who teaches screenwriting at UCLA, reads and comments on so many scripts that he has deveoped a system of notation for “script mistakes” to make his suggestions for improvement more efficient. When Walter reads a script which has a font error he writes nofx in the margin, meaning no word processor “effects.” Only what the manual typewriter can do is considered standard.
  • Second, notice the camera directions (“close shot,” “camera pulls back”). This indicates that this script is a “shooting script.” A shooting script is written after the original script is finalized and the film is moving into “pre-production.” Basically, it gives the crew directions on what scenes to light and how the camera operator should get his shots. Please ignore these. Although the original script is preferable, we are lucky that any version of the script is available for this great film!
  • Third, notice that the movie begins with motion and fast-paced dialog. Charles Lederer, the screenwriter who adapted the play into the film script, is known for his pioneering role in screwball comedies. When Walter reads a script which is not moving fast enough (in proportion to the time and money a potential audience member spends watching it), he writes $? in the margin (“is this part of your script worth the money?”). The nice thing about His Girl Friday is that it moves quickly starting at the beginning, all the way to the end.
  • Fourth, I’d like to point out something that you might not have noticed. For each scene, there is generally a “slug line” or scene heading, such as:

    INT. ANTEROOM CLOSE SHOT SWITCHBOARD

    (INT. means that the location is inside, “interior,” as opposed to outside, or EXT.). This is generally followed by the “action lines” — a short scene description, which could include a description of any characters, at least those with a speaking part or some other important role, who first appear in that scene. For example:

    Two telephone OPERATORS sit at switchboard busy plugging in and out answering calls.

    However, in the version script we are looking at, the word “operators” is not in all upper case letters, as is typical for characters who first appear in that scene. I’m not sure why that is. (Maybe it was not the standard back in the 1940s or possibly the caps were left out in the shooting script?) In any case, after this first appearance, usually the character name does not appear in all caps again. However, this is not universal either for older scripts and some use caps for all characters. (For example, the online script by Peter Stone for Charade (1963), does this.)

These are some basic comments on the part of the Lederer script covering the first 20 seconds of the movie His Girl Friday. I hope this encourages you to watch the film, which you can view free online. More in the next article in this series!

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