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Putting a New Spin on a Proven Plot

'Twister' stirs up memories of the classic 'His Girl Friday,' about a man, a woman and the job that throws them together.

May 26, 1996|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer and a co-host of KCET-TV's "Life & Times."

'Twister" blew into my local movie house a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still a trifle queasy.

It wasn't the barn dance swooping and dipping and whirling that did it to me, though the audience was pitching and yawing in its chairs like passengers on a roller coaster.

It was this feeling that I'd seen it all before. I did grow up in the Midwest with a storm cellar for such natural catastrophes, but there was something more:

"His Weathergirl Friday."

Everyone rummaging through "Twister" for parallels to the 1939 "Wizard of Oz" is barking up the wrong talking tree.

Ignore the weather-tracking computers, never mind the car caravans chasing killer weather dervishes, and what do you have?

A love triangle: a man, a woman and a profession--1940's "His Girl Friday," the gender-switching remake of "The Front Page" starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.

"Twister": Just as the biggest storms in decades are about to break in Oklahoma, former tornado chaser Bill Paxton shows up with his new fiancee to get his divorce papers signed by Helen Hunt, who is his ex and the boss of the tornado chasers.

"Friday": Just as the biggest story in decades is about to break in New York, star reporter Russell shows up with her new fiance to give her walking papers to Grant, who is her ex and the boss of the newsroom.

(Both Russell and Hunt play women with mannish names: Hildy Johnson and Jo Harding, respectively.)

Paxton has given up his thrilling career to become a weatherman--the lowest life form imaginable to a twister chaser. Russell has given up her thrilling career to become a housewife, and while she's certainly mocked for choosing a Life of Diapers, in the original "Front Page" Hildy Johnson turns in his press card to become an advertising man--the lowest life form imaginable to a reporter.

Both "Friday" and "Twister" recruit a pack of lovable, reprehensible misfits who eat death-dealing fatty food, drink, gamble or wisecrack with the same adrenaline surges and gallows-humor gossip that make outsiders to both professions think they're a bunch of very sick puppies indeed.

Both of the unfortunate intendeds, Ralph Bellamy and Jami Gertz, who bear the oh-so-nice handles of Bruce and Melissa, are pitiably earnest practitioners of jobs (insurance salesman, reproductive therapist) that bring yawns just reading their business cards. They try to be good sports about the whole thing, indulging their beloveds in what they hope is one last little fling with those weird jobs, before they are so repeatedly stood up that they give up.

Each movie has competition to be outfoxed: "Friday" has to keep other reporters from stealing their scoop (the escaped condemned killer concealed in a roll-top desk in the Criminal Courts Building pressroom). "Twister" pits its ragtag crew, Tom Swift equipment and hound-dog instincts against the high-tech black prince of cyclones who has swiped Paxton's innovation.

And in each, some Nobler Cause is served.

The tornado chasers seek to divine some order in the chaos-theory minuet of tornadoes, to the salvation of innocent lives. The news hounds serve a lower-case noble cause--getting a scoop on the escape story--but they also net a crop of bad guys who are not forces of nature but very near: the corrupt sheriff and his city hall cronies.

Naturally, there are divergences. Like the dialogue. Howard Hawks' direction of "Friday" rendered a coruscating script in whirlwind delivery. In "Twister," we just get the whirlwind.

You'll get no argument from me that the special-effects tornadoes have it all over roll-top desks and manual typewriters. But the headline on these movies is this:

Humankind's stories don't change. Only the toys do.

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