Synopsis: Ruthless newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to stop his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from marrying nice Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) so she can stay in the city and report on an execution.
It may just be the fastest film ever made, and it’s certainly one of the most cynical. It and another Cary Grant film, “Arsenic and Old lace”, are perhaps the blackest comedies of the 1940s. It moves at breakneck speed, the actors near breathless as they stomp on each other’s lines and screaming into the telephone. It fixed the cinematic image of journalists as venal hacks who would sell their own mother for a good story. No newsroom was ever so full of smoke, cruelty and bullshit.
Cary Grant is at his most casually sadistic and conniving as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor who will do anything to ensure that his ex-wife and best reporter, Hildy Johnson (gangly, sassy Rosalind Russell), will postpone her wedding to an insurance salesman, poor, foolish mother’s boy Bruce Baldwin (moon-faced Ralph Bellamy) for long enough to stay and cover an execution.
“His Girl Friday” was based on the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It had been filmed before in 1931. In the play the two protagonists are men, but director Howard Hawks and scriptwriter Charles Lederer reimagined Hildy Johnson as a woman, which changes the dynamic between the two leads considerably.
Hawks often told his actors to imagine that they were in a verbal steeplechase. He developed a technique of overlapping dialogue, adding unnecessary words to the beginning and end of sentences, then had the cast deliver their lines at speed. The result is a fast-talking, wise-cracking comedy of remarriage not soon forgotten. The script is 160 pages but the film is barely 90 minutes. Richard Curtis claims that “Fawlty Towers” is the best farce ever written in the English language; I think “His Girl Friday” might just pip Cleese’s masterpiece at the post.
In only a few hours Walter frames Bruce for theft, possession of counterfeit money, and “mashing”. Cary Grant waggles his eyebrows, whoops, and laughs like a demented hyena. He filmed “Arsenic and Old Lace” the same year – similarly over the top, and his least favourite performance. But in “His Girl Friday” he is at the top of his game. In real life Grant was terribly insecure and deeply unhappy, but in this and several other comedies, no actor seemed ever more assured of his place in the world.
He’s well matched by Rosalind Russell, the comedienne who more than any other actress epitomised the career girl (by her own estimate she played 23 career women). Reputedly she hired a gag-writer to beef up her part to equal Grant’s. She’s on fire here, one of the boys: chain-smoking and fast-talking, she’s what they used to call “a smart cookie.” That she could also be one of the girls, as she was in “The Women”, is testament to her skill as a light player.
“His Girl Friday” has two sublime in-jokes. At one point Grant makes reference to Archie Leach: Archie Leach was Grant’s real name. Speaking on the phone, Grant describes his rival. “He looks like that fellow in the movies – what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy.” Bellamy had played the other man with Grant and Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth”.
“His Girl Friday” is a film about clever, witty grown-ups, well used to sexual innuendo, and the script has some wonderful lines that they slipped by the censor’s office. Walter agrees to buy an insurance policy from Bruce in exchange for Hildy staying to write the story. Hildy insists that he pay with a certified cheque.
Hildy: No certified cheque, no story. Get me?
Walter: It’ll be certified. Want my fingerprints?
Hildy: No, thanks, I’ve still got those.
In the opening scene Grant and Russell sit in his office, reminiscing about their marriage and divorce.
Hildy: Would you mind if I sat down?
Walter (patting his knee): There’s been a lamp burning in the window for you, honey, here.
Hildy: Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago, Walter.
They’re still in love, of course, and they’ll be reunited at the end, but even still, Hildy is astonished at the depths to which Walter will sink to get his way.
Hildy: Hiring an aeroplane to write ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty, remember my dimple. Walter’ Delayed our divorce twenty minutes while the judge went out to look.
Walter: I don’t want to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.
Later, there’s a wonderful throwaway joke
Hildy: The Mayor’s first wife. What was her name?
Walter: You mean the one with the wart on her – Fanny.
“His Girl Friday” is a perfect example of how you can film a play without feeling the need to “open out” the setting. It isn’t particularly visual: its strength is in the script and the fast editing, as well in the performances of Grant and Russell. It has a wonderful supporting cast of comedic players, including Ernest Truex as a dapper newsman who writes awful doggerel (“and all is well inside his cell/but in his heart he hears the hangman calling/and the gallows falling, and his white-haired mother’s tears”); Abner Biberman as a half-pint crook; and Billy Gilbert as the messenger who brings the reprieve. (Film trivia fans may like to know that Gilbert provided the voice and sneeze of Sneezy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”)
“The Front Page” was filmed again in two forgettable versions. One, directed by Billy Wilder, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon; the other as “Switching Channels” with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. Skip them both and enjoy “His Girl Friday” instead.
Niall McArdle https://www.ragingfluff.wordpress.com/
Have you seen His Girl Friday? What did you think? Please tell us your thoughts here at A World Of Film. Also, if you are interested in writing for us, send a message and an example of your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can now also add us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/aworldoffilm
8 Replies to “His Girl Friday (1940) – Howard Hawks (Niall McArdle)”
As you rightly say Niall, fast-paced, cracking script, and in a different league to the inferior remakes. This is an example of Hollywood at its best, and rightly acclaimed by your excellent review. I also like the ‘Thin Man’ series, for the same reasons.
Regards from Norfolk, Pete.
Saw this a couple weeks ago back to back with The Philadelphia Story. Carey Grant has the greatest sense of humor of any movie star. Loved it!
I adore this film. Grant and Russell are superb. I could have done with having seen them playing opposite each other on many other occasions. I think Russell was often overlooked and underrated.
i agree. marvellously underrated actress.
I do love this film, and I hope to see the stage version someday. I must admit that I saw the reinvented-for-the-TV-era version, SWITCHING CHANNELS, first, and I enjoyed it very much. I have the Matthau-Lemmon version on DVD, but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. I did not realize that the original play had two male leads; I thought it had been re-written for the “Odd Couple.” Good to know the facts!