If a movie I’m watching for the first time happens to be included in David Thompson’s illuminating book Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction To 1,000 Films I will always, always read his summary beforehand (don’t worry, he doesn’t give away any key plot points), such is the quality of his writing. In the case of the Howard Hawks screwball classic His Girl Friday, Thompson describes it thus: ‘…this is a relentless comedy of talk, action, and bad manners; it is a loving tribute to the newspaper business filled with contempt for the ethics of those who work the business; and it is possibly the greatest of the sublime comedies of remarriage made in Hollywood.’
It’s hard to disagree, having now watched the film, with generous praise like that. His Girl Friday is a masterful comic piece, filled with fine examples of the kind of rat-a-tat repartee that was all the rage when it was made (1940), it features wonderful performances by its two stars (Rosalind Russell being the film’s true lead, though of course Cary Grant had top billing) and it provides a smart critique of newspaper men (and women) to boot, who are portrayed as a cutthroat, gossipy bunch who as individuals routinely bend the law in order to get their precious scoops.
It is largely based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page, which was first filmed in 1931 and subsequently re-made by Billy Wilder in 1974. The number of long scenes / low number of sets used in His Girl Friday duly reveal the origins of the material, but where The Front Page told the story of a newspaper man desperate to keep his male star reporter Hawks had the idea of making the reporter character female, as well as turning her into the former lover of the paper’s editor. He employed Charles Lederer to re-write the play, and cast Grant immediately. Finding an actress to play the reporter Hildy Johnson opposite him proved a little more difficult, even for Hawks, and half a dozen stars turned down the role before the director settled on Russell. She claimed the director subsequently treated her like an also-ran, and noticed that Grant had far more funny lines in the script, so hired her own writer to punch-up her side of the dialogue and confronted Hawks, telling him ‘you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it’. These proved to be excellent decisions by Russell; though she was already well-known, the role of Hildy catapulted her to stardom, and she landed a number of plum roles during the rest of her career (earning four Oscar nominations along the way for her acting). She and Grant are joined by Ralph Bellamy, who does a sterling job with a particularly thankless task: he plays Hildy’s new husband-to-be, a decent but boring man trying to hold his wife’s attention while Grant’s ebullient, quick-witted and rude Walter repeatedly attempts to undermine him so that he can rekindle his old relationship.
Though Russell moves into the background a little when Grant is on screen, at other times she shines, particularly when trading insults with her (all male) fellow hacks across a table in a prison pressroom. Hawks was understandably happy to let the romance slide for long periods in order to concentrate on the sub-plot of a convicted murderer, and Russell carries this part of the movie, dominating the scenes with the other reporters as seven or eight characters talk over one another and several phones ring on and off. And yes: His Girl Friday is a loud, noisy film, filled with overlapping chatter as characters packed into the frame shout each other down. It’s a given nowadays that characters in films do not necessarily have to let others finish before interjecting, but Hawks was one of the first directors to make his actors work in this way, and it yields terrific results. It’s no surprise when the film descends into farce for the last fifteen or twenty minutes, but there’s a nice twist at the end and a succinct resolution to the plot. No wonder Thompson ends his entry with a simple, one letter sentence: ‘Bliss.’
Directed by: Howard Hawks.
Written by: Charles Lederer. Based on The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy.
Cinematography: Joseph Walker.
Editing: Gene Havlick.
Music: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills.
Running Time: 92 minutes.