His Girl Friday (1940)
In this era of CGI and blockbuster action entertainment, there aren’t many movies that rely largely on dialogue for their impact. So for a change of pace our March Film Night presentation is His Girl Friday, widely considered the best of Howard Hawks’s comedies (he also made Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride).
The film is based on a play, Hold the Front Page, by former newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which opened on Broadway in 1928. It is the story of a conniving managing editor Walter Burns (based on Chicago Tribune editor Walter Howey) who is trying to persuade his sometime ace reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (modelled on MacArthur himself) to come back and work for him again. Howard Hughes acquired the rights and made a movie version as early as 1931. Scripted by Charles Lederer, it received three Oscar nominations.
Nearly a decade later filmmaker Howard Hawks was giving a small dinner party when the conversation got round to dialogue, which Hawks felt reached its zenith in The Front Page. To prove his point he pulled out a copy of the play and started reading it, taking the Burns role. A female guest read the part of Hildy Johnson. “And in the middle of it,” Hawks later recalled, “I said, ‘My Lord, it’s better with a girl reading it than the way it was!’”
With Hecht’s blessing on the sex change, Hawks acquired the rights from Hughes and set about his own version, with the final screenplay by Lederer once more. Hildy Johnson was now not only Burns’s ex-ace reporter but also his ex-wife, adding sexual tension to the mix. When Burns learns that Hildy is planning to give up her metier as a reporter to get married to insurance man Bruce Baldwin and retire to domestic bliss he has a double reason to want to sabotage her plans… (Hildy remembers the end of their marriage: “A big fat lummox like you, hiring an airplane to write, ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty, remember my dimple. —Walter.’ It delayed our divorce twenty minutes while the judge went out to watch it.”)
The film falls squarely in the “screwball comedy” genre. Exactly what defines a screwball comedy depends on whom you ask. In his book Screwball Comedy Ed Sikov speaks of “a whole genre developed around the perverse idea that love could only be enhanced by aggravation”; for Molly Haskell (in her introduction to the same book) it is “a sort of existential American version of the French amour fou”, while Andrew Sarris summarises the genre as “sex comedy without the sex”. The name comes from a type of pitch in baseball, and the movies tended to be romantic comedies that subverted the usual dreamy conventions of romance—irreverent, wise-cracking, undermining the fantasy with everyday social and economic realities. Flowering from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s, the genre resonated with a generation enduring the fall-out of the Wall Street Crash.
Screwball comedies were acerbic and fast-paced, and in His Girl Friday Hawks took this a stage further by expanding on a technique experimented with in Frank Capra’s 1932 American Madness—overlapping dialogue. Be warned that to get the most out of this film you have to stay on your toes! The tone was further enhanced by the cast’s own ad libs, with Cary Grant (as Burns) adding a postmodern touch by not only referring disparagingly to himself (by his real name, Archie Leach) but also describing Bruce Baldwin, played by Ralph Bellamy, as: “He looks like, er, that fellow in the movies… you know, Ralph Bellamy.” Rosalind Russell was not Hawks’s first choice to play Hildy—Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur were all considered first—and in her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, she wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant’s, so she hired her own writer to “punch up” her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer’s work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, “What have you got today?”
So fasten your seatbelts to enjoy what cinema guru Leslie Halliwell called “the fastest comedy ever filmed, and one of the funniest”. Hell, even Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies.
Oh, and you’ll also get to enjoy some of Rosalind Russell’s extraordinary outfits…