THE YEAR’S WILDEST, WITTIEST WHIRLWIND OF A LOVE BATTLE… OUTRAGEOUSLY RACY… SPARKLING… GAY!
In the 1930s and ’40s, Howard Hawks was all over the place as he did his part in shaping the history of Hollywood. Scarface (1932) was a landmark motion picture in the gangster genre; later, The Big Sleep (1946) and Red River (1948) made their mark among film noir thrillers and Westerns. But one of Hawks’s lasting achievements was making two of the screwball genre’s finest efforts, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday. The latter was a remake of The Front Page (1931), but one of its most ingenious contributions was adding, as the title indicates, a gender twist.
Set in “the dark ages of the newspaper game”, when reporters were willing to walk across bodies to get their story, this tale begins at The Morning Post in a major American city where the paper’s leading investigative reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is just about to give her boss news of a different kind. He’s Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the unscrupulous editor and former husband of Hildy’s, and he’s not about to accept her announcement the adult way. Hildy is getting married again, this time to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a meek insurance agent who wants to settle down with her in Albany, New York. In other words, Hildy’s about to retire from the news business – and happily so.
Walter ain’t buying it and immediately starts manipulating her into staying. He’s soon helped by an irresistible news story, as every prominent journalist in the city has gathered at the local prison where a convicted cop killer is about to be executed, unless he gets a reprieve from the Governor.
Finding the right timing
I remember a funny spoof of this movie in a 2012 skit on Saturday Night Live, where every character in a 1940s newsroom exchanged funny, smart lines in the typical rapid pattern of the screwball genre… except one girl played by Zooey Deschanel who just couldn’t keep up. That’s the thing here; everything moves so fast, but the cast nails it one-hundred percent).
It’s not just about delivering writer Charles Lederer’s hilarious lines as fast and brashly as possible, it’s also about finding the right timing together with fellow actors. This movie has a fairly big cast and they all have many scenes where they interact, sometimes directly with each other, at other times almost as sidekicks to a specific conversation between others. Analyzing comedy and trying to come up with answers why it works beautifully in some cases is often a fool’s errand, leading to humorlessly academic exercises. Suffice it to say that Hawks and Lederer must have realized that unless they kept on swimming they would die; move fast, like the Marx Brothers did in their finest hours, and the lunacy will pay off.
Grant and Russell are at the top of their game, shouting witty and playful lines at each other at the same time as you can see their minds feverishly at work; the true nature of their relationship, and what they have in common, is revealed in that scene where they’re hard at work on a story while poor Bruce is trying to get Hildy’s attention even though it’s plain to see that their future marriage is already dead. Among the supporting cast, I have a weak spot for Billy Gilbert who plays a clueless messenger.
It amazes me how some films fail to renew the copyright registration, especially major Hollywood classics. His Girl Friday is one of them; before writing this review, I saw the movie again on YouTube. But that was simply to refresh my memory. I would urge anyone who has never seen this film to buy it on DVD. It deserves to be viewed in quality packaging.
His Girl Friday 1940-U.S. 92 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Charles Lederer. Play: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur (“The Front Page”). Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex.
Trivia: Jean Arthur was allegedly considered for the part of Hildy. Remade as The Front Page (1974) and Switching Channels (1988).
Quote: “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page.” (Grant editing the news)
Last word: “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping.” (Hawks, Who the Devil Made It)