Director Howard Hawks’ delightful screwball comedy His Girl Friday was released in January 1940, hot on the heels of what’s commonly considered the greatest year in film making. (For a list of some of 1939’s outstanding highlights, see the final paragraph here)
Adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on the play The Front Page by Charles Lederer, the film tells the story of newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and his ex-wife and former top reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), who is about to marry the extremely beige Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).
Here are my five top reasons why His Girl Friday is a Five Star Film:
1. HOWARD HAWKS
If His Girl Friday was the only Hawks film you’d seen, it may seem natural to assume that since he was so suited to this style of comedy, that this would be Hawks’ specialty. But in fact, he was such a skilled director in so many genres that his work is impossible to classify as a ‘type’. During his amazing 44-year directing career, Hawks covered genres as varied as comedy, romance, musical, western, mystery, drama, action, war, film noir and bio-pics. Hawks’ body of work included such eclectic classics as the original Scarface (1932), Bringing up Baby (1938) (also starring Cary Grant), Sergeant York (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and El Dorado (1966).
2. ROSALIND RUSSELL & CARY GRANT
Russell and Grant: what magnificent leads! These two wonderfully talented (and also ridiculously good looking) actors have it all, and deliver in Hildy and Walter oodles of charm, wit, cheekiness, confidence, strength and brains. The rapid-fire banter between these once-married newspaper folk is hilarious, and they play off each other exquisitely. Hawks directs their dialogue like a delicious symphony.
3. THE PRE-SORKIN WALK-AND-TALK
His Girl Friday’s witty and snappy dialogue is delivered in a way that was quite novel during this period. Most films of this era had one actor finishing a line before another started theirs, but in this film (as in Hawks’ Bringing up Baby, two years prior), the lead characters regularly talk over each other, interrupt, sometimes let their sentences trail off, and commonly do the walk-and-talk (nearly sixty years before Aaron Sorkin would employ this technique in his fantastic writing for The West Wing).
4. SOCIAL COMMENTARY
There are a number of big issues either addressed or alluded to in His Girl Friday:
Referenced in the form of alleged communist agitator Earl Williams (played sensitively by character actor John Qualen).
* The integrity of the press: This issue comes up in reference to a particularly gossipy and lazy group of newsmen in the press room, who exhibit negative behaviours including the harassing of a female witness and lobbying politicians to move condemned prisoner William’s execution time so they can make their evening edition press deadline. Hildy actually pulls them up on their behaviour when she sarcastically refers to them as ‘the gentlemen of the press’.
This gulf between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journalists is particularly interesting in light of current events. Watching the various members of the press depicted in His Girl Friday, it’s hard not to be reminded of the extremes that exist today in the profession: from those who risk their lives to tell the truth and expose corruption and other ills, to those who engaged in activities such as phone hacking.
* Crooked politicians:
In the form of dodgy public officials who engage in bribery and corruption.
* The justice system:
In a particularly poignant scene, Hildy goes to visit Williams in his cell. There’s a stark contrast between Williams being kept alone in a minimalist ‘cage’ and the corrupt, complex machinations behind the scenes in the justice and political systems. The stunning camera angles (with Hildy’s entrance being shot from above) in this scene give it an almost surreal quality.
This is certainly the most complex issue addressed in His Girl Friday, and also the most debated. There isn’t space to cover all the complexities here (as they could fill a university thesis!), but in a nutshell it can be said that there are many sides to Hildy (including both the crusader for the rights and recognition of female journalists and the woman who wants to give up work and craves the white picket fence).
5. THE IN-JOKES
Though there are number of important/serious dramatic issues examined or touched on in His Girl Friday, the film is at its core a comedy - and a hilarious one at that. In particular, there are some great in-jokes (à la life imitating art):
There’s a clever bit where Walter is describing to a secretary what Bruce looks like. He’s lost for words as to how to describe the man, then he says ‘… he looks like that actor … Ralph Bellamy!). The joke here, of course, is that it’s the real Bellamy who is playing the role of Bruce.
Another cheeky one is when Walter is threatened, and his come-back line is ‘Listen – the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat’. The joke being that Cary Grant’s birth name was Archie Leach. Yes, it’s all a bit meta: way before that was a thing!
His Girl Friday, as a film released in 1940, was in exceptional company. This was the year included such acclaimed films as The Philadelphia Story (Dir: George Cukor), Rebecca (Dir: Alfred Hitchcock), The Great Dictator (Dir: Charlie Chaplin), The Grapes of Wrath (Dir: John Ford). But even among such eminent and sacred classics, it holds up beautifully – nearly three-quarters of a century later.
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf