His Girl Friday (1940)

Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and Walter Burns (Cary Grant) talk at cross-purposes...and keep on talking...in "His Girl Friday."

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Charles Lederer. Based on the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Photographed by Joseph Walker. Edited by Gene Havlick. Art direction by Lionel Banks. Starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Clarence Kolb, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey, Abner Biberman, Frank Orth, John Qualen, Helen Mack.

It’s typically understood that dialogue in movies is not supposed to be realistic – it’s meant to get to the point. Oh, you can have movie characters that stammer, or stutter, or are pressed for what to say, or say the wrong thing, or mispronounce words, or fail to make a thought, or get distracted in the thickets of their own brain. But when you encounter someone like that, it’s meant to be a meaningful characteristic; an aberration in the pitter-patter of dialogue, a cue for the audience to pay attention to how the momentum is being intentionally broken. Human speech, after all, is usually filled with a lot of nonsense, and screenplays tend to clear away the detritus in order to be clear and concise. There are many reasons why audiences respond so well to movie characters, but I think one of the oft-overlooked ones may be that so many of them are well-spoken and direct. Even when they’re not, they are entertaining in their obtuseness. It all has a reason behind it.

His Girl Friday is a very specific story, about very specific people who speak in a very specific way: rapidly, wittily, with grace and precision, and frequently on top of each other. No, not like that. Their dialogue is frequently on top of each other. See? I might have said it too fast; I’m not as good as them. It is a screwball comedy that depends a great deal on character to tell its story, and in this movie, the dialogue is character. At the bottom of everything is a morality play about ideals, as a newspaper tries to figure out the truth about a convicted murderer being scheduled for execution. Is he really innocent, and is the corrupt mayor railroading him to have a good election year? The stakes are very real, but the dialogue never lets up. This isn’t a break in tone, because the characters are developed so well that at a certain point we don’t notice the artifice, or the seemingly unwise decision to stay “light” in the face of bleakness, because it’s not about that. This is who these people are, and this is how they deal with a crisis. When it comes to talking, they’re performance artists, using their form to prove to each other why a life should (or should not) be saved. After all, if you can do something, do it well.

Howard Hawks is the director, and he can direct very well. His Girl Friday is also about a lot more than dialogue; it captures the buzz of a thriving big city paper and the excitement of a big scoop. It also conveys the indifferent, cynical attitude that reporters and public servants have towards the jaded stories of the naked city after they’re put to bed, like when a newspaper staff cracks jokes as a gallows is assembled on the street. Or the way newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) lusts after his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) and tries every dirty trick he can think of to keep her apart from her new beau, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy)–even arresting him. As Hildy strides into Burns’ office, confident, vigorous, knowing all the angles, we come to understand how, in the space of minutes, he’s conspiring to regain this woman who departed from his life, doing everything he can to manipulate the situation so that Hildy does not leave. It’s not exactly love, because Walter gives one the impression that he has barely thought about Hildy since she left. But to see her again, so alive and forceful, and with another man, stirs something within him. It’s almost as if he’s turned on by simply by how independent she is. The casting of Cary Grant is important in this role; he’s so likeable and charming that you have to stand back and remember that he’s acting like an obsessive snake. In comedy, with the right actors, you can get away with almost anything.

His Girl Friday is indeed a comedy, but somehow it melds the delicate subgenre of screwball with a buried social conscience. Hildy, Walter and Bruce discuss the case of Earl Williams (John Qualen), fired from his job and now accused of murdering a black policeman. “The colored vote is very important in this town, especially with an election coming up,” says Hildy. Put the phrasing aside, as it’s a comment with no real nod towards race, but instead towards how elected officials court their constituency. It’s over and done with, trusting the audience’s intelligence. The mayor is a self-serving hypocrite with one eye on justice and the other on polling results, and the film mines this for both comedy and drama. Even little scenes like Hildy bantering with her fellow reporters is made as counterpoint to the looming execution. It’s paid off even further when Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), Earl’s girlfriend, pleads his case in front of the staff, who can barely look up from their poker game while quippy Hildy sits silently in the background, typing up a story and hanging on her every word. When Mollie gets sent home, Hildy stays behind and sneers at the small little men who rejected her story. “Gentlemen of the press,” she says in disgust. And then there’s the way the comedy waits offstage as Hildy visits Earl in prison, and a high angle shot of his impressionistic jail cell comes like a splash of cold water. Any movie that can juggle scenes like this with moments of slapstick ballet, like reporters playing musical chairs with a table full of telephones or fretting over a man locked inside a desk, is doing something right.

I mentioned Grant, and I can’t praise him enough. But Rosalind Russell, as Hildy, is probably the best thing in the entire picture. She’s strikingly modern in her poise and stamina, independent, resourceful, and wicked in how she sizes up situations; there’s delightful chemistry in the air as Walter meets Hildy’s new husband. Walter, affable and unctuous, makes sly put-downs towards the two of them that only Hildy picks up on, but she watches with mildly shocked amusement, entertained in spite of herself. She displays a light, effortless touch as the story progresses: smart, funny, attractive to both men without ever seeming like she’s trying to be, always keeping the gravity of the situation as her center even when she’s fretting comically about her mother-in-law (whom Walter has kidnapped—long story). No matter how cynical, dismissive or unfeeling she seems, at the end of the day, she’s principled, damn it. To see Russell as Hildy is to see an actor savoring a plum role, and she fills it with little grace notes, like the way she clicks her tongue, or her bemused wave to Walter at lunch, as he and Bruce delve into a conversation that practically ignores her. It’s the kind of acting that is invisible. She doesn’t play Hildy Johnson. She is her.

His Girl Friday is also about more than great acting. It believes in the power of the press, and there’s something touching about seeing people who are so deeply cynical and manipulative still burn with love. Not for each other, which would be trite, but in their jobs. Both the entrenched Walter and the distant-but-still-seduced Hildy find an intoxicating exuberance in working for an organization that can give vital news, champion civility, mold the court of public opinion, and perhaps even save a life or two. Nowadays, with newspapers either shriveling up or being bankrolled by enormous corporations with more special interests than principles, it’s almost quaint to think of a time when the press operated on their own volition, fought for ideals, stood up to corruption,  and served the public before ad revenues. Perhaps such a world never really existed, but man, is it a nice dream. I want to believe.

Which brings me back to the dialogue, not because it is believable, but because I do not care that it isn’t.  It bristles with energy and enthusiasm, and I love the way characters in His Girl Friday double back over their lines, looking for loopholes and new avenues of attack, persuasion, and sometimes the ability to drop an emotion or two. They’re like jazz musicians who can riff all night, and sometimes let someone else on to jam with them, so generous are they. I’ve always had a weakness for the sarcastic, the pithy, the odd phrasing, the random observation, the quick response, and the kind of speedy free-association that comes with thought but rarely with speech. It’s a controversial type of dialogue, disliked by many, but I’ve always been fond of it: I hate characters who seem pre-programmed, and I love ones that indicate they have more than one thing on their mind at any given moment. It usually means they’re worth watching.

As I watched this recently, and saw Grant and Russell banter so stylishly, like old pros, I was suddenly reminded how hard acting is. Well, maybe not when Ashton Kutcher does it. But, by and large, it’s a tough job that requires imagination and perception, and the ability to create momentum out of the endless ennui of rehearsals and the workaday business of entertainment. It’s always tricky, and here it’s especially so: daring so much, dealing with material that requires expert timing, lest it be too cartoonish or shrill. There’s nothing easier than falling into the trap of bad comedy, and there’s nothing harder than doing it right, yet they make it look effortless. It’s not easy to do what they do. If it were, everyone would do it, and then there’d be a million movies like His Girl Friday. Instead, there’s not really that many. But that’s ok, because if you can have too much of a good thing, I’m almost positive you can have too much of a perfect thing. And that’s what His Girl Friday is. Perfect. But you know what? Maybe I’ve said too much. I can live with that.


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2 thoughts on “His Girl Friday (1940)

  1. Cyberkrinn April 20, 2011 / 1:55 pm

    This is one of my all-time favorite movies! I loved what you wrote…you actually made me “see” the movie in a completely different light. I can’t wait to watch it again!


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