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"His Girl Friday" (1940)

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Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday."

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday."

Epic Screwball Comedy

If you are a fan of classic "golden age" Hollywood, names like Cary Grant, Gene Lockhart, Rosalind Russell, Howard Hawks, and Ralph Bellamy will ring an instant bell. You will also be familiar with "screwball" comedies. And if this is the case for you, His Girl Friday is a movie that you need to see.

Based on a hit play titled The Front Page, which had been adapted into a movie once with the same name as the play, His Girl Friday came out in 1940. It was directed by Hawks, and was about newspaper reporters.

The film is careful to mention with an opening screen card that it portrays reporters of a vague earlier time, and is not indicative of the behavior of newsies of the time. It doesn't quite mention what earlier era the movie is supposed to be set in.

Rosalind Russell vs. Cary Grant

Rosalind Russell plays former ace reporter Hildy Johnson, who is leaving her job at the paper run by her ex-husband and ex-editor Walter Burns played by Cary Grant. She has fallen for and plans to marry and settle down with insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

Burns of course wants his reporter and wife back, it's not apparent which role is more important to him. He takes Hildy and Bruce to lunch with the goal of convincing her to do one last story, in hopes of saving a man on death row who was convicted for killing a police officer.

After extracting a promise that Burns buy a $100,000.00 insurance policy from Bruce, Hildy finally agrees to do this one last story.

"His Girl Friday" reinvented comedy with expert use of overlapping dialogue.

"His Girl Friday" reinvented comedy with expert use of overlapping dialogue.

Murder Sub-Plot

Hildy bribes her way in to the jail to interview the murderer, Earl Williams. Williams was in a bad place at the time of the murder, and says it was an accident. Hildy comes up with a bit of a stretch to try to mitigate the killing, saying that Williams was unduly influenced by hearing about the economic theory of production for use.

While Hildy is getting her scoop, Burns is trying to make sure that Bruce doesn't get to leave town with her. Burns sets him up for stealing a watch and gets him arrested. His schemes for keeping the couple in town and unmarried escalate until they involve kidnapping Bruce's mother.

Meanwhile, the corrupt local politicians have decided to ignore a reprieve from the governor and move forward with the execution of Williams. Williams makes his way to the press room, where Hildy hides him in a desk. A woman who at first denies being Williams' girlfriend bizarrely decides to jump out of the press room window to distract the cops and reporters away from the press room where Williams is hiding.

Weak Third Act

The movie zooms along at a very fast pace until it comes crashing into the end with all (or at least most of) the plot points getting tied up, even if not all of the resolutions make a lot of sense. The man delivering the reprieve at first appears to accept a bribe from the mayor to "fail" to deliver the reprieve until after the execution, then changes his mind and delivers it in front of the press, with no explanation given for his change of heart, for instance.

The conclusions work well enough in the context of the movie, and I for one was not bothered that some of the things that happen would not make much sense in real life.

You don't watch "His Girl Friday" for the tidy plot. It's all about the verbal flow.

You don't watch "His Girl Friday" for the tidy plot. It's all about the verbal flow.

Overlapping Dialogue Ahead of Its Time

The movie moves very fast, as I mentioned before. The director wanted the dialog to be delivered very quickly, and had people talk over each other to make it both faster and more realistic.

This is an approach to film dialogue that would not be used much until very recently, so in this way the movie is ahead of it's time. Also probably due to the speed of the delivery, the comedy felt very much to me like the Groucho portion of a Marx Brothers movie.

There were also several "inside" jokes, like Grant's Burns character describing Bruce as looking like "that actor Ralph Bellamy". Bruce was of course played by Ralph Bellamy. Burns also mentions a man that crossed him once, Archie Leach. This is Cary Grant's given name.

Movie Satirizes Institutional Corruption

Surprising for the time of the movie were the depictions of the press, law enforcement, and elected officials. The press were seen as willing to do anything to get a story, even if it meant doing things that were illegal. Burns' right hand man is a mobster and crook. The police make mistakes. Elected officials are shown to be crooked, and willing to break the law in order to get elected.

Most surprising though, is the way the murderer is portrayed. It is never in doubt that Williams killed a cop. But the movie wants us to feel sorry for him. I can't imagine a cop killer getting this kind of sympathy from a mainstream Hollywood movie these days. I also imagine the shady goings-on of the press would be presented as being much more sinister if the movie were made now.

Rosalind Russell's genius was keeping up with Cary Grant's ad libs.

Rosalind Russell's genius was keeping up with Cary Grant's ad libs.

Lindy: Proto-Feminist Pioneer

Hildy would at first seem to be a character who is ahead of her time. She is confident and able, and even if she has decided at the beginning of the movie that she wants to give up her career to be a homemaker for Bruce it is quickly shown that it is not because she is some milksop.

She outmaneuvers the male reporters at every step to get her story, and outsmarts the police and the politicians. Then, at the end of the movie when she cries because she thinks Burns is actually going to let her go get married to Bruce, it feels so out of character for her. But that was the only note that felt really off.

Fast Fun Despite Flaws

This is probably not one of the best movies ever made, or even one of the best movies made by the people involved, but if you are willing to suspend disbelief it is a fun movie and an interesting glimpse into how people viewed politics and the press almost 50 years ago. The movie is easily available as it has gone into the public domain. I definitely suggest giving it a watch.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad