His Girl Friday: Review
His Girl Friday is a unique and defining film within the history of cinema. Not only is it an exceptional example of the screwball comedy, but it also presents a woman as a respected colleague within a predominately male profession, one who is considered an equal among her peers and capable of outsmarting all challengers including her ex-husband while keeping pace with the fastest wisecracks and one-liners ever to appear on the silver screen. One of the best comedies born out of the studio system era, Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday is a screwball tour-de-force with a whirlwind of dialogue and an irresistible plot.
At the very beginning of the film we learn that Hildy Johnson is an ex-reporter and ex-wife to newspaper editor Walter Burns who is determined to leave both him and the newspaper business behind her. While stopping by the newspaper office to bid both a farewell, Hildy reveals her upcoming marriage in domestic little Albany to a dull insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin. Not wanting to lose her, Walter ropes Hildy into one last job, thus buying himself time to re-engage her professional desires and win her back in the process. The two work together and face off, all the way ignoring their respective realities: Hildy can’t resist the excitement of reporting, and Walter can’t stop Hildy from leaving through deceit. Or can he?
Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame, Gypsy) and Cary Grant (North By Northwest, Charade) star in this battle of the sexes. Russell plays Hildy, the aggressive career girl and “one of the boys”, a unique female role seldom seen in 1940, one that Russell would go on to play in many other films. As Walter, Grant is at his snide and charismatic best. Delivering their witty banter with adroit energy, His Girl Friday is an exercise in rapid dialogue. Characters talk over and on top of one another, and so Grant and Russell deserve great praise for their breakneck wit with which they perform. All the more impressive is how they manage these high-strung characters while clashing against one another until they finally end up rekindling their romance.
A colorful set of supporting roles fills out the rest of the cast. John Qualen (Casablanca, The Searchers) brings the drama as the confused, convicted murderer Earl Williams, whose story is the focus of the assembled news reporters. His impending execution and preemptive escape from prison make for a serious backdrop to the hilarity of the newsroom. Adding to the melodrama is Mollie Malloy (portrayed by Helen Mack; The Son of Kong, She), a witness defending Earl and as a result is falsely portrayed as a biased lovelorn. The remainder of the cast is composed of seedy politicians, manic newsmen and bumbling fools. Most notably, Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth, Sunrise at Campobello) plays Hildy’s drab fiancé Bruce, the innocent butt of Walter’s jokes. Walter sets Bruce up to get repeatedly arrested in order to keep Hildy from departing on time. Noted for playing “the other man” often in his career, Walter hilariously notes to his henchmen as an inside remark that Bruce “looks like Ralph Bellamy.”
Charles Lederer (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Ocean’s Eleven) adapted His Girl Friday from the Broadway play The Front Page, changing the character of Hildy into a woman in order to add in a romance. While depending on a constant onslaught of witty insults and breakneck dialogue, His Girl Friday can be at times confusing but its hilarity is in the confusion itself. It was one of the very first examples of filmmaking where actors interject, hold multiple conversations, and talk simultaneously, challenging the listener to try and keep up with the news circus. Of course, despite the heavy dialogue and verbal humor, director Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is still a visually told story. The framing is kept very busy, with phones and paper flying, reporters scurrying about multiple planes of simultaneous action. Hawks (The Big Sleep, Ball of Fire) quickly draws us into the fast-paced news world and never really let’s up until the very end.
The discombobulating situations help mask some of the thicker innuendos from the censors of the day, such as in the case of Stairway Sam who can be seen staring up women’s skirts as they ascend the stairs. The adaptation ultimately proves its worth in the conclusion, as the drama of the murder case finds a hilarious resolution at the hands of an inept messenger who reveals the cover-up and who’s to blame for it. Hildy and Walter get the scoop, leaving no further reason to retain her. He is prepared to accept his lose when she realizes she still loves the career - and that she still loves Walter. Hildy is a strong, intelligent, ambitious woman that can go toe-to-toe with the sharpest of men. She views career and a home as mutually exclusive. The ultimate achievement of the script is seeing her wrestle with this notion as Walter tries to take her back.
The Front Page, on which this film was based, has been adapted numerous times for the screen. Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Billy Wilder’s 1974 adaptation garnered three Golden Globe nominations. Although, His Girl Friday received no nominations of any kind it’s the best remembered of the three. In addition, the Library of Congress selected His Girl Friday for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1993, seventeen years before 1931’s The Front Page would be bestowed the same honor. His Girl Friday was also ranked 19th on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list. While not honored in its time, the brilliance of His Girl Friday has earned its recognition through the test of time, and deserves to be known as a landmark American comedy.