#171 (tie) – His Girl Friday (1940), dir. Howard Hawks

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Follow my lede. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant star as two conniving newspapermen (and former huband and wife) covering the upcoming execution of a murderer in the bullet-quick black comedy His Girl Friday.

Director Howard Hawks returns to the yammerverse for his third Sight & Sound list movie in as many years. His Girl Friday (1940) also marks the third time Hawks has made use of the talents of Cary Grant, who stars as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor of a popular, but very tabloidy, New York newspaper. But Grant takes a backseat in this vehicle to Rosalind Russell, whose Hildy Johnson is a hardnosed journalist and Walter’s ex-wife. Hildy is about to get remarried and leave the newspaper — two things Walter won’t stand for. His Girl Friday falls very much into Hollywood’s screwball comedy form, although the characters aren’t as loopy or pratfall-prone as one would find in Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. Rather, this is a movie of very competent — and intensely chatty — characters who are trying to out-scheme each other to get what they want, be it money, love, or that exclusive story. And as it happens, His Girl Friday is actually a remake of an earlier film (The Front Page, 1931), which goes to show that not every remake is a sign of creative bankruptcy. Sometimes a story really needs a second chance, and His Girl Friday is all about seizing onto those second chances. (88 min.)

J. – I first saw this movie many, many years ago when I was on a Cary Grant kick, renting everything they had at the local video store and scouring for his flicks on Turner Classic Movies. For some strange reason I remembered this as a fun, but lesser entry among the many Grant films I watched at the time. Seeing it again recently, I can’t imagine why that was my memory of His Girl Friday, because it’s an absolute hoot. Maybe it’s because I ended up working at a newspaper for a few years that I dug it so much this time around. I suppose the first thing that really leapt out at me was the breakneck pace of the dialogue. It’s not so much that the actors blast out their lines like telegraph operators on speed (which they do), but that the performers are constantly talking on top of each other. I’ve always thought of the use of overlapping dialogue as being a much later development, typically associated with Robert Altman’s MASH (1970). But right from the first scene, as Hildy walks through the newsroom, there is just a torrent of verbiage coming from everywhere. It really created an electric, dynamic setting even though the film largely takes place in just two very humdrum rooms.

S. – Hawks sets up the scenes to showcase the actors. While all the elements are there to tell you that you are in a newsroom or a restaurant everything seems deliberately subdued and pushed out of the way, a stage-like feel that creates space for the main event. And it is a wise strategy, Grant and Russell absolutely revel in the limelight. I really loved how these two strong characters were allowed to play off each other without either having to yield. Having Hildy and Walter on screen together quickly established that they were both operating at high wattage with the modest fiancé, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), clearly illustrating that the two leads are in overdrive compared to your standard person. When either Russell or Grant was onscreen they deftly dominated their respective scenes but the real treat was to see both of them together still running at high speed. The dialogue is crisp and witty but so fast paced I often felt a few gags behind. I think I will have to watch this one again to pick up the barbs I missed. It is a weird alchemy, and clear from very early on that not only are Walter and Hildy perfect for each other it is highly unlikely that they would even be tolerable for anyone else.

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The film makes great use of overlapping dialogue, often featuring frames crammed with characters talking over and through each other, and frequently via one-sided telephone exchanges in the pressroom. The constant prattling gives the dialogue zip, making the movie particularly propulsive in its pacing.

J. – But they also aren’t really able to tolerate each other, which is hardly surprising given how duplicitous and conniving they are. And I really like that we are talking about both characters in this regard. Women characters in all too many movies are damsels in distress or not quite capable of doing things on their own without a man to assist them. I wish that were just a relic of old films, but it seems to persist into lots of flicks today. One of the defining traits of the screwball films is strong female characters — be they Katherine Hepburn’s dotty but unstoppable heiress in Bringing Up Baby or Barbara Stanwyck’s cunning grifter in The Lady Eve. But in general, the Sight & Sound list seems to really celebrate early films with women characters who are three-dimensional, determined, but still feminine — particularly in the French films from the 1920s and 1930s (Joan of Arc, L’Atalante, and anything by Jean Renoir) and the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.

Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson is a particularly interesting manifestation of a strong woman. In the original play and movie The Front Page, Hildy was a man. It was Hawks’ idea to make the part a woman and it really opens up the possibilities of the scenario and allows for the wonderfully turbulent relationship between Hildy and Walter that lies at the heart of His Girl Friday. It is very much to Hawks’ credit that he didn’t weaken Hildy to make her a more feminine character — when Hildy walks into that pressroom full of grizzled hacks, she is very much one of the boys. Instead it feels like a layer of femininity was added to that character to make her a believable (if particularly tough) woman, but that femininity also gives her one more tool in her arsenal for manipulating cops, thugs, and interview subjects. Also, the sight of a woman in high heels running down and tackling a fat man to get a quote will never not be funny. But I’m saying all this as a guy. Did you think Russell’s character came across as believable, S., or is she basically just a dude in a dress?

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Hildy Johnson can hold her own in any situation, and her male peers damn well know it. His Girl Friday is refreshing in that it places a woman in a position where she should be the odd person out but refuses to play up that side of things. The gal kills at her job and everyone knows it — end of story.

S. – I totally bought it. For me there was no barrier to believing in the fast-talking, ambitious and morally ambiguous woman of the press that Hawks brought to the screen. In no small part this was because Russell seemed very comfortable in Hildy’s skin. Traditional gender roles were not entirely ignored. Hildy was aware that she didn’t run to type, and while she entertained notions of conforming to the happy housewife stereotype her actions did not betray any genuine regret that the masculine world of newspaper reporting still had a hold on her. It was fantastic to see that her fellow reporters were unconvinced that she could walk away from the business. Rather than taking the line that all women want is a home and a family of their own, the press gang knew that her core drive was the newspaper and it would be a damn shame if she walked away. Plus there wasn’t any “you can’t let a girl beat you” kind of attitude, she had earned the respect of her colleagues because she was good at her job.

Interestingly, the character that does get taken for a ride is the good guy. Poor Bruce can see that Hildy is not your average girl but has nothing to offer other than a heartfelt but traditional relationship. Unfortunately the result is both Hildy and Walter run rings around him without really meaning to, okay Walter probably meant to mess with him a little. Without exception the members of the newspaper industry are painted as fairly shady characters who are much smarter, or at least quicker on the uptake, than the community at large. But there is no comeuppance for the questionable morals on display. It would seem that when it comes to the journalism biz, nice guys finish last.

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In the early going it is easy to peg Cary Grant’s devious editor as the scumbag in this picture, with Hildy defending her new beau from Walter’s machinations. But a key interview scene in which Hildy leads on a convicted murdered (played with a strangely menacing meekness by John Qualen) shows that she isn’t above being a liar — or at least a manipulator — when it will net her a better story. The scene completely changes the audience’s view of the character and complicates the narrative in interesting ways.

J. – The little guy does get stepped on repeatedly in this movie. Poor Bruce never stood a chance, so hopelessly out of his depth was he. The really interesting thing about Bruce as a character is that he is a thoroughly decent guy. Usually the loser beau in romantic comedies is kind of a jerk or on the controlling side, but Bruce is very much trying to give Hildy what she at least claims she wants. I think that’s important, because most of the humor in the film is derived from terrible people acting appallingly — and it’s not just the reporters. The interesting twist on things is that however unscrupulous the journalists are being, the politicians are behaving even worse. The reporters do all the wrong things and warp stories well away from the truth in search of something sensational, but they ultimately are still serving as the only force keeping the powers that be in check. And I think the movie is very good at depicting the relish with which reporters lace into corrupt politicians — God knows I loved to take a whack at those sorts of people when I was a reporter. The remorse felt by the journalists and the black humor they use to see their way through the tough work and the horrible things they encounter was also handled quite well. When we were watching the film, S., you mentioned the way that a suicide attempt is glossed over in almost an instant by the journalists. I can say for certain that the reaction of the players was pretty much spot on — the thrill of the story often does overshadow the tragedy before your eyes when you work that gig. But it will bother them later.

But all of that sounds so serious. For me, the most important thing about the movie is that it is a nonstop joke machine cranked up to 11 — no, 12. I think the final 20 minutes must be some of the most hectic in any film, even though it all takes place in one room. It’s not the “anything goes” anarchy of a Duck Soup, but it is so fast, so overloaded that it excites as it makes you laugh.

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Poor Ralph Bellamy. I mean, did you really think you stood a chance against Cary Grant?

S. – From the outset His Girl Friday is thoroughly entertaining and easily my favorite of the three Howard Hawks films we have watched on the list so far (the others being Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings). Cary Grant is at his wacky and witty best and Rosalind Russell is simply superb. I just love the scene where they are both ranting loudly into a pair of (very retro) telephones to unseen extras, it is chaotic, loud and should be a disaster but somehow they make it hilarious. This movie came very close to dislodging Napoleon from my Top 10… So Far, definitely one I will be watching again.

Related yammers:
#110 – Bringing Up Baby (1938), dir. Howard Hawks and also starring Cary Grant
#154 – Only Angels Have Wings (1939), dir. Howard Hawks and also starring Cary Grant
#110 – The Lady Eve (1941), dir. Preston Sturges
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5 thoughts on “#171 (tie) – His Girl Friday (1940), dir. Howard Hawks

  1. His Girl Friday is one of my all-time favorite movies, and easily makes my own top ten for all of the reasons cited above, and one I watch probably at least once a year. Dunno if you’ve see the original film version of The Front Page from 1931, but if not I definitely recommend seeking it out. It’s actually quite a good film in and of itself, and is interesting to compare/contrast with this better known version.

    • We’ve never seen The Front Page, but it’s definitely in the “must see” pile now. Glad you liked the post (seeing as it is a favorite film of yours); and I’ve been enjoying your blog, particularly your Top 250 Tuesdays — it’s great to read a different voice on the same topic. -J

      • I agree, it’s been fun to see what you all think about some of these movies too. Haven’t looked to see if you’ve done Un Chien Andalou yet – that’s the one I’m posting tomorrow, but if you have I’ll definitely be curious to see your take on it. And just fyi, The Front Page is available a number of places, I’m sure, but the full flick is on YouTubr here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh1VwNPoss8

      • Thanks for the link, we’ll definitely check it out. And, yes, we have already taken a look at Un Chien Andalou, but it was one of the first we wrote up, so I’m not sure we’d really found our style at that point. It’s a crazy little film and our opinions were split on it, so I’ll be interested to see what you think. -J.

  2. Pingback: Top 250 Tuesday #175 – His Girl Friday (1940) « Durnmoose Movie Musings

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