#380) His Girl Friday (1940)

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#380) His Girl Friday (1940)                  

OR “Get Me Rewrite!”

Directed by Howard Hawks

Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Class of 1993

The Plot: Morning Post editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is about to lose his star reporter/ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to her new fiancé, bland insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter knows that a good story will lure Hildy back, and convinces her to interview Earl Williams (John Qualen), a convicted murderer set to hang in the morning. When Williams escapes, all hell breaks loose in the press room as only a Hawks screwball comedy can. There’s plenty to be said about love, politics, and the newspaper industry, and it’s all being said at the same time.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “fiery and funny battle of the sexes”, praising Hawks’ use of overlapping dialogue and “vibrant pace”.

But Does It Really?: “His Girl Friday” has a lot going for it: snappy dialogue, wonderful chemistry between Grant and Russell, and a pace so frenetic it can never be duplicated, only appreciated. I will argue that the film doesn’t hold up as well as others of the era, but the whole thing goes by so quickly who can tell? “His Girl Friday” deserves its spot on the NFR, and still has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but I’d be curious to see if future generations will revere it as much as we do now.

Shout Outs: Though the 1931 movie of “The Front Page” is not directly referenced here, Howard Hawks’ goal was to craft a remake of the original play that was faster and funnier than its predecessor.

Wow, That’s Dated: Umm…everything? From its printed newspaper setting and binary gender politics to its topical references and racially insensitive terminology, this movie is very much a product of its time. Speaking of…

Title Track: A “girl Friday” is slang for a man’s female assistant or secretary, and is derived from the Friday character in “Robinson Crusoe”. “His Girl Friday” didn’t coin the phrase, but did make it popular.

Seriously, Oscars?: While successful with critics and audiences, “His Girl Friday” was completely shut out at the Oscars. 1940 was a very crowded year at the Oscars (“Grapes of Wrath”, “Philadelphia Story” and “Rebecca”, to name just a few nominees), and Columbia was still finding its footing as a major movie studio. Plus “His Girl Friday” came out in January; even back then early releases didn’t get Oscar nods.

Other notes

  • There are two different stories as to how “The Front Page” became “His Girl Friday”. Hawks’ version involves reading scenes from “The Front Page” at a party, and being impressed by how well the character of Hildy worked when read by a woman. The version from Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy says that Hawks initially planned a straightforward remake of “The Front Page”, but liked how Hildy’s lines sounded coming from his secretary at auditions. Either way, inspiration struck.
  • Rosalind Russell was no one’s first choice for Hildy, and she knew it (Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne all passed). Undeterred, Russell hired a comedy writer to punch-up her dialogue, and successfully snuck the lines into Hawks’ encouraged spontaneity. Russell more than holds her own in the final film, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Hildy.
  • Hawks accomplished the film’s trademark overlapping dialogue by rewriting the lines so that the beginnings and endings could be talked over without missing anything important, and having the sound mixer on set adjusting the boom mics live for each take. Somewhere Robert Altman took notes.
  • Poor Ralph Bellamy. He plays the third wheel so beautifully is it any wonder he got pigeonholed? Bellamy would eventually head to the theater for more substantial roles (You never saw FDR lose Eleanor to Cary Grant).
  • Despite the breakneck banter of Grant and Russell, I always find something stagnate about the movie. Having now seen the original “Front Page” I think I’ve figured it out. The first scene of the play is now 25 minutes into the film, meaning that we get TWO first acts; the new one establishing Burns and Johnson as a divorced couple, and the original one setting up the reporters and Earl Williams. The movie doesn’t really get going until more than halfway through. It’s still fun, but there’s a bit of inertia for most of the runtime.
  • If Endicott sounds familiar, that’s Cliff Edwards, aka Jiminy Cricket. “Pinocchio” would be released one month after “His Girl Friday”.
  • Most risqué line by 1940 standards: “Earl shot the Professor right in the classified ads. …No, ads.”
  • In addition to Cliff Edwards, fellow Disney voiceover actor Billy Gilbert (Sneezy) steals the show in his two scenes as Mr. Pettibone trying to deliver the Governor’s pardon.
  • Also very 1940: Americans ignoring the rise of Hitler and the ongoing war in Europe.
  • Cary Grant makes a few inside jokes throughout the movie. First, Walter describes Bruce as looking like “that fellow in the movies. You know, Ralph Bellamy.” Then he calls Williams a “mock turtle”, like the one Grant played in 1933’s “Alice in Wonderland” (though this line also appears in 1931’s “The Front Page”). And towards the end, he mentions the tragic fate of an “Archie Leach”, Cary Grant’s birth name.
  • All of this just makes me wonder how many other male-centric classic movies could be improved upon with a change in gender. “The Godmother”? “Midnight Cowgirl”? “No Country for Your Grandma”?

Legacy

  • “His Girl Friday” is one of those movies whose legacy is its genre shorthand. Anyone who talks quickly in a Trans-Atlantic accent is paying homage to “His Girl Friday” and the screwball comedy genre whether they know it or not.
  • While there have been many remakes of “The Front Page” over the years, only one has included the “His Girl Friday” gender-swap. 1988’s “Switching Channels” updates the story to cable news and features the love triangle of Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, and Christopher Reeve, none of whom spoke fondly of their time making the movie.
  • There have been attempts to recreate the fast-paced world of “His Girl Friday”, most notably the TV show “Moonlighting”. Does anyone remember that show? It was a big deal back in the ‘80s. Anyway, they talked fast and had witty banter. Oh, and one of them was a young Bruce Willis.
  • Some of Rosalind Russell’s dialogue is sampled in the Pomplamoose song “Expiration Date”. That really has nothing to do with anything, I just like Pomplamoose.

3 thoughts on “#380) His Girl Friday (1940)”

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