His Girl Friday (1940)

“Walter, you’re wonderful — in a loathsome sort of way.”

His Girl Friday Poster

Synopsis:
A newspaper editor (Cary Grant) tries anything and everything to win back his ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from her new fiance (Ralph Bellamy).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is appropriately impressed by this “brilliantly acted, frantically paced screwball comedy”, which reworks “[Ben] Hecht and [Charles] MacArthur’s famous newspaper play, The Front Page” by recasting the lead character of Hildy Johnson as a woman. As Peary notes, the film (expertly directed by Howard Hawks) “is famous for chaotic, overlapping dialogue”, which is both wickedly funny and pointedly satirical — indeed, you’ll need to watch the film at least a few times to begin to catch all the nuances of its rapidfire, densely packed script. As DVD Savant puts it, “His Girl Friday is not a picture to see if one has a slight headache” — you’ll keep feeling, rightly so, like you’ve missed something.

Indeed, His Girl Friday covers a plethora of narrative bases: not only is it arguably the most famous “newspaper drama” in cinematic existence (it makes journalism look like the most exciting profession EVER), but it relates a satisfyingly humorous love triangle (poor Bellamy never stands a chance), as well as a deeply cynical tale of political corruption. Perhaps most notably, however, His Girl Friday showcases the very real conflict many women feel when faced with the prospect of career-versus-marriage. Hildy “thinks she wants a home, as all women are supposed to”, and assertively tells her fellow newsmen that she wants to “be a woman, not a news-getting machine… [to] have babies and take care of them, give ’em cod liver oil and watch their teeth grow” (!!!). Yet she’s clearly still addicted to the rush of the newsroom — and, in this particular social universe, she must make a choice. Peary astutely argues, however, that the “film is not so much about the traditional battle of the sexes as it is about sexual differentiation”; he notes that “when characters put their guards down, they take on characteristics of the opposite sex”, with “the tough-talking male reporters [becoming] as gossipy as a women’s bridge group”, and Hildy happily “exchanging insults with Walter”.

Adding to the success of this tautly scripted, directed, and edited film are standout performances by both Grant and Russell, who are at the top of their game, and perfectly matched for each other. Grant — who reminds me more than ever here of George Clooney — is “exceptional, particularly doing physical comedy”; it’s enjoyable to watch him in a “rare” role as “the aggressor in a relationship, rather than a befuddled suitor”. Meanwhile, Russell “is dynamic… [and] unabashed as [a] cunning, bawdy, aggressive, cigarette-smoking, unladylike female”. As Peary notes, “it’s a shame she wasn’t offered such parts more often”; interestingly, however, Russell was far from Hawks’ first choice for the role — he wanted Carole Lombard. Be sure to check out all of TCM’s online articles (links below) for more juicy behind-the-scenes trivia about this fabled film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson; Peary deservedly names her Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars
    His Girl Friday Russell
  • Cary Grant as Walter Burns (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year)
    His Girl Friday Grant
  • Ralph Bellamy as Bruce
    His Girl Friday Bellamy
  • Charles Lederer’s brilliantly rapidfire script
    His Girl Friday Script
  • Priceless dialogue: “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page.”

Must See?
Absolutely — numerous times. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

One Response to “His Girl Friday (1940)”

  1. A no-brainer; mandatory for all FFs!

    I’ve seen ‘HGF’ countless times over the years and, upon re-visiting, it remains as crackling good as ever. It’s on the short side (just over 90 minutes) but, although the film’s situation is playing with time (because a man is set to hang), most of the credit for the ‘over before you know it’ feeling must go to director Hawks. This is certainly in the top 5 of his best films. And you really do have to keep up with it – esp. as it reaches its conclusion.

    Actually, if you listen to when rapid-fire delivery is used here, it’s mostly whenever it suits the purpose of quickly forwarding the plot. Otherwise, things often move at a more normal speed.

    It’s funny how people tend to see this movie as being a comedy first – although that’s understandable. When ‘HGF’ is funny (mostly in the first third and toward the end) it is very funny – but, simultaneously, it has an underlying seriousness, as it explores why Hildy and Walter’s marriage ended in divorce. Of course, a divorce is territory that can easily be played for laughs. But what fills out the rest of the film does not lend itself as well to jokes – nor should it. The movie is mostly about corruption, heartlessness and government/media men interested in fooling the public in order to get ahead. Most of the guys here are set on self-promotion and success, earned or not (and it’s mostly not).

    Which is what makes Russell’s character so fascinating and appealing. (Grant is certainly swell here but, like the other men on board, his character has a firm foot in what works for him; largely, his redemption is his love for Russell.) Upon being granted divorce, Russell’s Hildy refused alimony. That alone tells us quite a lot about her. What stands out most clearly, however, is Hildy’s respect for the truth – her strong intention of putting ‘ethics’ and ‘newspaper’ in a positive light in the same sentence. Hildy is among the great female role models in film. But, from the last (probably improvised) line of the film, we know that Walter will always have the upper hand with her. …Or do we?

    All in all, ‘HGF’ is a terrific dramedy – and, yes, there are plenty of delicious lines in the script. A particular fave:

    Bellamy (re: Grant): He’s got a lot of charm.
    Russell: He comes by that naturally; his grandfather was a snake.

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