His Girl Friday, 80 Years Later
His Girl Friday is certainly in the mix when we think about the greatest comedies ever made. It’s one of the most beloved films of the 1940s, and one of the best films about journalism. It’s a movie I recommend any film student, casual movie lover, and/or journalist watch. 80 years later, almost every comedy made since pales in comparison.
Howard Hawks’ cinematic adaptation of The Front Page, is notable for many reasons — its incredibly fast-paced dialogue, rapid-fire editing, the dynamic chemistry between its stars, and the gender-swapping of its lead character, which transformed the original story into a battle of the sexes. It remains one of Hollywood’s best films for how it managed to combine comedy and drama, as well as being both cynical and idealistic. It’s might be the best example of a remake, and the quintessential newspaper movie.
Let’s discuss what makes His Girl Friday great.
The Screenplay for His Girl Friday
Despite being first and foremost a screwball comedy, His Girl Friday plays out against a grim plot. It centers on a hard-boiled newspaper editor named Walter Burns (Cary Grant) who is about to lose his now newly engaged ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, who’s set to marry a bland insurance salesman and live a quiet peaceful life as a housewife — or as she calls it, a decent human being. As it turns out, Hildy (played wonderfully by Rosalind Russell) isn’t just his best journalist — she’s also his ex-wife, and in an attempt to win her back, he reignites her journalistic passion by recommending they cover one more story together. It’s not just any story, however — it involves the high-profile case of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man charged for a murder that he claims was an accidental crime. Walter suspects that the convicted man should be reprieved, and convinces Hildy to con her way into getting access to an exclusive front page interview. With time running out, Hildy sets out on a quest to save a convicted man who will be hanged the next morning for shooting a police officer.
This was the second of many adaptations of The Front Page, and with no disrespect to Billy Wilder, it’s arguably the best adaptation of the play, as well as a shining example of how to write a screwball comedy. For a screenplay that consists of a whopping 191 pages, it’s a miracle that His Girl Friday is only 92 minutes long, especially when you consider that with most screenplays, one page of dialogue translates to approximately one minute of film. The original draft of the script was written by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (who is not credited for his contributions), but the final draft bears little resemblance to what they penned. Although Howard Hawks is reported to be a big fan of the play, he opted to rewrite more than half of the screenplay in order to make the dialogue flow better and come across as more natural. Noting that in real life people often interrupt one another, Hawks added unnecessary words of dialogue at the beginning and end of sentences, and highlighted specific points in the script that would indicate where actors were meant to talk over each other. All that overlapping dialogue (later dubbed the “Hawksian Crosstalk”) had a major impact on the length of the screenplay, and an even greater impact on the breakneck pace of the film.
Apart from the crackling, witty banter, the film is also notable for swapping the gender of the star reporter. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten, adding about twenty-five minutes of backstory and making the character the ex-wife of the editor. The gender swap brought an entirely new angle to the film, and marked the beginning of a number of screwball comedies in the 1940s that centered around women deciding between love/marriage and professional careers. In the beginning, Hildy says that she wants to be “treated like a woman,” believing that in order to achieve this she must settle down. However, what she really wants is to pursue her passion for investigative journalism. Walter knows this. He knows her better than anyone else, and he uses this knowledge to do everything in his power to keep her around, manipulating everyone he meets, and going so far as to have Hildy’s fiancé arrested not once, but three times (not to mention he orchestrates the kidnapping of her soon-to-be mother in law).
What makes His Girl Friday unique is how it’s partly a romantic comedy, and yet doesn’t feature a single kiss. Even at the end of the film, when Walter Burns convinces Hildy Johnson to remarry him, there is no romance visible between them. They do not kiss, embrace, or even stop to appreciate the moment. Instead, they’re just focused on the story. Hildy isn’t in love with Walter, and Walter isn’t in love with Hildy; sure, they deeply care about each other, but neither has fallen in love. Like a moth drawn to the flame, it’s their working relationship that keeps them coming back. As Walter exits the room in the final reel, he steps in front of her, walks ahead, and leaves her to carry her own suitcase, despite Hildy having already criticized this ungentlemanly-like behavior at the beginning of the film. Neither has changed, and nothing between them has changed.
Instead of having the tough, intelligent, and charismatic Hildy settle for marriage, His Girl Friday would prefer to get her away from the tiresome Baldwin and back to breaking news. And so would her colleagues. In fact, it’s the newsroom men who can’t believe she’ll walk away from a job she’s arguably the best at. There’s a great scene when Hildy has left the room and they begin to marvel at her work, praising a piece she wrote for the paper, and wishing they had even half the talent she possesses. Walter may be the editor-in-chief, but Hildy is every bit his equal at every level. She continuously pushes past the relentless pressure of having to prove herself in a male-dominated newsroom, and comes on top every time, bucking off traditional notions of women’s roles in the workplace.
Yes, this newsroom is a tough place to work, but Hildy Johnson is more than at home in it. Hell, she practically runs it. Just look at how Howard Hawks frames Hildy against her male counterparts. There are several scenes in which she stands center at the top of the frame while her co-workers are positioned below usually looking up in her direction as if she’s on stage with a spotlight shining down on her. Despite the questionable ending, His Girl Friday is a landmark feminist picture, if only for how it takes Hildy, her independence, and her professional career seriously. The title His Girl Friday is an ironic title, as there is no doubt that this is her movie.
A Masterclass in Editing
His Girl Friday is one of those classic Hollywood films where everyone talks a mile a minute, only Hawks went above and beyond to achieve a sound, feel, and look that zoomed by faster than any movie of its time. His goal was to make the film with the fastest dialogue on record, and in order to achieve this, he relied on several cinematic tricks, including using multiple microphones per scene and having the sound mixer turn them on and off on cue. This meant that the sound mixer had to perfectly time each switch in order to keep up with the fast-talking nature of the movie; never mind the poor cinematographer who had to oversee the lighting while trying to keep up with the improvisation of it all. His Girl Friday moves and talks so fast that by the time it zooms by, you’ll want to watch it again just to pick up on what you may have missed.
Obviously, there are many people to thank for this accomplishment, but it’s the film editing that stands out the most when watching His Girl Friday in the present day. The editing is downright brilliant, heightening every aspect of the film’s humor and rarely ever braking the breakneck pace. Take, for instance, the scene below. There are twelve actors packed into a small room, each rattling of dialogue at an incredibly fast rate, with sharp edits capturing and punctuating specific bits of dialogue to accelerate the conversation and carry viewers through the plot. According to Wikipedia, there are nine scenes with at least four words per second, and at least two with more than five words per second. Even more impressive is that Hawks strongly encouraged improvisation and unexpectedness in the acting, even allowing the actors to break the fourth wall and make casual inside jokes, as in the line where Cary Grant says “the last person to say that to me was Archie Leach, a week before he cut his own throat” (Archie Leach being Cary Grant’s real name).
The Jailhouse Interview
For a movie renowned for its snappy dialogue and pitch-perfect pacing, Hawks made a surprising decision to stop the film dead in its tracks at the 32-minute mark and include a scene that sees Hildy conduct a jailhouse interview with the convicted killer (something not in the original play). The scene opens with a slanted wide-angled camera shot shown from above before it dissolves to their conversation. Hildy pulls up a chair, lights a cigarette, hands it to Williams, and begins her interrogation; he holds the smoke in his hand for a brief second, admits he doesn’t smoke and hands it back. There’s not much to it — just two people having a conversation — but for a movie noted for its rapid-fire repartee, using overlapping dialogue to make conversations sound more realistic, this is the one and the only quiet scene in the entire film. In slowing down the action, the scene highlighted two things that I hadn’t yet noticed. The first is that His Girl Friday has virtually no score; instead, it’s the non-stop banter that provides the film with a rhythm. Secondly, this scene helps establish a clear contrast between fast-talking characters like Hildy and Walter, and the slow-talking supporting cast in order to emphasize the gap between their intelligence. For example, individuals such as the husband-to-be, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) or the runaway convict, Earl, speak noticeably slower than the two leads. It’s clear that the louder and faster someone speaks, the smarter they are and the higher chance of them outsmarting the other.
Howard Hawk’s Direction
There are many reasons why Howard Hawks is considered one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Not only did Hawks make good movies in just about every conceivable genre (westerns, screwball comedies, war pictures, musicals, films noir, gangster pics, and so on), he made some of the greatest movies within those genres — all while maintaining a consistent personal style within the framework of each film, which was a rarity for the time. In fact, if you could classify just one filmmaker from the golden age of Hollywood as an auteur, Hawks would probably be the obvious pick. He produced every one of his thirty-three sound pictures with out ever being under contract to a studio, which some say gave him more creative freedom to impose his style on nearly every film he directed. Chances are, if you are familiar with his work and watching one of his films, you’d most likely know it was directed by Hawks, even if you removed his name from the credits. Yet, despite a body of work that rivals any of the great directors, Hawks remains, lesser-known and under-appreciated.
What I’ve always loved about Hawk’s direction is the look of his films. From the opening tracking shot of His Girl Friday to the aforementioned jailhouse scene to the prison break sequence, Hawks, along with his cinematographer Joseph Walker, came up with clever ways to make every scene stand out, even if it was just a simple two-way conversation. When compared to other comedies of the time, the camera positioning and camera movement in His Girl Friday is unparalleled. The prison break sequence is especially notable considering that actress Rosalind Russell sets out on a foot chase after having to cross a busy street with dozens of police cars zooming by her. Even watching it today, one wonders how they allowed her to partake in what looks like a dangerous stunt.
It’s the moral ambiguity that really sets Hawks’ film above other romantic comedies of the 1940s. The ethics of Hildy, Walter and their newsroom colleagues are unquestionably sketchy, to say the least. They’re hard-boiled professionals willing to do anything for a story, even if they must commit a few crimes along the way. Walter has no problem hiding a convicted murderer in his desk, lying to the cops, or replacing more important front-page news with sensational tabloid journalism. Meanwhile, Hildy herself has no hesitation in manipulating the mentally ill prisoner sentenced to death, nor does she have a problem in changing or exaggerating the facts of the story in order to sell more papers. Except for maybe Bruce, everyone’s hands here are dirty, yet the film also makes no bones about the importance of investigative journalism. In the end, Hildy and Walter not only save a man’s life, but their investigative journalism puts a corrupt politician behind bars.
The Legacy of His Girl Friday
His Girl Friday is one of the best screwball comedies ever made. It’s funny, cynical, at times dark and morally complex, but its charismatic cast, witty, fast-paced dialogue, and unflagging energy keep viewers engaged. I can’t recommend it more!
Along with Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday is cited as an archetype of the screwball comedy genre.
In 1993, the Library of Congress selected His Girl Friday for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Director Quentin Tarantino has named His Girl Friday as one of his favorite movies.
Oh, and Cary Grant is amazing in this movie!
For more on His Girl Friday, check out the latest episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast.