His Girl Friday (1940)
His Girl Friday (1940)

Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.

Release Date: January 18th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Howard Hawks Actors: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Helen Mack

 


 

“O

nce upon a time,” the film sort of starts, commenting on the changes of the press – from a time when anything short of murder was acceptable conduct for journalists to get their story. Former editor and reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) stops by the newsroom where she used to work to speak with ex-husband and ex-boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who heads “The Morning Post,” concerning an important new chapter in her life. Waiting for her at reception is that fresh revelation, her fiancé, insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, wryly referenced in a fourth-wall-breaking one-liner toward the conclusion), whose sweet talk is unbearably saccharine. “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.”

“Been seeing me in your dreams?” Four months have passed since Hildy and Walter have seen each other, and Walter hasn’t been all that cooperative in the process. Despite agreeing to a clean split, he’s interfered with her every move, continuing to call her up and attempt uncouth communications in the most disruptive of manners. “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.” Though she finally manages to blurt out the news of her engagement (and nuptials scheduled for the next day), Walter has other plans – to ensnare her in a breaking story that just might keep them together for a few minutes longer.

From the very first exchange between Russell and Grant, Howard Hawks’ singular classic sets the pace at an unmatchably breakneck speed. Dialogue is spurted out so rapidly that it would be completely understandable if audiences miss 90% of the machine-gun prattling. Running only an hour-and-a-half, the bulldozing speeches must have taken up enough script pages to compose multiple novels; even with few set changes and fewer characters, the chatter virtually never ceases. There’s barely a pause for anyone to catch their breaths.

“Hildy’s coming back; she doesn’t know it yet.” Conniving and shrewd, capable of manipulating anyone into anything, Burns engages in a series of interrogations and anecdotes designed to belittle, subtly insult, and uncomfortably reminisce about intimate stories. Jealousy fuels a master plan to win back the woman – in a highly comical, hilariously underhanded, outrageously deceptive scheme. And as these lighthearted, slapstick-like gut-busters go, even when deceitful tactics are employed, it’s fairly obvious which couple is meant to be together.

Based on the play “The Front Page” (but boasting an impressive gender swap, as the original starred two men), a matter of life and death (and utmost desperation) intervenes with what could have been a simple getaway from a blithe yet complexly dysfunctional relationship. The reporters are all disinterested in the truth; corruptly, they’re only amused with a level of spin that will sell more papers (a notion that hasn’t lost its potency throughout the years). This subplot of inhumanly treating victims and witnesses solely to aggrandize plain tales is a grim departure from the rapid-fire hilarity of the start, managing to infuse a timeless, dour reality about media; little of it is impartial (or even factual) when profits are at stake. In many ways, “His Girl Friday” is the screwball counterpart to “Ace in the Hole,” which focused on similar tactics but with fatal consequences. Fascinatingly, even as a product of the early ’40s, lone female journalist Hildy is very much an equal in the press room – perhaps even viewed as a superior by her peers; she retains her composure and a certain control that is uncommonly formidable and admirable for a leading lady of the era.

“I thought you were on the level for once.” Almost disappointingly, however, Hildy can’t seem to escape her passion for reporting; in an infuriating – though still mirthful – complication, she’s drawn back into the game, which expectedly finds her reuniting with her nemesis. Grant’s leading man is so slimy, only Grant himself could transform the role into something vaguely resembling a protagonist; his character resorts to so many crooked stratagems (framing, bribery, kidnapping, harboring fugitives, colluding with criminals, and more) that in any other film, he would be utterly irredeemable. Somehow, as awful as he is, Hildy is not only his match, but her priorities also dictate that she’s cut out to be an artful accomplice; the two are harmoniously argumentative, disrespectful, short-tempered, impulsive, double-crossing, and duplicitous.

Perhaps they’re both actually antagonists; even when Hildy has a momentary epiphany about the repercussions of her actions, she moves past it with minimal consternation. And Burns never expresses remorse over the way he twists people’s wills to produce desired results. They’re both entirely unscrupulous; and they’re perfect for each other. If “His Girl Friday” wasn’t so humorous, it might be a downright horrific examination of true love. In fact, for a romantic comedy, there’s almost no romance or sexuality; it isn’t about love as much as it’s about bonding over professions and shared perspectives on pulling strings.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10