His Girl Friday (1940)
“The Year’s Wildest, Wittiest Whirlwind of a Love Battle… Outrageously Racy… Sparkling… Gay!”
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Synopsis: A newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying.
His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ classic satire on journalism and political manipulation, is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 movie The Front Page, which was itself based on the Hecht and MacArthur stage play of the same name. Hawks made one major change from these two predecessors though, by changing the character of Hildy Johnson from male to female in order to provide a love interest for Cary Grant’s winning but devious editor, Walter Burns. The role of Hildy, played by Pat O’Brien in Milestone’s version, is played here by a young and sassy Rosalind Russell; the two leads make a good-looking couple and effortlessly create the kind of on-screen chemistry that is clearly lacking between Hildy and Bruce (Ralph Bellamy — The Awful Truth), her intended husband. For such a major change, it works remarkably well, and perhaps adds a lighter counterpoint to the dark avenues the story occasionally explores than would otherwise be possible.
His Girl Friday opens with a disclaimer stating that the men and women of the press portrayed in this film bear no resemblance to journalists of the present day; one can only imagine the caustic laughter this must have provoked at press screenings and, given the sometimes scathing nature of the movie, it’s impossible not to conclude that this statement was inserted as much as yet another sly and knowing dig at the press as it was for possible legal protection. Cary Grant (Alice in Wonderland, Suspicion) as Walter Burns, editor of the Morning Post, is something of an odd choice for the role; he’s rather more suave and urbane than the archetypal movie journalist, but he carries off the part well and receives first-class support from Russell. The story follows two strands: the attempts of Burns to win back his ex-wife Hildy from Bruce, whom she plans to marry the following day, and the imminent execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen — Casablanca, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin), and for pretty much the first hour the stories hardly overlap, each receiving attention alternately. This leaves Grant out of the movie for a long stretch, and perhaps indicates the difficulties that faced screenwriter Charles Lederer in changing Hildy’s sex. However, once Williams escapes and is hidden by Hildy in a desk in the press room at the court the two stories merge smoothly and lead to a satisfying — if predictable — conclusion.
His Girl Friday is a movie that appears to be jacked up on an overdose of uppers: the pace is electric, barely keeping up with the rapid-fire delivery of everyone involved. Probably a little difficult to accept for some younger audiences, there is enough dialogue crammed into this 92 minute flick for a film twice as long, and the targets at which much of its satirical content is aimed are rarely missed. While never losing sight of its obligation to entertain, Lederer’s intelligent adaptation exposes both the political machinations and corruption of big city politics, and the cynical methods employed by tabloid journalists to harass and extract information from those unlucky enough to find themselves embroiled in the story of the day. Neither group come off well: the politicians are self-serving and driven by the need for votes, while the press, equally self-seeking, deny themselves any sense of human decency that might jeopardise the story they are pursuing. Only Hildy, who instinctively understands the perilous moral and ethical tightrope which they all traverse, rises above this hard-boiled cynicism and makes an (admittedly doomed) effort to clean up her act. Burns is no better than the others in the pack, and it is a measure of the skill of the writers that we never dislike his character. It’s manipulation of the audience by the talented writers to be sure, but the story races along with such energy and vigour that it is not until long after the final credits that we realise we have effectively been rooting for the ‘bad guys’ throughout. Burns and Hildy seem to learn nothing from the Williams affair — other than that they are made for each other — and, had Hecht, MacArthur et al been so inclined they could, with only a few minor adjustments to the plot, have created a seriously dark examination of journalistic ethics along the lines of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
View it as satire or as screwball comedy, it doesn’t really matter; Hawks and his team have crafted a piece of work of such consummate skill that you will enjoy the experience whichever way you choose to view it.
(Reviewed 14th August 2005)