His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

“Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!”

Introduction

On Friday, I celebrated the seventh-year of my relationship with my partner Sarah. We had planned to have an evening in and we had decided to watch a film which we would select from LOVEFiLM’s instant-watch selection. His Girl Friday came up – a film I watched a couple of years prior but I knew Sarah had not seen. More importantly, since that viewing, I had often cited the film when discussing films written by Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet – as the script has the same energy and pace as these screenwriters style. If not moreso. Before I plough into an analysis, I strongly recommend this film to anyone who has yet to go out of their way to appricate classic cinema. The film has character, charm and a pace that is unlike no other. The time flies by because the story moves so fast. It is an incredible film and the context (Newspaper journalists) and actors (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell) could never be reproduced.

My first viewing, during a Screwball Comedy Season at the BFI Southbank, had me catching my breath when I left the cinema. I had recently read the Screenwriters book by Syd Field and I was automatically applying his three-act structure to all the films I was viewing. Fact is, whether you agree with Fields views on screenwriting and whether you think His Girl Friday applies itself to the same structure is not the point I am making – but what is clear, is that the writing for this film and, more importantly, its rat-a-tat-tat delivery is what places this film amongst one of my favourite films of all-time.

Story is Everything

His Girl Friday is a screwball comedy following Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) – recently divorced from Newspaper boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) attempting to start a new life with her husband to be Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). But we can see that Hildy is not the type of woman who can easily settle down – we know she wants to settle down but, in gaining Walter Burns acceptance of her new marriage, she needs to visit the hustle and bustle of the newspaper office. Her old friends, her old husband and it is clear that she may not leave the journalist profession just yet …

The story is virtually set within a couple of rooms – the main office of the newspaper and the jailhouse, whereby a group of journalists await the outcome of a trial concerning Earl Williams (John Qualen). It is established early how all these characters know Hildy and they are all dumbfounded to find out that she is due to settle down. The wet Bruce Baldwin, we can see, has no idea of this fast-paced world and intense working conditions. He talks and moves slow – whilst Hildy, Burns and all the journalists move and talk fast.

Manipulation and Mobs

What Cary Grant brings to the table is a manipulating salesman who uses the opportunity to win Hildy back. As an audience member, we can see Hildy wants this type of man and whilst we know that both characters are trying to use and make money off of each other, you realise that the characters are meant for each other. In one standout sequence, Hildy, Bruce and Walter all go for a meal and it is a fascinating example of a taught-screenplay that explores character, motive and pace. In the sequence, we see Bruce fall for Walter confessing what a great guy he is, whilst we see Walter set-up Hildy to cover the story whilst Hildy herself is continuing to convince herself that Walter is not the man for her. Whilst we can see that he clearly is.

The whole story is light in tone – gangsters ordered to kill the in-laws, Baldwin arrested multiple times for multiple different crimes he hasn’t committed. And this is amongst the banter between Hildy and Burns.

The Media World

This is deeply rooted in the capitalist Newspaper-savvy world of the media. Delivering fast-paced dialogue that, even if you miss something, another line will come shortly after which you will follow. The script is non-stop comedy as characters have perfect timing when delivering each and every line. This seems ideal for the theatre – as it was originally written as The Front Page – but was adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play into Charles Lederer’s screenplay: His Girl Friday it became.

As mentioned, if I was to think of other films or TV-series with a similar type of script-writing I would consider David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and the play Speed-The-Plow, as both deal with capitalism and the non-stop process of sales. I could add to this list Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing and The Social Networkboth of which, akin to Mamet, force us to listen to hyper-realist dialogue that, though not how people talk, for some reason the context – Politics, Business, Media – suits the attitudes and speed.

You Must Watch This Film

In a time whereby Hugo and The Artist celebrate silent-cinema, His Girl Friday is a film that shows how brilliant a script can be in an era barely a decade after silent-cinema ended (Chaplin’s last film starring The Tramp, Modern Times, was only four-years before His Girl Friday). In terms of a soundtrack, the only music in the entire film is at the start and at the end. His Girl Friday is one of my favourite films – and this was decided after the first watch. Another example of a film that busts-out of the restraints of the time it was created, it supercedes the story itself with actors who are wholly unique and have never been bettered in Grant and Russell. If you find it difficult to watch black-and-white films and yet you want to start somewhere – this is the place to start.

Nb – This was originally published on 6th November 2010, but has been hugely altered since the original publication.

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3 comments

  1. One of the best comedies ever made and one of my faves. I love the quick-paced dialogue – the film benefits from a terrific script and Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell are perfectly cast.

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