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Movie Review – His Girl Friday (1940)
A much-praised romantic comedy classic directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer based on the stage play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Three immediate observations about this famous flick:
1) It certainly still is a funny film. I ended up laughing out loud in quite a few scenes even though His Girl Friday was shot 66 years ago! That says a lot about the staying power of this madcap comedy classic.
2) In terms of the words-per-minute delivery, probably this is one of the most wordy films ever produced. Talking about “talking heads”! Both Cary Grant (as the manipulative and exploitative newspaper editor Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (as the crackerjack and ambitious reporter Hildegaard ‘Hildy’ Johnson), as well as all the other characters, race with one another in delivering truck-loads of sharp comebacks, jokes and sarcastic comments at the speed of a red hot machine gun. The words come out cascading from all of them in a ceaseless head-splitting torrent of verbiage. One wonders how many pounds the actors must have lost collectively after wrapping up this one.
His Girl Friday definitely represents the ultimate antithesis of the modern taboo against “telling but not showing” in films. It does not have a single scene which is not deep into the exposition business.
3) Directorially, this is one of the amazingly lop-sided movies I’ve watched for a long while. It begins with a tight focus on the Grant+Russell interaction and expands into the uncomfortable triangle formed by the two and Hildy Johnson’s fiancé the insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).
Then, without any advance warning, the scene shifts to a Press Room and to the antiques of a bunch of old crusty poker-playing cigar-chomping reporters who are covering the story of a death row convict about to be hanged the next day in the plaza right below their window. Hildy is at the center of this long “Second Act” during which the Cary Grant character is totally missing.
If you are watching His Girl Friday as a “Cary Grant movie,” and must of us do, you’ll be very disappointed by this mid-sequence that lasts almost half an hour during which we almost forget about Walter Burns.
When Walter returns in the Third Act, he is his old loud motor-mouth trying to get the story first to his paper while forcing the corrupt sheriff and Mayor to back down from their threats of jailing him.
The plot itself is not that complicated. Walter Burns (Grant) is an ambitious and unscrupulous newspaper managing editor in Chicago for whom “getting it first” and beating the other papers to the punch is more important than telling the truth. He is a sly but charming and street-smart operator who is trying to woo back his ex-wife and top-notch newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell).
Knowing that deep in her heart Hildy cares nothing in life as much as she does for journalism and the excitement of hunting down an exclusive story, Walter plays to her weakness in order to win her back while pretending that he is resigned to her new life with Baldwin.
At the end Hildy manages to hide the escaped convict (who claims he is innocent and he killed a cop just by mistake) inside a rollup desk in the Press Room and she gets an exclusive for Walter’s paper, leaving all her male colleagues in the dust.
The screwball comedy is full of smart and funny exchanges like the following:
Hildy: I can, I can, and I like it, what’s more. Besides, he forgets the office when he’s with me…He doesn’t treat me like an errand boy either, Walter. He treats me like a woman.
Walter: He does, does he? How did I treat ya, like a water buffalo?
# # #
Hildy: I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda, oh, about four months, I guess. It seems like yesterday to me.
Walter: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy. Been seeing me in your dreams?
# # #
Hildy: Listen to me, you great big bumble-headed bamboo!
# # #
Bruce Baldwin (talking about Walter): He’s got a lot of charm.
Hildy: Yes, it comes naturally; his grandfather was a snake!
# # #
Walter: Let’s see this paragon of virtue! Is he as good as you say?
Hildy: Why, he’s better!
Walter: Well then, what does he want with you?
Hildy: Ah-ha, you got me!
# # #
A lovely film in which both Grant and Russell prove that they have the manic energy and smooth skills to deliver their complicated lines without a mishap while not sacrificing the physical comedy details jam-packed into every scene. Two rascals who know one another better than anybody else in life – and a well meaning insurance salesman who looks like a babe in the woods next to the two main operators.
Needless to say, it’s also an eye-opener testimony to the way newspaper business was conducted in the 40s. We are all lucky the journalism profession, despite all its shortcoming, has much higher ethical standards today.
An 8 out 10.
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