Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Four

50 40s 34

#34 — His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

According to Hollywood lore, the simple and brilliant notion that changed His Girl Friday from a straight adaptation of the play The Front Page, which had been filmed within the preceding decade, was hit upon largely by accident. Howard Hawks had his female secretary read the lines of male character Hildy Johnson while auditioning actors to play the other lead, Walter Burns. Something about the back-and-forth made Hawks realize that the film could be bolstered by carrying that gender switch into the production proper, which also opened up the possibility of incorporating a fractious romantic relationship, which is the most dependable fuel of screwball comedies. Hawks had screenwriter Charles Lederer tinker with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, thus Hildy became short for Hildegard and there was a place for a dazzling performance by Rosalind Russell.

Russell is paired against Cary Grant, the closest we’ve ever come to taking pure charisma and shaping it into the form of a human being, as her editor and ex-husband, Walter. In an attempt to distract Hildy from her upcoming wedding to another man (Ralph Bellamy), Walter lures her into covering a juicy story about a criminal on death row. Much of the plot revolves around Walter’s little machinations to keep Hildy from finally being able to close the book on her situation and the build-up pushes close to farce without ever fully tipping over to that level of freneticism. As with most of Grant’s other forays into screwball comedy, his pronounced sense of ease contrasts nicely with the busyness of the storytelling. When he and Russell square off with ping-ponging barbed dialogue, it’s a prime example of the relentlessly intelligent, language-loving art of screwball comedy that’s been all but lost in the decades since it was one of Hollywood’s sturdiest subgenres.

Though the greatness of the two leads — individually and in tandem — is a major part of the film’s appeal, the exceptional qualities of His Girl Friday can of course be deemed the responsibility of Hawks. His seemingly preternatural command of the craft of filmmaking is joined by a stealthy innovative streak, notably seen here in artful deployment of overlapping dialogue and crowding, buzzy interplay in every sense. Hawks later explained he was simply trying to emulate how he saw people talk out in the real world, where the niceties of waiting for a cue before offering a statement simply weren’t in play. His Girl Friday doesn’t exactly feel realistic, but it does benefit from a zippy energy, a sense of general unpredictability thanks to a rhythm always ready to jut off in a different direction. What could have been chaotic is instead focused and exuberant in Hawks’s capable hands. That’s the cinematic magic act the director could pull off as well as anyone.

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