There’s something unusual about director Howard Hawks‘ 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday—it’s not all screwy. In fact, there are quite a few dark moments in it that are not standard fare for the genre. This unusual quirk and the witty, rapid-fire repartee makes for an interesting viewing experience. Of course, it helps that Hawks coaxed out two great performances from his principal leads, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Adapted from the heralded Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play The Front Page, His Girl Friday flips the script, so to speak, by making Hildy Johnson (Russell) a female reporter on her way out of the slimy bullpen and into respectable matrimony. Unfortunately for Hildy, she has two things standing in her way: her ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-editor, Walter Burns (Grant), and her own professional ambition. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for her fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). It also doesn’t help that she delivers the news of her impending marriage to Walter on the eve of an execution that has political implications. Walter needs his best reporter for the biggest story in town and he stops at nothing to ensure that Hildy writes it. As the story grows bigger by the minute, so does Hildy’s love of the newspaper game.
Sure, His Girl Friday is a screwball comedy. Spit-fire dialogue infused with sexual innuendo and inside jokes abound throughout the movie. Of course, Hildy and Walter are the two smartest people in any room and seem to relish jockeying between themselves to determine who is actually the smartest between them. Alas, this means that others have to play the one-upped or, worse, the dumb sap, like Bruce. But who cares, it’s all in the name of good, rollicking fun! But is it… There’s a strangely dark side to this film that is quite unusual for the typical screwball comedy.
For one, the big news story revolves around the impending execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who killed a black police officer. We hear and see the police practicing for his hanging. And, when Hildy goes to interview him in jail there aren’t any hijinks—it’s a serious conversation about what led Walter to the gallows. There’s also a few dramatic scenes that revolve around Walter’s friend Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) and the callous way that the press treats their subject matter. For me, this is one of the reasons that I don’t love His Girl Friday. If you’ve seen it then you know that there’s a pretty horrific event that takes place near the end of the film and that almost without a beat the story moves back into screwball land—this is jarring, even if Hawks’ is trying to portray just how jaded the journalistic world is.
Still, who can resist the battle of the sexes between Grant and Russell. He’s a reprehensible opportunist who knows how to use words to his advantage and she’s a fast-talking broad with an interesting fashion sense who knows all of Walter’s tricks. They are a match made in matrimonial hell—but they are fun to watch. Interestingly enough, Russell was far, far, far from the first choice for the role of Hildy, but after a slew of actresses (Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, etc.) either turned down the role or were deemed too expensive by Columbia Pictures, Russell was given the role she is probably best known for (even though Auntie Mame is well-remembered, too). And while Grant got top billing, Russell obviously was the star and heart of His Girl Friday—funny how things work out sometimes.
Overall, the inside jokes alone make His Girl Friday worth watching. For example, when Walter is asked to describe what Bruce looks like he answers, “He looks like that fellow in the movies—Ralph Bellamy.” And, then there’s the classic line Bruce quips when the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) says Bruce is through, “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.” I could go on and on about how hilariously the dialogue is delivered. Needless to say, His Girl Friday is a fast-paced, antic-filled screwball comedy—with a few odd somber moments.
Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.