My depression over the sad state of romantic comedies worsened ten-fold this morning after I watched His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) for the first time. The 1940 film is an absolute joy from start to finish, full of superb acting; sharp, funny dialogue; and characters as smart as the story they’re in. It’s the movie I’ve been waiting for, an oasis in the desert of embarrassing, condescending cash cows that have desecrated a brilliant 71-year legacy.
The movie tells the story of Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy (Rosalind Russell), a divorced couple who work at the Morning Post newspaper. Walter is the editor, and Hildy was his number-one reporter until she got fed up with his anything-for-a-story schemes and divorced him. She shows up one afternoon to say “good-bye” before heading off to Albany to marry an insurance salesman named Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). Walter’s not wanting her to go has as much to do with his belief that she’s too good a journalist to settle for a homemaker’s life as with the fact that he’s still in love with her.
Hildy’s visit coincides with the impending execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a death-row inmate who accidentally killed a cop after losing his job. Walter lures Hildy into interviewing Williams for the paper so that he can A) keep her from leaving with Bruce on the evening train and B) earn Williams a reprieve due to insanity; the mayor is counting on the hanging to strengthen his “tough on crime” image ahead of the upcoming election, and Walter wants to embarrass the mayor out of office.
This is the catalyst for a classic screwball comedy. You know, until I looked up the definition of “screwball comedy” a moment ago, I had no idea what it meant. I’d always assumed it was shorthand for over-the-top, pie-in-the-face-type movies. The term actually refers to a film’s unpredictability as much as anything else, and His Girl Friday is no exception. The movie runs the full comedic spectrum, from the broad cartoon of a portly court messenger to lines of dialogue that are positively British in their dryness and disposability (“I’m pretty particular about who my wife’s going to marry.”).
More important is the way Hawks and writer Charles Lederer (working from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s stage play The Front Page and changing the gender of Russell’s character) weave between these styles and veer into heavy dramatic territory several times during the movie without confusing the tone. I’ve never seen a movie do that in such a way that almost demands a new category. Take, for instance, the scene in which the courthouse press corps sits in their smoke-filled room playing cards and phoning sensational, fake stories into their respective newsrooms. Amid the crazy stories and one-liners walks a woman named Molly Malloy (Helen Mack), whose reputation these men destroyed by painting her as an accomplice and love interest of Williams—when in truth she was simply a good-hearted passerby. Mack’s performance grounds the scene, presenting the serious side of the funny headlines before dropping us safely back into lighter territory (Molly’s last scene in the film is a doozy, and pushes His Girl Friday into the horror genre for a split second).
The movie also has one of the most intricate plots I’ve seen in a supposedly light comedy. What begins as a cute love triangle becomes a political snowball, complete with mobsters, prostitutes and a jailbreak whose cause and consequences must be seen to be believed.
This isn’t a movie whose outcome can be predicted from reading the synopsis. Sure, Walter and Hildy end up together at the end, but as presented by Hawks and company, we’re not sure if that’s something to celebrate or cry about.
Grant and Russell make their characters breathe. Sure, they’re an attractive couple who revel in witty repartee, but the dark side of their relationship informs every jab and wink. On the one hand, Walter is a determined newspaper man who’ll go to comedically ridiculous lengths to get an exclusive; on the other, he’s an amoral, manipulative creep who has his ex-wife’s fiancé locked up three times on phony charges in the course of about six hours. Hildy has the tough, one-of-the-guys confidence of a hard-boiled reporter, but she’s a sucker for her ex’s charms and a slave to her career—which makes for an amazingly unhappy happy ending. The genius of these performances is that they instantly make us root for two seriously damaged people; with a few less jokes and a change in music cues, His Girl Friday could have been a newsroom Sid and Nancy.
Some people have told me that there’s no value in black-and-white movies because the acting is cheesy and the stories are corny. The more I delve into classic films, the more I realize how much richness has been lost over the decades. In a lot of ways, popular entertainment is marching backwards. Yes, it took me a whole scene of Cary Grant acting like a buttoned-up Jon Lovitz before I could fully get on board with Walter, but at least I made the leap. Of the 10 most recent rom-coms I’ve seen, I can’t think of a single character that made me feel anything other than an urgent need to leave the theater.
His Girl Friday is a movie for adults. Unlike modern comedies about promiscuous, clueless airheads who spend two hours wondering whether or not they should grow up, this movie presents characters that are older, and whose problems are personal, professional and political. It’s the anti-turn-off-your-brain film, rewarding audience attention with new ways of looking at things—as well as a great range of hilarious jokes. It’d be great if, instead of being subjected to yet another lazy, made-for-idiots Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston flick, we could see a mainstream theatrical re-release of His Girl Friday. Sadly, it appears Millenial masses like their slop salt-free and runny—meaning you can check back at my site for for my review of Just Go With It, the new movie about Happy Gilmore falling in love with Rachel from Friends over a midlife-crisis/fart-joke cocktail at Chili’s.
Ian Simmons is an artist and amateur film critic living in Skokie, Illinois. After a near mental break brought on by watching Julie & Julia, his wife encouraged him to launch Kicking the Seat, a Web site devoted to providing entertaining movie reviews and creative therapy for its proprietor.