His Girl Friday: Home Video Review

His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind RussellGuest blogger Ian Simmons writes:

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.

  • Walt82

    His Girl Friday is without doubt one of the greatest screwball comedies ever filmed. Every character is perfecrtly played, including good old Ralph Bellamy playing good old Raplh Bellamy and the most versatile John Qualen. Cary and Roz were born to play their roles in this wonderful flick!

  • Stan

    I always thought Carole Lombard should have been the leading lady for Cary Grant in this classic comedy. I have seen this movie many times and now think Rosalind Russell was the right pick afterall.

  • Angela

    The superb writing of this film makes it a true classic. The lines being delivered one on top of the other in quick succession is what makes it. I’d say there’s so much to these lines that it takes more than one viewing to truly appreciate the wit.

    It’s Cary Grant at his best comedically and Rosalind Russell is the perfect woman to keep pace with him. And as Walt said, Ralph Bellamy is doing his best “Ralph Bellamy” and is the perfect complement to Walter and Hildy.

    High up on my list of must see classic films! –then again, so are all Cary Grant films ;)

  • Martin Stumacher

    This is a genuine screwball comedy of the ages. The cast of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy and so many character actors make it entertaining and hilarious. You’re right, too much garbage out there today called comedies.

  • Tlynette

    Amen, to the above comments! This one’s a beaut, and so much fun to watch!!!! It moves so fast, you almost CAN’T laugh out loud, or you’ll miss one of those delightful under-the-radar lines (“Johnson Street!”) — which, of course, will FORCE you to watch this classic over and over and over, while you sit there, weeping with laughter!

  • Robert Smalls

    I hate to be a contrarian but I cannot stand this movie. I have tried to see its virtues by attempting to view it many many times over the years, but I am unable to get past the machine gun style dialogue yelled by many people speaking at once. I am a fan of both Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant so I must blame the director for this mess. This film gives me an instant headache.

  • K in VA

    You neglect to mention the importance of overlapping dialogue in this film (one person finishing saying something as another person is beginning to speak). The fast pace that trick provides is part of the brilliance of the film, and we have Howard Hawks to thank for it.

    Actually, we have Howard Hawks to thank for many brilliant films, both comedies and dramas. I’ll still take one of his lesser films than most of the crap done today any time!

  • AJNorth

    Perhaps the Granddaddy of Screwball, rather than shooting the usual one page of script per minute, Hawks shot two; coupled with his trademark ‘overlapping dialog’ (which he pioneered), along with a sparkling script and actors who could more than step up to the plate, the result was a fantastic mind-spinning romp. (Incidentally, not to be outdone by the lines scripted for Grant, Russell added some of her own (with Hawks’ blessings) to the brouhaha.

    As for those who may feel “that there’s no value in black-and-white movies because the acting is cheesy and the stories are corny,” words escape me. I might be tempted to say that their powers of discernment are on par with their IQs – which are approximately equal to their shoe sizes, but will refrain. In any case, since they are unlikely to show up at theatrical showings of these great films when they are revived, the rest of us will have a much more enjoyable cinematic experience.

  • lynny

    I have seen this movie 10 times and I love it each time I see it. The characters are perfectly interwoven into the story line and because of that I will watch it,again, again and again!

  • michael j.

    This is truly a great & fantastic film. My favorite scene is when Grant meets Bellamy but starts talking to that old man instead, thinking that HE is Bellamy’s character.

  • Sue

    Congrats, Ian! May you continue to enjoy many many more Black & White masterpieces! Howard Hawks was a genius and His Girl Friday is proof of that genius. Just goes to show all the screenwriting hacks working today what an actual STORY, a GOOD STORY looks like when its made into a GOOD film.

  • Chris

    How I envy Ian for seeing this film for the first time! What fun. I have screened this film many times and enjoyed it each time…. But there’s nothing to compare to the first time you see such a rare gem. Ian is absolutely right about state of the modern rom-com. Shallow, stupid, fart-invested juvenile humor of the men-boys whose mental development stopped when they became interested in girls.

    Horror films have suffered over the years as well. Check out Howard Hawks original version of “The Thing”.

  • Al Hooper

    Superb film. It’s true, however, that seeing a literate, character-driven film like “His Girl Friday” underlines the impoverished state of the current cinema, with its primitive dialogue and infuriating special effects replacing story values. If it’s not about story, it’s not worth your time. Save the lights and bells for the infants among us.

  • Leticia R

    Just Go With is based off of Cactus Flower. That movie was great and I’d consider it a must see.

  • Daisy

    How many people here have noticed the number of times this movie has been remade over the years with different titles? Two versions called “The Front Page” and one called “Switching Channels”. There are probably even more.

  • Julie

    There is nothing quite like the witty, snappy dialogue of “His Girl Friday”. One of the truly great classics of all time. It’s so much fun to watch, and it always makes me want to work in a news place like the one in the movie.

  • kevin

    One of the great comedies of all time, I would hesitate to call it a screwball comedy because the dialog takes priority over the action. Listen to Russell in the phone scene, I get out of breath just watching it.

  • James Bezanson

    One of the great classics of screwball/romantic comedy. Maybe the best comedy writing ever. After many viewings on video, I saw it on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive recently. I’ve never heard so much out-loud laughing at a movie theater since they ran a Buster Keaton festival at the Brattle Theater.