Rapid-fire dialogue and brilliant performances electrify this landmark screwball comedy
“His Girl Friday” is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in, or in love with classic films. One of the crown jewels of screwball comedy, this film’s brilliant speedy dialogue, madcap situations, and wisecracking characters are all truly something to behold. “His Girl Friday” often makes it to the tops of movie lists and was rated #19 of “The 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time” by the American Film Institute. It is a quintessential comedy classic. Even though it’s set in a world of newspapers, typewriters, and corded phones, this beloved comedy remains ever so timeless.
The plot of “His Girl Friday” boils down to a newspaper editor plotting to win back his ex-wife - a prized reporter giving up the newspaper business and getting remarried the following day. He mischievously entices her to cover a breaking story about a murderer who is set to hang the next day, and the whole thing is a set-up for unadulterated, accelerated entertainment. I truly can't think of a film with more exciting and enjoyable interplay between its cast than this one. It is a tour de force of unbridled fun.
“His Girl Friday” is based on the 1928 hit play “The Front Page”, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which was considered the best play ever written about the newspaper business at the time. A film version was made in 1931 (also titled “The Front Page”), which was notable for its ultra-quick pace. Film director Howard Hawks loved the play and thought of doing an even faster film remake. He asked a woman at a party to read the play with him, and she read the part of “Hildy” - a male character in the play. When Hawks heard her read, he thought it would be even better to have a woman play that part, and “His Girl Friday” began to take shape. Hawks hired Charles Lederer to assist Hecht in adapting his original play. Only Lederer received writing credit.
One of the fastest paced films you’ll ever see, “His Girl Friday” is a landmark, as it was the first to employ overlapping dialogue. Director Howard Hawks felt overlapping the dialogue was closer to the way people spoke in reality, and would enhance the film’s speed. So he added extraneous words at the beginnings and ends of sentences so dialogue could overlap without obscuring important words. His instincts were on the money. Set in a breaking news crazed newspaper world, just about everyone in the film is on a deadline, and the film’s breakneck pace fuels the frenzy, heightens the hilarity, and makes for a jolly-good time. And yet, the film is quiet and tender when needed. A good film director directs the viewers' attention. A great director, like Hawks, can do that while telling a story in an aesthetically engaging manner. One can’t help but be in awe of how well Hawks orchestrated “His Girl Friday”. He masterfully shifts our focus in shots filled with multiple characters, often with simultaneous foreground, middle ground and background action. For a film constantly in motion (so fast you inevitably miss a line or two of dialogue), we always know exactly what’s going on and where to look. Hawks was known for his straightforward directing approach (no fancy camera work or angles), and when you combine that with his impeccable taste and instincts, you don’t get better filmmaking. Unlike directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, or Billy Wilder, who meticulously planned everything in advance or followed scripts to a T, Hawks used improvisation, took suggestions from the cast and crew, and embellished the script while filming. If he liked the shot or thought it was funny, he felt he got what he needed and moved on to the next shot.
Howard Hawks began directing silent films in 1926 just before the dawn of sound. His breakthrough came in 1930 with his first all-sound film, "The Dawn Patrol”. After that film’s success, he chose not to sign with a studio and remained one of a handful of independent Hollywood directors. Being independent, he made films the way he wanted - choosing only projects he wanted to direct, producing many of his films, and developing their scripts as well. He directed forty seven films, almost half of which have become classics, including "Bringing Up Baby” (film #2 on this blog), "Red River", “Scarface", "Twentieth Century", "Only Angels Have Wings", "Ball of Fire", "Sergeant York", "To Have and Have Not", "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ", "Rio Bravo”, and many more. He directed films in just about every genre, though he is mostly thought of for comedy and action. Hawks often presented strong, no-nonsense female characters (particularly in comedies) which came to be known as the "Hawksian woman”. He worked with many of Hollywood’s top stars including Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Muni, Montgomery Clift, Humphrey Bogart, and five times each with Cary Grant and John Wayne. Perhaps because his directing style was unobtrusive, he surprisingly never won a competitive Oscar and was only nominated once (as Best Director for the 1941 classic, “Sergeant York”). In 1975 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him and Honorary Award for his body of work. He was married and divorced three times. Howard Hawks died in 1977 at the age of 81.
Cary Grant stars as “Walter Burns”, the newspaper editor plotting to win back his ex-wife. If you ever wondered what made Grant a top movie star, this film is prime evidence. His extraordinary performance is infectious, fun, and filled with detail and wondrous physicality. “Walter” is the crafty calm in the middle of the chaos - much of which he instigates. Grant is loose and free and in top form in the role, and it's easy to take for granted his astounding talent. Only he could bicker with his female costar in such a loving way and make us root for such a sneaky chauvinist to get the girl, and still keep his character completely endearing. His rapport with Russell is a comedic triumph and his expressions opposite Bellamy are priceless. When "Walter" mistakes an old man for "Bruce" at their first meeting, it is hilarious due to the ease and straightforwardness of Grant's delivery. This is one phenomenal performance. He had worked twice before with Hawks, both in classics (1938’s “Bringing Up Baby”, and 1939’s “Only Angels Have Wings”), and would work with Hawks in two more classic comedies ("I Was a Male War Bride” in 1949, and “Monkey Business” in 1952). I’ve written about Grant in three previous posts, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Notorious”, and “The Philadelphia Story”, where you can read more about his life and career. I find it interesting that the plot of “His Girl Friday” revolves around Grant’s character trying to win back his ex, similar to “The Philadelphia Story”, which came out that same year. Both films and performances are standouts in Grant’s paramount career. There’s an inside joke in “His Girl Friday” when the Mayor is about to arrest “Hildy” and “Walter”, and tells them they are through, to which “Walter” replies, “The last man who said that was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat”. Archibald “Archie” Leach was Cary Grant’s birth name. The use of his name was reportedly improvised by Grant.
Rosalind Russell, who stars as “Hildy Johnson”, is a force of nature as the reporter struggling to let go of the newspaper business and her ex. Her quick deliveries, turn-on-a-dime emotions, and comedic timing are nothing short of miraculous. Just as with Grant and Hawks, the skill required to pull off her role requires a perfected craft and relaxed yet energized instincts - all of which Russell possesses. Hers is a performance for the ages. “Hildy” is tough, vulnerable, and playfully entertaining - and an exemplary "Hawksian woman”. “Hildy” was also the launching point for the types of women Russell would become famous for portraying. Beautiful, but never in roles driven by looks, Russell opted to play strong female characters with some sense of authority, while adding warmth, joy, vitality, and her contagious brand of humor. With her trademark style and tailored clothes, she pioneered putting career women on the screen - often in men’s professions. As they joke in “His Girl Friday”, “Hildy” is a newspaperman. Russell became a top star playing roles as diverse as a judge, an advertising executive, a female aviator, a psychiatrist, the Dean of a school, and others. Able to stand up to any man, she could also be romantic and vulnerable, often resisting love until the final hour. There was no-one quite like her. Russell was nominated for four Best Actress Academy Awards, never winning a competitive Oscar (although she did win five Best Actress Golden Globe Awards).
Against her parent’s wishes, Rosalind Russell set her sights on acting at a young age. Strong willed, she told her mother she was going to be a teacher, and that studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City would improve her teaching voice. It worked, and with no intention of teaching she attended the school. After graduating, she began appearing in summer stock, repertory theater and Broadway shows, and eventually moved to Hollywood to try her hand in films. She signed with Universal Studios, then switched to MGM who put her in her first film in 1934, in a supporting role in “Evelyn Prentice”, opposite William Powell and Myrna Loy. Russell was a success, and MGM continued to cast her mostly as the second female lead, opposite top stars such as Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Claudette Colbert. By 1936 she became a leading lady and continued to work steadily, almost exclusively in dramas, eventually beginning to appear in comedies. She became a certified star in 1939 in the classic comedy “The Women”, which finally showcased her comedic talents both with dialogue and physicality. Next was “His Girl Friday”, cementing her comedic flair. Danish theatrical agent Frederick Brisson fell in love with Russell while watching “The Women” on his cruise ship en route to America. He mentioned he’d like to meet her to his friend Cary Grant, who at the time was filming “His Girl Friday”. Grant introduced the two on the set, and Brisson married Russell about a year later, with Grant as best man at their wedding. Brisson would earn the nickname “The Wizard of Ros”, as he was a major influence in her career during their very happy and successful thirty-five year marriage. One thing he advised her not to do was renew her MGM contract, as she was being pigeonholed into comedies. She listened and became independent in 1942, and would further develop her sassy, sophisticated persona. Her second film as an independent was 1942’s classic "My Sister Eileen”, which was a huge success, earning her the first of her four Academy Award nominations. Not willing to sacrifice for the price of superstardom, she had a son in 1943 and took time off to raise him. She was one of the first actors to entertain the troops during WWII.
In her forties, she returned to Broadway, and was a sensation in the 1953 musical version of “My Sister Eileen” titled, “On the Town”, gracing the cover “Time” magazine, and winning a Tony Award. Next came the play “Auntie Mame”, which also became a smash hit, for which she graced the cover of “Life” magazine and received a Tony nomination. In 1958, she starred in the film version (which has become a classic), giving another iconic performance to solidify her status as a legendary actress, and earning another Oscar nomination. She kept making films (several of which were produced by her husband), and would appear occasionally on television. Included among her other classic films are "Picnic", "Gypsy", "China Seas", "The Trouble with Angels", "Night Must Fall", and “Mourning Becomes Electra” (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). She fought to make the 1946 biopic, “Sister Kenny”, a project dear to her heart, about Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who developed a new approach to treating polio. It earned Russell another Oscar nomination, and inspired her to raise money for polio research. In 1961 Russell was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 1965 had two mastectomies (which she kept hidden from friends and colleagues). In 1969 she suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis, and not being able to find a doctor to treat her pain, she became an advocate lobbying Congress for research, education, and public awareness of the disease. In 1973, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her their Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her charitable work, and after her death Congress established the University of California San Francisco Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis. She remained married to Brisson until her death, and they had one son. Rosalind Russell succumbed to breast cancer in 1976, and died at the age of 69. Cary Grant spoke at her funeral.
Ralph Bellamy is fantastic as “Bruce Baldwin”, “Hildy’s” fiancee - a timid, sweet, milk-toast type of guy, “Bruce” is the perfect patsy for “Walter”, and counterpoint to the two leads. Bellamy’s timing and chemistry with Grant and Russell is unbeatable, and the three together are a joyous ensemble in their own right. Their back and forth banter is like a Wimbledon match. Just watch how they play off each other when the three sit down to lunch. While Bellamy has supporting credit in “His Girl Friday”, he was already a big star and a respected actor. Ralph Bellamy began on stage in his teens, appeared in his first film, “The Secret Six” in 1931, and by the decade’s end would appear in just over sixty films, often cast as the “other guy” who loses the leading lady to the leading man. He played a role similar to “Bruce” in the 1937 classic comedy (also opposite Cary Grant), “The Awful Truth”, for which he received his only Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). He would appear in just shy of 200 films and TV shows, including his final appearance in the classic 1990 film “Pretty Woman”, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Some of his other classic films include "The Wolf Man", "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", "Stage Door Canteen", "Rosemary's Baby", "Oh, God!", "Trading Places", as "Ellery Queen" in "Ellery Queen, Master Detective" (and in three sequels), and "Sunrise at Campobello" in 1960, in which he reprised his Tony Award winning role as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had a very prolific television career from the 1950s through the 1980s. Dedicated to actors’ rights, Bellamy helped found the Screen Actors Guild, and served four terms as President of Actors’ Equity, where he established a pension fund for actors. In 1987 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Bellamy with an Honorary Award for his unique artistry and his distinguished service to the profession of acting. He was married four times. Ralph Bellamy died in 1991 at the age of 87. Another inside joke in “His Girl Friday”, relates to Bellamy. When “Walter” tries to explain to the blonde “Evangeline” what “Bruce” looks like, he says "He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know... Ralph Bellamy”. Like the other inside joke, this one is also credited to an ad-lib by Grant.
The supporting cast of “His Girl Friday” is picture-perfect from the smallest part to the largest. If you are reading this blog religiously, you’ve heard me rave about supporting casts over and over again. Keep in mind that people under studio contracts (actors, directors, writers, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, and so on) worked at their craft eight hours a day (or more), five days a week (or more), often for decades. That's a sure way to master a craft, and one reason character actors and actresses continually give stellar performances in so many films. Some of them made more than a dozen films in a year. I could point out every actor in this film, but shy of that, I’ll mention just a few.
Gene Lockhart who plays bumbling “Sheriff Hartwell”, is one of those faces you’ll see often in classic Hollywood films. Lockhart was a character actor and songwriter. He began on stage, and would appear in close to 150 films and TV shows. Among the many other classic films in which he appeared are "Miracle on 34th Street", "Going My Way", "Carousel", "Joan of Arc", "Leave Her to Heaven", "The Devil and Daniel Webster", "Edison, the Man”, "A Christmas Carol“, "The Gorgeous Hussy", and the 1938 film "Algiers", for which he earned his only Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. He was married once (until his death) to actress Kathleen Lockhart, and they had one daughter, actress June Lockhart (best known for the classic “Lost in Space” TV series). Gene Lockhart died in 1957 at the age of 65.
John Qualen give a truly outstanding performance as the convict, “Earl Williams”. He brings depth to the role in an unexpected way, with an ability to make us care about him. Another familiar face in classic Hollywood cinema, Qualen usually disappears into his many different roles, often speaking with various accents. His appearances in films are a real treat to watch because of his immense talent, and his performance as “Earl” is definitely a standout in “His Girl Friday”. He has appeared in two previous films on this blog, “Casablanca”, and “The Searchers”. I wrote about him in “The Searchers” post, where you can find out a bit more about his life and his career.
The last actor I’ll mention, who gives another standout performance, is Billy Gilbert who plays the somewhat slow witted, “Joe Pettibone”. He is hysterical! An actor who started in vaudeville, Billy Gilbert was spotted by Stan Laurel (of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy), who introduced him to film producer Hal Roach, who brought him to Hollywood. Gilbert began appearing in films in 1929, in supporting and bit roles with many of the top stars of his time, such as Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Alice Faye, Betty Grable, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, and many more. He appeared in well over 200 films and TV shows, including such classics as "Tin Pan Alley", "Captains Courageous", "Seven Sinners", "Destry Rides Again", "Week-End in Havana", "Arabian Nights", "Anchors Aweigh", and his brief yet memorable performance as “Herring” in the 1940 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece, “The Great Dictator”. He was known for his comically exaggerated sneeze gag, which led to him voicing “Sneezy”, in the 1937 Walt Disney animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Billy Gilbert was married once, to actress Ella McKenzie, until his death in 1971 at the age of 77.
The clock ticks on a bevy of hungry reporters, an escaped convict, and past and future husbands and wives. It all plays out in one of the best (and fastest) screwball comedies ever made. Enjoy “His Girl Friday”!
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