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His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday

By Ben Nicholson • May 21st, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Columbia Pictures

Original release: January 11th, 1940
Running time: 92 minutes

Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur

Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy

His Girl Friday

As a male, the romantic comedy genre has never had the greatest attraction for me, especially during the formative period in which I fell under the spell of the cinema screen. As I got older, however, I began to take a look at older films. All of a sudden, I found comedies, and romantic ones at that. These I couldn’t have imagined in our more modern age, where the comedy has grown milder with more of an eye on the romance and, supposedly, on what the female audience wants.

As I discovered silent film, I saw Harold Lloyd in the typical race against time to stop the wedding scene for the whole second half of the gut-busting, inventive Girl Shy (1924). It may not be a romantic comedy as we know it today, but it’s all about the love story – and it’s hilarious. Then of course there is the fast-talking repartee of screwball comedies: a large amount of which are romantic at their core. If fast-talking is what you like, then you can’t do much better than Howard Hawks’ lightning paced His Girl Friday.

In the film, we’re introduced to Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) who’s about to get married to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and stops in at the offices of The Chicago Morning Post to inform the editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), she’ll be leaving his employ and moving away from the city. Walter not only wants to keep his best reporter, but it transpires that Walter and Hildy used to be married and as such, he has even stronger motives for not embracing her departure. The second he hears about the imminent nuptials, Walter goes on the offensive, trying every trick in the book – and outside it – to get his ex-wife back in the game, primarily through a mouth-watering story prospect.

The Post has been petitioning the local senator for a reprieve for Earl Williams (John Qualen). Convicted of killing a black police officer, Earl is to be hanged in the morning both for his crime and to secure a large percentage of the voters for the Mayor and the Sheriff at the impending elections. Now it seems the only way would be to run a story convincing the world that Williams was not of sound mind when he shot the officer – and what better way for Hildy to go out than such a story? At least that’s what Walter tells her.

His Girl Friday

The most wonderful thing about His Girl Friday is that when Cary Grant pitches this story idea to Rosalind Russell, he does so at about two hundred and forty words a minute. Normally, dialogue in films come in at approximately ninety words per minute, but in this film both Grant and Russell are supersonic. With some of the best back and forth dialogue that any film fan is ever likely to have the pleasure of hearing, the it’s a real must for fans of a good zinger.

The absurdity of the situation heightens exponentially as Hildy does take on the story and then Earl Williams escapes from custody whilst being seen by the psychological examiner. The speed of Grant’s patter makes it, at times, almost unintelligible but you can understand it just enough to see the aim of his sly schemes and it’s something to behold that Russell can pretty much keep up with him. There’s one scene in particular when she’s on two phones – one to Walter, the other to Bruce – having two separate one hundred-mile-an-hour conversations, bobbing her head back and forth to hear the responses. It’s magical stuff.

Having said all of that, His Girl Friday isn’t perfect. The fact that all Hawks really has to do is wind up Grant and Russell,- and set them off means there’s little he can really try visually, as he mostly needs to let the camera run to catch all of the dialogue. This is not necessarily to the movie’s detriment, but it does make for His Girl Friday uninspired viewing when the wit and barbs aren’t flying. Similarly, the settings are sparse, somewhat underused and under-inhabited considering the bustle that the film suggests.

The film does, however, have a fantastically cynical edge in keeping with the keen wit. It aims its sharpened blade at the Mayor and the Sheriff who ignore a reprieve from the senator in order to keep their voters happy, and even targets the reporters who have little care for the people at the centre of the story – and a lot more for the byline or the reputation of their own paper. When a young woman is hounded almost to death by the other men in the courthouse press room, you think there may be an epiphany coming – but there isn’t.

It might not break the rules in terms of its narrative, but few romantic comedies do. The newspaper ink is in Hildy’s veins and you know exactly where she belongs the moment she steps into that world. His Girl Friday must, though, at some point break a record for incredible, fast-paced, and completely joyous dialogue. Hats off to Grant and Russell: you could argue that they’re never better than they are here.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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