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With: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall
Written by: Charles Lederer, based upon a play by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 92
Date: 01/11/1940

His Girl Friday (1940)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Power of the Press

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play The Front Page had been filmed once before, in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, and again later, in 1974 by Billy Wilder. But after Charles Lederer adapted it for Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940), there was no need to do anything more to it. Lederer and Hawks had the brilliant idea of turning the character of Hildy Johnson into a woman, who leaves her newspaper job to marry a man. Thus there was now an added struggle of the romantic entanglement between Hildy and Walter Burns, the editor of the newspaper -- a love triangle that wasn't there before. (A 1988 comedy called Switching Channels also used this version of the play.)

Hildy is played by Rosiland Russell, and her new fiancé Bruce Baldwin by Ralph Belamy (that essential milquetoast). They arrive at the paper to inform Walter (Cary Grant) of the news, hours before they plan on catching the evening train out of town. Walter is doubly affected because he's losing his greatest reporter and the woman he loves. Their first scene together in Burns' office is a masterwork of comic timing, brilliant line readings, and unobtrusive direction by Hawks. Although Hawks doesn't make him presence known in the scene, he was surely behind the camera speeding up the proceedings. In the scene, Grant and Russell brilliantly spar back and forth, grappling for the upper hand. Grant has a superb moment when he stops, sits down and says, "you took the wind out of my sails." He's defeated, but still looking for that upper hand all in the same moment.

Walter schemes to keep Hildy around by using a story about a death row inmate (John Qualen), a spindly little man who has supposedly killed in anger. If Hildy can spin the right kind of story, she could save the inmate's life. Hildy gets back into the swing of things, thinking and speaking rapid-fire. Poor Bruce gets shuttled around like a pinball, falling for different schemes and manipulations, and usually ending up in jail. He's just not quick enough to keep up with Hildy and Walter. In the end, of course, Hildy realizes that her place is with the paper, and with Walter. Grant is arguably the greatest screen actor of all time, and in this movie, Russell was the closest thing to his equal. They whip irreverent barbs back and forth like expert swordsmen. To me, the moment for the canon is when Grant sends out his gangster lackey to locate Bruce. The gangster asks what the man looks like and Grant replies, "he looks like that actor fellow..." snapping his fingers... "Ralph Bellamy!"

Hawks could make both rapid-fire movies and laid-back movies, but he could sustain the same perfect tone throughout each. His characters have unspoken bonds. You never hear any preaching or opinions. A Hawks movie generally establishes its mood in the first few scenes. Yet as accomplished as it is, His Girl Friday cheats us a little bit as Hawks wavers from his established pattern. I still love His Girl Friday, but because of these tiny drawbacks, it falls just behind Bringing Up Baby in the never-ending competition between those two screwball classics in my heart.

Firstly, the setup for His Girl Friday is perfect. In two long scenes, first at the paper, then at a restaurant over lunch, Hawks establishes his pace, tone, and his characters. Then he breaks that rhythm by throwing in the death-row inmate, Earl Williams (John Qualen), a mumbly character who slows down the proceedings by just a hair. That alone is forgivable, but then some characters begin to take a moral stand about what is right and what is wrong, concerning the inmate and his fate. A gallery of cynical reporters who sit around the press room and play cards don't seem to care one way or another. Hildy and Walter care mostly about their story. But another character, Molly Malloy (Helen Mack), inexplicably shows up. She has spent time with the inmate and knows how he really is. This is tantamount to preaching -- thankfully the most preachy that Hawks ever got (with the possible exception of his wartime movie Sergeant York).

Even so, His Girl Friday was a hit back in 1940 and Bringing Up Baby was a flop in 1938. Perhaps we do need our stories spoon-fed to us. Maybe Bringing Up Baby was too much to handle all in one gulp. It could be that in His Girl Friday the Molly Malloy and Earl Williams characters exist only as a breather in the center of the film so that we, the audience, can reflect and rest, and then jump into the third act with renewed vigor. In any case, His Girl Friday is a smashing entertainment, brilliantly presented by Howard Hawks.

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