Tuesday, June 3, 2014

His Girl Friday (1940)

Director: Howard Hawks


When director Howard Hawkes looked to produce an adaptation of “The Front Page” in 1939 he had a creative epiphany that revolution the dynamic of the story by turning one of the main male characters into a woman, thus was born the concept of what would become His Girl Friday, one of the best acclaimed comedies in American cinema. Based on the successful play, which already had a prosperous film variation from 1931 by Lewis Milestone, this verbally heavy, fast-paced comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is packed with brilliant creative writing and comedic timing.

Walter wants Hildy to do one last story.
His Girl Friday is a screwball comedy of a fast talking newspaper editor convincing his ex-wife, a former top reporter, to write one more hugely juicy story that falls right into their laps before she leaves town to marry another man. Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is so wrapped up in being the editor of “the Morning Post” that he neglects and loses his wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell), who also happens to be the most gifted writer for the paper as well. Determined to leave the newspaper business for good to become a housewife to an insurance man from upstate New York named Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), Hildy is lured in by Walter to report on the crime that has all the city talking. Hildy’s reporting skills allows her to find the biggest scoops on the story about Earl William (John Qualen), the man convicted for murder. Ultimately Hildy and Walter would break the news on the biggest scandal that convicts the city’s mayor and sheriff for attempting to stop the governor’s reprieve Earl Williams for their own political gain. The whole time they are reporting Walter hinders Bruce’s various attempts to get Hildy to leave town with him, and in the process of breaking the biggest news in town Hildy and Walter rekindle their love for each other, deciding to remarry.

The film is a fast-paced, word-heavy, intellectual comedy that pokes fun at just about everything from sexism to politics, from marriage duties to Hitler. It’s a picture that requires one to give it your full attention as it moves so fast and frantic with the dialogue you might missed well-placed jokes. Much like the 1931 Lewis Milestone picture, the newsroom action of the feature is filled with words that fly a mile a minute with sharp wit and important nuggets of information to the plot. In My Girl Friday Howard Hawks makes the characters almost bounce off the walls, as well as off each other as the action of dialogue come furiously from all over. It makes for a delightfully humorous picture with wittiness that can stand the test of time.

Walter attempts to get between his ex-wife and her fiance.
It was director Howard Hawks that envisioned the idea of transforming the character of Hildy Johnson from the originally intended male role to the female we see in the feature. This notion would come to his creative mind when he had his secretary feeding lines to actors in auditions for the Walter Burns character. Hawks loved the delivery by a female voice so much that he decided to change the Hildy character, asking for a rewrite that made her the divorced wife of Walter, while keeping the idea that Hildy was attempting to marry and move away from the newspaper business.

Cary Grant was an early choice to play Walter, as he had become a recognized star of such screwball comedies in recent years. It was the role of Hildy that became the problem in casting. Ultimately the part was played very well by Rosalind Russell as the quick witted, fast-talking reporter that nearly leaves the Morning Post. However Rosalind would discover that she was far from the first choice Hawks wanted in the role. Names of actresses linked to the Hildy character that turned down the part was a near who’s-who of Hollywood actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, and Claudette Colbert. With this knowledge Russell had her run-ins with both her director and her co-star. Russell felt she was treated coldly by Howard Hawks, confronting him with the notion that he was stuck with her and should make the best of it. Hawks encouraged adlibbing in his films to add character to the script and Russell did so very often to make herself stand out from Cary Grant’s character, much to the chagrin of Grant. These adlibs led to Grant stating coldly to Russell with regularity “What have you got today?”

Grant to would take his opportunities with adlibbing leading to one line as an Easter egg of an inside joke. The line appears in a scene where he refers to a man that crossed him in the past. The person he mentions is Archie Leach, Cary Grant’s real name. Grant’s adlibbing also leads to the joke of Bruce being described by Walter as a guy that looks like the actor Ralph Bellamy, that actor actually playing Bruce, which made audiences laugh.

Along with Ralph Bellamy, who plays the supporting waning love interest of Hildy, the supporting cast of character actors was filled with many characters. Gene Lockhart plays the bumbling and crocked sheriff. Former vaudevillian Clarence Kolb portrayed the mayor using the execution as a way for him to gain interest in re-election. John Qualen plays the character in question throughout the film, Earl Williams, the murderer set for execution who is the subject of the major story Hildy is working on.

Hildy is hooked and cannot get away from reporting.
Understandably there can be confusion for contemporary audiences concerning the title of the picture. His Girl Friday has nothing to do with the name of the girl or the day of the week in which the movie takes place. “Girl Friday” is a reference to Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe’s somewhat man servant is named Friday, and the term “guy Friday” was used to refer to a man that does another’s bidding, therefore “girl Friday,” as seen here in the film, refers to Hildy somehow being the girl who, through Walter’s manipulation, does his bidding.

His Girl Friday would a well-received comedy of its time and the many decades that followed. The film would be adapted back into a stage play with Hildy being a woman for the humorous sexual friction between the two main characters as Hawks revolutionized the already popular story. Despite the feature falling into public domain in 1968 due to a lapse in filing for copyright, the film stills stands as one of the highest praised comedies in all American cinema, elected to the National Film Registry in 1993 and being named to the AFI’s list of the top comedies of all time. The pictures still brings laughs with its quick humor even for contemporary audiences and remains a very fine piece of comedy to be enjoyed for decades to come.

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