Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
His Girl Friday (1940)
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Background

His Girl Friday (1940) is Howard Hawks' speedy and hysterically funny, modern-style screwball comedy, and one of the best examples of its kind in film history. Although it has an 92-minute running time, the breath-taking, fast-paced film has more than enough dialogue for a 3-hour movie. The film marked the beginning of a number of screwball comedies in the 1940s that emphasized the conflict for women in deciding between love/marriage and professional careers.

The original film version of His Girl Friday was director Lewis Milestone's big hit The Front Page (1931), produced by Howard Hughes and released by United Artists. [Milestone had won the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for the previous year's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).] This second screen version's screenplay, again by Charles Lederer, brilliantly transformed Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthur's newspaper classic - the George S. Kaufman-directed 1928 Broadway smash-hit play The Front Page, with a major script change.

One of the main male characters in the earlier film, Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson (played by Pat O'Brien), became female - renamed Hildegard Johnson (played by Rosalind Russell), to star opposite the major actor, Cary Grant. [Grant was the leading man from Hawks' two previous films: the male-dominated action film Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), and had appeared in other romantic comedies at the time (i.e., The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and My Favorite Wife (1940)).] Other changes in the script involved removing topical references to the 1920s, and jokes about Prohibition.

The gender swap brought an entirely new angle to the film, making it more than a satirical view and social commentary on the operation of a newsroom under the management of a hard-boiled, smart-alec managing editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant in this version, Adolphe Menjou in the earlier film), and providing an additional feminine-romance angle.

This madcap, giddy film - originally titled The Bigger They Are, is best remembered for its overlapping dialogue and simultaneous conversations, rapid-fire delivery, breakneck speed, word gags, sexual innuendo, plot twists, "in" jokes, mugging, jousting, sarcastic insults, frantic pace and farcical script. With its plot about a ruthless editor, a marriage renewed by divorce and the threat of re-marriage, a politically corrupt city, and a questionable judicial system, the romantic comedy is both a love story and a sophisticated battle of the sexes (and duel of wits).

This screwball masterpiece lacked even a single Academy Award nomination. Cary Grant's un-nominated performance as the suave, calculating and exploitative managing editor, who attempts to lure and maneuver his ex-wife (and star reporter) back with the opportunity to write a breaking, front page news-story, is a tour de force of comedy - combining cartoonish faces, silent-film pantomime, slapstick, witty word-play, and irony into one remarkable characterization. Likewise, Rosalind Russell's role as the ace news-reporter to her ex-husband and ex-managing editor, who is wooed back from marrying a staid, dull, but devoted insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), is her greatest comedic portrayal, following her similar role in The Women (1939). Film posters exclaimed how she holds up as Grant's equal: "SHE LEARNED ABOUT MEN FROM HIM." [Ironically, Grant's other film in this same year, The Philadelphia Story (1940), had a similar plot about him trying to win back his ex-wife (Katharine Hepburn) from her very soon-to-be-wed fiancee.]

Director Billy Wilder attempted a remake with a third film version: The Front Page (1974) with Jack Lemmon (as Hildy Johnson) and Walter Matthau (as Walter Burns). It was again remade (with the same gender twist, but newspapers were updated to a TV news environment) as Switching Channels (1988) by director Ted Kotcheff, with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner in the lead roles, and a frosted-haired Christopher Reeve as the third individual in the love triangle, a New York millionaire.

The Story

After the credits, the film begins with a prologue - typed and superimposed over a page of newspaper:

It all happened in the "dark ages" of the newspaper game - - when to a reporter "getting that story" justified anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today. Ready? Well, once upon a time - -

In the film's opening scene, a long traveling shot tracks from right to left within the newspaper offices of Chicago's Morning Post to display the working world of journalism. It moves past reporters typing, speaking on phones or writing at their desks. One editor calls out to a "copyboy," as the scene dissolves to a shot of female telephone operators at a switchboard in the outer office. As the camera moves further to the left, it rests on the elevators in the lobby.

Two individuals emerge from one of the elevators: Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), wearing a striped suit and matching hat, and her overly-attentive fiancee Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). After telling Bruce to remain in the front waiting room behind the wooden railing and "NO ADMITTANCE" sign, Hildy is tracked back to the right as she enters the offices and speaks to the two switchboard operators:

Tell me. Is the Lord of the Universe in?

She notifies Bruce that she will "be back in ten minutes." He thoughtfully responds in a slow drawl about the length of her absence. Unaccustomed to being "spoiled," she curtails her fast pace and asks for her affectionate fiancee to repeat himself:

Bruce: Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.
Hildy: (She pauses and walks backwards to him.) What did you say?
Bruce: What?
Hildy: Go on. (He laughs sheepishly) Well, go ahead.
Bruce: Well, I just said, 'Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.'
Hildy: I heard you the first time. I like it. That's why I asked you to say it again.

Hildy turns and strides through the working offices from left to right. The camera tracks her movement as she extends hellos, a pat on the back, exchanges of information, and smiles to her co-workers. She enters the inner office of her ex-boss (and ex-husband), big-city newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). In Walter's office are two of his buddies: gangster-type Diamond Louie (Abner Biberman) and managing city editor Duffy (Frank Orth). The latest news story, delivered by Duffy, is that the governor has refused to sign a reprieve for the execution of a mentally-disturbed murderer named Earl Williams (John Qualen). Burns has an idea that he wants Duffy to send to the governor: "Tell him if he'll reprieve Earl Williams, we'll support him for senator. Tell him the Morning Post will be behind him hook, line, and sinker."

After dismissing his buddies, Hildy remarks: "Walter, I see you're still at it." Although he takes a seat for himself, she must ask for the simplest common courtesy for herself: "Do you mind if I sat down?" She plops herself on a desk and then asks for one of his cigarettes ("Oh, may I have one of those?"). He tosses her a cigarette and hands her the book of matches. They are meeting for the first time since their divorce four months earlier. Hildy calculates the time:

Hildy: I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda, oh, about four months, I guess. It seems like yesterday to me.
Walter: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy. Been seeing me in your dreams?
Hildy: Oh, no, Mama doesn't dream about you anymore, Walter. You wouldn't know the old girl now.

Although she has had many changes in her life, Walter believes he still knows her. In fact, the rhythmic tone of their talk, their reactions, and their speedy use of words are almost identical. He repeats to her the speech he made the night he proposed:

I'd know you anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

The divorce has had a negative effect on Walter:

I wish you hadn't done that, Hildy...Divorce me. Makes a fellow lose all faith in himself...Almost gives him a feeling he wasn't wanted.

Yet he believes that the "old-fashioned" idea of divorce as something that lasts forever doesn't really mean anything: "Just a few words, mumbled over you by a judge. We've got something between us nothing can change." Walter found it rough to let Hildy go and fought the divorce to the very end: "You never miss the water till the well runs dry." She mocks the way he tried to entice her to dismiss the divorce:

A big fat lummox like you - hiring an airplane to write: 'Hildy, don't be hasty, remember my dimple.' Walter. It delayed our divorce twenty minutes while the judge went out to watch it.

With sexual innuendo and an attempt to woo her back, Walter brags: "...I've still got the dimple and in the same place." As he sits close to her on the desk, he explains why he tried to keep her as his wife in his promised "home":

Walter: Look, Hildy, I only acted like any husband who didn't want to see his home broken up.
Hildy: What home?
Walter: What home? Don't you remember the home I promised you?
Hildy: Sure I do. That was the one we were to have right after the honeymoon. Ha, ha, that honeymoon.

Hildy is ready to forsake the kinetic pace of journalism for the promise of a simpler life, a real home in the sticks with kids, and a husband who has a more predictable job. During their honeymoon, for instance, they reported on a coal mine that caved in, beating the whole country with a scoop on the story. Hildy remembers their honeymoon (or lack thereof) well:

Hildy: All I know is that instead of two weeks in Atlantic City with my bridegroom, I spent two weeks in a coal mine with John Krupsky. You don't deny that, do you Walter?
Walter: Deny it? I'm proud of it. We beat the whole country on that story.
Hildy: (shouting) Well, suppose we did. That isn't what I got married for!

She has come to request that he quit phoning her a dozen times a day, and sending her twenty telegrams. Fearing that he will lose both his ex-wife and his star reporter, he suggests that she come back to the paper and work with him to see if they can get along: "What's the use of fighting, Hildy? I'll tell you what you do. You come back to work on the paper, and if we find we can't get along in a friendly fashion, we'll get married again." Hildy contemptuously admires his diligence:

Oh Walter, you're wonderful - in a loathsome sort of way.

She admits she has a "better offer" for a boss: "Listen, Walter, you are no longer my husband and no longer my boss. And you're not going to be my boss." He becomes incensed that she shows no sense of gratitude for his mentorship and they jabber at each other with overlapping lines:

Walter: All right, take it. Work for somebody else. That's the gratitude I get.
Hildy: Oh, I wish you'd stop hamming.
Walter: What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a school of journalism. I took a doll-faced hick.
Hildy: Well, you wouldn't take me if I hadn't been doll-faced...
Walter: Listen. I made a great reporter out of you, Hildy. But you won't be half as good on any other paper and you know it. We're a team. That's what we are. You need me and I need you, and the paper needs both of us.
Hildy (overlapping with his words, she pretends she is an auctioneer for Lucky Strike cigarettes): Sold American! Listen, Walter, the paper's gonna have to get along without me. So are you. It just didn't work out, Walter.
Walter: Well, it would have worked out if you'd been satisfied with just being editor and reporter - but not you! You had to marry me and spoil everything.
Hildy: I wasn't satisfied? I suppose I proposed to you?

Walter insinuates that she made "goo-goo eyes" at him for two years, and forced him to propose when he was drunk: "And I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you." Just like old times, she hurls her pocketbook at his head from behind - he doesn't see it coming, but ducks instinctively. She misses, causing him to calmly respond:

You're losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that.

To entice her to stay as one of the paper's few quality writers/reporters that has enough smarts to cover the Earl Williams case, he pretends that his only other writer capable of doing the job, Sweeney, is at the hospital tending to his wife having a baby: "Everything happens to me. Three hundred and sixty five days in a year, and this has to be the day." Walter's deeper motive is to keep Hildy near him: "Hildy, you've got to help me out. Just this once...This will bring us back together again. Just the way we used to be." Walter offers her a higher salary to return to her former job:

Walter: This is bigger than anything that ever happened to us. Don't do it for me, do it for the paper.
Hildy: Scram, Svengali.
Walter: Now look, if you won't do it for love, how about money? Forget the other offer. I'll raise you twenty-five bucks a week.

She finally gets a word in edgewise to announce her impending marriage, show him her engagement ring, to emphasize her need to be "a woman" and NOT a "newspaperman," and to tell him that she wants respectability, stability, and security. Meanwhile, Walter touches the phone in front of him and contemplates what new tactics he must devise to prevent her marriage to this new rival:

Hildy: Listen to me, you great big bumble-headed baboon.
Walter: I'll make it thirty-five bucks and not a cent more.
Hildy: Walter, are you gonna listen?
Walter: But good grief, how much is that other paper gonna pay you?
Hildy: There isn't any other paper.
Walter: Oh! Well in that case, the raise is off. You go back to your old salary... (The phone rings and he answers it.)
Hildy: Walter, I want to show you something. It's here. It's a ring. Take a good look at it. Do you know what it is? It's an engagement ring. (He stops short for the first time.) I tried to tell you right away, but you would start reminiscing. I'm getting married, Walter, and I'm also getting as far away from the newspaper business as I can get.
Walter: What?
Hildy: I am through.
Walter: You can marry all you want to, Hildy, but you can't quit the newspaper business.
Hildy: Oh! Why not?
Walter: I know you, Hildy. I know what quitting would mean to you.
Hildy: And what would it mean?
Walter: It would kill ya.
Hildy: You can't sell me that, Walter Burns.
Walter: Who says I can't? You're a newspaperman.
Hildy: That's why I'm quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.
Walter: You mean be a traitor.
Hildy: A traitor? A traitor to what?
Walter: A traitor to journalism. You're a journalist, Hildy.
Hildy: A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler's gonna start another war? Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives'll know what's going on. Why-... Golly, what's the use? Walter, you-you wouldn't know what it means to want to be respectable and live a half-way normal life. The point is, I-I'm through.

She has returned from Bermuda where she met her new beau - "this man." He's an insurance salesman ("That's a good, honest business, isn't it?") - a profession that Walter sarcastically disparages with irony: "Oh certainly, it's honest. It's also adventurous, it's romantic. Listen, Hildy, I can't picture you being surrounded by policies, policies..." But Hildy argues that she enjoys her beau's chivalrous manners:

Hildy: I can, I can, and I like it, what's more. Besides, he forgets the office when he's with me...He doesn't treat me like an errand boy either, Walter. He treats me like a woman.
Walter: He does, does he? How did I treat ya, like a water buffalo?
Hildy: I don't know from water buffalos, but I do know about him. He's kind and he's sweet and he's considerate. He wants a home and children.
Walter: Sounds more like a guy I ought to marry. What's his name?
Hildy: Uh, Baldwin. Bruce Baldwin.
Walter: Baldwin, Baldwin. Oh, I knew a Baldwin once. A horse thief in Mississippi. Couldn't be the same fella, could it?
Walter: You're now talking about the man I'm marrying tomorrow.

At last, Hildy is able to tell Walter what she originally came to say. She staunchly insists that she wants to be married - as soon as the following day - to a caring husband. When a flustered Walter learns that she plans to get married almost immediately ("Tomorrow? As soon as that?"), he rubs his hands together, fingers the phone, picks up a carnation from a vase, slips it into his buttonhole, and then rubs his lapel.

During their farewell, Walter - who acts impassively - wishes her all the best, and then asks to meet Baldwin who is waiting outside - obviously, his mischievous mind is working overtime to find a way to dislodge Hildy from her imminent marriage: "Oh, now you're not afraid, are ya?...Come on, let's see this paragon. Is he as good as you say?" Walter bursts out of his office in front of Hildy (without holding the door for her as a "woman" but as a fellow "newspaperman") and firmly marches ahead of her through the paper's work area to confront Bruce. [The camera tracks their progress as they actually stride in step together from right to left across the screen.] In a comical case of mistaken identities, Walter greets an elderly gentleman in the waiting area ("I can see right away my wife picked out the right husband for herself"). Then after discovering his error, Walter shakes hands with Bruce's wooden umbrella handle instead of his hand. He cleverly humiliates Baldwin by suggesting he is a stuffy, older man, telling Hildy: "You led me to expect you were marrying a much older man...I realize you didn't mean old in years." Bruce is prepared for bad weather (with umbrella, raincoat, and rubbers): "A man ought to be prepared for any emergency," notes Walter. As Walter invites them both to lunch to find further ways to keep Hildy from marrying Bruce, Hildy warns him - from the side of her mouth: "You're wasting your time, Walter, it won't do you a bit of good."

The restaurant-lunch scene, the second scene in the film, is one of the film's funniest. During the meal, Walter deliberately sits between Bruce and Hildy. He congratulates the bridegroom on his choice of a star reporter: "...You're getting a great little girl for yourself...You're getting something else too, Bruce, you're getting a great newspaperman ... One of the best I ever knew. Sorry to see her go. Darn sorry, Hildy." Bruce wonders if Hildy has any doubts about leaving the newspaper business and then realizes this is her first chance "to have a home and to be like you said - a human being, and I'm gonna make you take that chance." Walter's words are dripping in irony as he amusedly comments upon the couple's impending move to Albany to live in Bruce's mother's house:

Walter: Certainly, why I wouldn't let her stay. She deserves all this happiness, Bruce. All the things I couldn't give her. Yeah, all she ever wanted was a home.
Bruce: Well, I'll certainly try to give her one.
Walter: I know you will, Bruce. Where are you gonna live?
Bruce: Albany.
Walter: Albany, huh? Got a family up there then?
Bruce: No, just my mother.
Walter: 'Just your mother.' Oh, you're gonna live with your mother?
Bruce: Well, just for the first year.
Walter: Oh, that will be nice! Yes, yes, a home with mother - in Albany too!
Bruce: Mighty nice little town - Albany. They've got the state capital there, you know.


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