Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart | Written by Charles Lederer | Directed by Howard Hawks
Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy (Rosalind Russell) used to be married. Hildy is a journalist looking for a way out of the biz, but Walter – who also happens to be her ex-boss – wants to bring her back in. He just wants her, full stop. He sees her new fiancé – a safe dullard named Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) – and he despairs.
But Hildy and Bruce are leaving town tonight and getting married tomorrow. Walter, in typically psychopathic rom-com style, desperately contrives various ways of preventing them. Then the news story of the year is unleashed: a man accused of shooting a black police officer absconds on the eve of his execution.
A domino run of darkly farcical events begins, which not only resurrect Hildy’s passion for journalism, but also her lapsed camaraderie with Walter. Meanwhile, the men of the press office are having a field day, conjuring questionable headlines and “facts” for their articles. On top of that, the mayoral election is days away, and the political pieces, fearing a “Red uprising” in response to the convict’s escape, are shifting on the board.
So, there’s a helluva lot going on here. If it looks and feels like a stage play (there are only two or three locations in the film, none of them exterior), that’s because it was: The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Director Howard Hawks gives us the screwiest of screwball comedies, where the clever-clever dialogue is delivered at a thousand miles an hour, while joining up like calligraphy.
What distinguishes His Girl Friday today – apart from its timeless storytelling efficiency – is the vein of black humour running through it. All the interested institutions, including Hildy and Walter, are amoral, and all are in one way or another trying to cash in on the execution of a suspected murderer. Earl, the suspect himself, is a pitiful chap, as wide-eyed and manic as Elisha Cook Jr’s George Peatty in Kubrick’s The Killing.
Pick of the performances is Russell, who owns every room she enters, every scene in which she appears. She totally nails the sense of a machinating professional returning to a workplace where she once reigned supreme, sliding straight back into the competition and banter and holding her own.
Being made in 1940, there’s a lot to date the film in terms of style and production design. But I was surprised to find clear modern relevance in the way that news is disseminated. As the biggest twist of the night unfolds, we see the press officers leap to their phones, each telling a slightly different story, each desperate to get their version of the truth out into the wild first. Some things, it seems, will always be the same.
Hawks was a tremendously versatile director, excelling in numerous genres. This was the third of a trilogy of films he made with Cary Grant, beginning with Bringing up Baby in 1938 – and if you enjoyed that, you’re on safe ground. It may not have the weight or enduring relevance of heavyweight press industry classics like Citizen Kane or Sweet Smell of Success, but then His Girl Friday is too busy delivering fast-paced fun to care. Just try and keep up.
This 2-disc Criterion release is stacked with extras. Alongside a raft of docs and trailers, we get three radio play adaptations, and a great visual essay from film student messiah David Bordwell. On the second disc there’s The Front Page, Lewis Milestone’s 1931 film, whose restoration is detailed in yet another featurette.
His Girl Friday is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.