1001 Classic Movies: His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy, is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). This year's best picture Academy Award winner Spotlight has brought a renewed interest in the good, old-fashioned newspaper movie. Throughout September, I'll feature three great movies about the printed page starting with the screwball comedy, His Girl Friday (1940). FYI: Citizen Kane is a famous newspaper movie I've already written about during the May series on 1941 best picture nominees.

His Girl Friday tells the story of divorced couple Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who is the hard-boiled editor of a big-city newspaper called The Morning Post, and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), the ace reporter for the Post who has decided to give up journalism for a life of domestic bliss in Albany, N.Y., with her new fiance (Ralph Bellamy). Hildy's well-made plans go awry when, at the last minute, Walter assigns her to cover the controversial execution of an accused cop killer (John Qualen).

His Girl Friday is based on the 1928 stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that had already been made into a 1931 movie starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. In the original, the character of Hildy Johnson was male, but director Howard Hawks, after having a secretary go over some of the script with him, realized that if Hildy was played by an actress the movie would make a perfect romantic comedy. His Girl Friday was well-received by audiences and critics in its initial release, but since then, the movie has attained a cult status among old Hollywood film fans for its rapid-fire dialogue and strong female characters.

There is a lot of screwball silliness in His Girl Friday, but anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper will certainly nod their head in recognition at certain familiar elements of the story, including Walter's hard-charging style -- he and Hildy spent their honeymoon covering a mine cave-in -- and the casual cynicism and gallows humor of the press corps. Hecht and MacArthur also cut through all of the comedy to make some serious points about the necessity of a free press in a democratic society such as when Walter and Hildy uncover serious corruption in city hall by stumbling onto a bumbling government courier (Billy Gilbert) whom the mayor (Clarence Kolb) attempted to bribe.

His Girl Friday Viewer's Guide: This movie is one of the best screwball comedies ever made, featuring great performances and some of the sharpest dialogue ever recorded on a Hollywood sound stage. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Grant. The actor appeared in a laundry list of great films during his legendary career, but, in my opinion, his best comic performance is in His Girl Friday. Grant gives the arrogant and manipulative Walter an effortless charm, whether he's trying to woo Hildy away from her dull-as-dishwater fiance or telling an escaped convict he is "sitting pretty" while hiding inside a desk.
2. Feminism. Russell always specialized in playing strong female characters, but her Hildy is one of the most empowered female characters in old Hollywood films. Not only can she go toe-to-toe with the intimidating Walter, but she is the ace reporter and best writer on The Morning Post.
3. Rapid-fire dialogue. Screwballs were known for their snappy, fast-paced dialogue, but His Girl Friday ups the ante with Grant and Russell firing off lines at a pace of up to 240 words per minute.
4 In jokes. Hawks encouraged the actors to ad-lib and Grant is especially good at it, getting off great meta jokes about his costars (Walter refers to Hildy's fiance as looking like "that film star, Ralph Bellamy") and he makes several self-referential jokes, comparing a character to the mock turtle, a role he played in the 1933 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, and referencing his own birth name of Archie Leach.

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant between takes on His Girl Friday (1940).
Other critics: His Girl Friday has a 97 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin calls the movie "a must-see film" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1940 were mostly positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times favorably compared His Girl Friday to The Front Page writing that "we don't mind conceding 'His Girl Friday' is a bold-faced reprint of what was once—and still remains—the maddest newspaper comedy of our times." The Variety critic predicted financial success for the comedy stating that "director Howard Hawks has made a film that can stand alone almost anywhere and grab healthy grosses."

The bottom line: His Girl Friday is one of the best comedies ever made in the old Hollywood studio system. Watch it for Grant at his all-time comic best and the razor sharp dialogue that was decades ahead of its time.

Availability: His Girl Friday will air on TCM at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 15. It is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu and also on DVD, Blu ray and video on demand.

Next week, I'll continue the newpaper theme with Burt Lancaster as a powerful columnist in the film noir, Sweet Smell of Success (1957).