His Girl Friday - 1940
His Girl Friday is directed by Howard Hawks, a director that was described by Leonard Maltin as “the greatest American director who is not a household name”. He liked to have strong, tough-talking female characters in many of his movies, to the point that this character archetype is commonly known as the “Hawksian Woman”. This movie is no different, having Rosalind Russell as one of the leads playing Hildy, a fast-talking news reporter trying to leave her old life behind but her boss (and ex-husband), played by Cary Grant, is doing everything he can to stop her.
This movie was famously supposed to have two male leads, as the play it was based on and the 1931 movie they were rebooting had. During pre-production, Hawks had his secretary read the lines of the reporter and Hawks liked the female voice for that character. This change created more work for Hawk since casting this female lead turned out to be more difficult that he hoped for. With multiple legendary actresses turning down the part, among them previous collaborator Katharine Hepburn, Hawk turned to Russell as his ninth choice for the part.
Quick note, Russell felt Hawk didn’t want her and was treating her as an “also ran”. She reportedly told him “You don’t want me, do you? Well, you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it”. This perfectly mirrors what her character would’ve done and said, making her in my head perfect for the part.
Charles Lederer based his screenplay on a play by the name of The Front Page. The beauty of this screenplay is the amazing juggling act of multiple plot lines and how they all meld together seamlessly. The main plot circles around the romance that builds throughout the movie between Grant and Russell. This romance is set in the backdrop of a newspaper bullpen covering the trial and hanging of a criminal and the duo trying to save his life. While all of this is going on we are also seeing how Grant is trying to keep his best reporter at the newspaper by slowly unraveling the relationship between her and her new lovable fiancé, played by Ralph Bellamy.
This is one of the fastest and funniest movies ever made and its completely anchored around the performances of its leads. The banter between them is impressive and I imagine it took many takes to perfectly craft there scenes together. The dialogue is written in a way that one character is starting their sentence while the other one is trying to finish theirs. Finding themselves constantly talking over one another created a sense of realism and flair to their scenes. While the scenes feel perfectly rehearsed like a dance, Hawks allowed for improvisation during filming and this gave both of his leads a chance to “punch-up” their dialogue, constantly trying to one up each other.
Cary Grant brings a level of comedic timing that many leading men from today’s Hollywood have tried to imitate or pay tribute to. Like I said above, he plays the head editor in the paper working to cover the potential hanging of a criminal. What I love about his character is how he sells his lies, he never telegraphs them and is constantly talking so you don’t have a chance to think about what he said first and you take it at face value. He makes fun of Russell’s fiancé right in his face and the fiancé never even notices it. Grant was playing chess while everyone else in the cast was playing checkers; everyone, that is, except for Russell.
Rosalind Russell is not a name that pops in my head whenever I think of the silver screen legends of the 40s and 50s, but this movie certainly fixed that mistake. She went toe to toe with an actor that has been recognized as “the greatest leading man Hollywood had ever known”. She was just as quick with her line delivery as him and could steal some of the spotlight from him in many of their shared scenes. One of my favorite aspects from her performance, outside of her line delivery, was how she used the room to her advantage, constantly moving around or utilizing the props to create a more believable character.
His Girl Friday is flat out funny and entertaining, having a solid story that is boosted by its two leads. Hollywood is currently in climate where everything is remade or rebooted but they don’t seem to reach or surpass the quality of the original source material. This movie is one of the rare exceptions of taking an already great source material and elevating it to a whole other level. The banter between Russell and Grant is why I love movies.
His Girl Friday is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. If you don’t watch it, I’m telling my wife.
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