His Girl Friday, filmed in 1939, directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Grant with Rosalind Russell, is a classic screwball comedy, a fast-talking, furiously-paced gem. It’s based on the hit Broadway play ‘TheFront Page’ and is the second of three versions to be filmed, firstly in 1931 and then again in 1974, starring the brilliant pairing of Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Both the other versions use the play’s title and stick to the original in one vital aspect: both the leads are male. His Girl Friday pulls a pefect switch by having the Hildy Johnson part played by a woman.
The play and film is set in the newspaper business (charmingly claimed to be in the ‘bad old days’, before the Press became the models of probity they were in 1939, which gives us our first laugh). Walter Burns (Grant) is the editor of the ‘Morning Post’, Hildy Johnson his top reporter, who’s leaving the business to get married. The twist in His Girl Friday is that this Hildy is also his recently-divorced wife, who’s dreaming of being a human being instead of a newspaper man.
Burns isn’t prepared to lt Hildy go. He’s a monster, an unrepentent, shameless manipulator, not above any level of dirty tricks, including gettinginconvenient people locked up for crimes they haven’t committed, lying outrageously, passing forged currency and kidnappingan elderly woman. All for what? Not letting Hildy go.
And Hildy is wanted to cover a story. Earl Williams, a little man who’s killed a cop, is awaiting execution in the morning after two reprieves. The Post has backed Williams, arguing he was insane, not culpable, that the Mayor and Sherriff have themselves manipulated the system to procure an execution only three days before a re-Election campaign in which they’re running on a Law & Order ticket.
This much is true: the Sheriff’s plainly an incompetent, the Mayor has hired a couple of hundred relatives on the City’s payroll, and when a further reprieve arrives from the Governor, the pair attempt to suppress it, and bribe the man who delivers it, to enable the execution to go through.
But by then, Williams has broken free and is on the run, having used the Sheriff’s own gun to break out. He only gets as far as the Prison’s Press Room, where Hildy is alone.
Yes, Hildy is working the story. She’s doing it for $2,500, being the commission on an insurance policy. You see, Hildy’s turned up at the paper to tell her editor that she’s quitting, and her ex-husband that she’s getting re-married. Tomorrow. Burns has to get his skates on to comprehensively destroy Hildy’s happiness – for her own good, naturally. And Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) sells insurance (and still lives with his mother), so Hildy agrees to do an interview with Williams only because Burns takes out a $100,000 policy.
Needless to say, Burns intends to lie, cheat, connive and generally bugger things up for his own benefit. But it’s noticeable how, despite her determination to get away, Hildy, once she is in the middle of a story, reverts entirely to type as a newspaper man. We’ve already seen she’s as cynical as the rest, talking Williams into an ‘admission’ in their brief interview that’s entirely of her own devising. She’s in a throng of pressmen whose cynicism and callousness is pretty bloody revolting, and sickeningly identical to modern day press treatments: their monstrous inflation of one brief meeting between Williams and the girl, Molly Malloy, his only sympathiser, into a grand, illicit passion has crucified her even more than him, and for a film of this era, their wisecracking is extraordinarily vicious and sickening.
But Hildy’s difference from theircynicism is only by a matter of degree, and in the end she is overtaken by the story in a frenetic ending that sees all the good guys win, if, that is, you count Walter Burns as a good guy. Hildy ends up agreeing to remarry him, but it takes about five seconds for her agreed two weeks honeymoon at Niagara Falls to turn into covering a strike in Albany. Burns doesn’t change one bit, and I guess you can say that neither does Hildy.
Despite all that, this is still a very funny film. Like Hawks’ other screwball comedies, the dialogue is fast, and deliberately so. Hawks set out to produce the fastest talking film in Hollywood history and achieved it, snatching the record from, of all things, the original The Front Page. Grant is a cheerful monster, relishing his part to the hilt, Russell an admirable foil with her throaty voice. As the main supporting actor, Bellamy is bland and weak, but that’s what he’s meant to be playing. You can see him appealling to Hildy for the contrast, but you can easily anticipate the contrast growing dull in a foreseeable length of time (one of the Pressmen keeps giving the marriage six months. Until Hildy gets into her job again, and he amends it to three months).
And whilst it demands concentration, the film’s overwhelming use of overlapping dialogue, which required a fantastic degree of mike-switching to record, not to mention multiple re-takes, not only boosts the speed but makes a film in which the artificiality of its stage origins are always visible into an oddly naturalistic performance.
A fun film, a light film with dark corners. A Sunday afternoon film for Sunday morning.