While pursuing a degree in Media and Professional Communications I was required to deliver numerous presentations and speeches. Despite my choice of major, however, I have never been comfortable with public speaking. Still, I managed to do quite well at these mainly because the majority of topics I chose centered on classic Hollywood in one way or another. For instance, I did a presentation on the Culture at Warner Bros., another on the history of Columbia Pictures, and several spotlights on milestone films and filmmakers. I remember taking one course in particular, Writing for the Screen, where we each had to bring in an example of writing example that moved us in some way. My choice was the Screenplay to Howard Hawks‘ His Girl Friday (1940), written by Charles Lederer based on the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page. I looked forward to this presentation not only because I enjoy the movie immensely, but also because the story is about writing. To illustrate what I thought was the perfect choice for the project I chose to play two scenes from Hawks’ movie following background details and information on some of the players. I ended the presentation with an explanation about why this screenplay and movie are unique and why I am so fond of them.
Background in Brief
Howard Hawks averaged a film a year for forty-three years and left us comedy gems, legends of the old West, inspired casts and memorable drama. Hawks’ ability to bring a wide range of film genres to life made him one of the best directors of the golden age. His first immortal movie, one of my all-time favorites, was Scarface: Shame of a Nation in 1932. He followed that landmark film with one of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s, Twentieth Century (1934), which paired the talented Carole Lombard with the legendary, John Barrymore. The results were hugely popular across the board and Twentieth Century began a great run of Hawks comedies, which included Bringing Up Baby (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and our movie, His Girl Friday.
It was while directing the romantic adventure, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) at Columbia that Howard Hawks came up with the idea of a remake of The Front Page as Cary Grant’s next picture. He went to studio chief Harry Cohn with the suggestion and the mogul loved it. Who could blame him? Lewis Milestone‘s 1931 The Front Page had been a commercial and critical success, receiving three Academy Award nominations for Picture, Director and Actor (Adolphe Menjou). Besides, the Hecht-MacArthur source material is fantastic comedy, just the kind of thing Cary Grant could deliver with flare. By 1939 Mr. Grant was riding a wave of popularity. His Cary Grant-ness was fully developed in about 1937 at the same time he proved one of the screen’s best comedic actors in Leo McCarey‘s delightful The Awful Truth (1937). The following year he did it again in Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby and two years later broke the mold with His Girl Friday. What Grant could do no one else could do. That is, be the high society debonair stylish romantic intelligent hilarious clown.
As far as His Girl Friday and Cary Grant are concerned, the movie plays to his strength. I’ve gushed enough about him in other posts, but as far as I’m concerned, Mr. Grant’s specialty is broad comedy, the portrayal of which – in a variety of scenarios – made him a standout entertainer. The man who would come to epitomize Hollywood glamour was in his element when the script called for prat falls and hijinks of the verbal variety. We know why Hawks’ one and only choice to play the fast-talking male lead in His Girl Friday was Mr. Grant. We get to see much of his impressive repertoire in this plus a bit of the heel he realized with delicious abandon.
With Cary Grant in place and an enthusiastic nod from Cohn Hawks came up with the idea of changing the original story in The Front Page to feature the character of Hildy as a woman. Brilliant! Except, by the director’s own admission, the script did not quite work until Charles Lederer suggested the couple should be divorced. According to Hawks, that’s what spiced up the dialogue.
To play the role of Hildy Harry Cohn and Howard Hawks wanted Jean Arthur, but she turned the part down. They then went to Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne with the same results. With his top choices out of the picture, Cohn decided to borrow Rosalind Russell from MGM just two weeks before filming began on His Girl Friday.
Like many other classic movie stars, Rosalind Russell was lured away from the New York stage by Hollywood. Russell contracted with Universal in 1934, but moved to MGM soon after, which proved a match made in movie heaven. At MGM Russell established her most frequent on-screen persona, the strong career woman with a talent for comedy. Russell’s scene-stealing ways in George Cukor‘s The Women (1939) secured her place in movie history as one of the premiere comedians in filmdom. She then made Hildy Johnson her own securing her status as legend as well.
According to a featurette on the Criterion release of His Girl Friday, Russell resented not being the first choice for the role and showed up to the audition with her hair wet from a swim. Once shooting began, however, I doubt Hawks could help but be impressed with her talent. Rosalind Russell was perfect for the role. Her timing and delivery were on point, as was her chemistry with Cary Grant. I don’t think any of us can picture anyone else in a role that stands the test of time not only on the entertainment front, but also on the timeline of important female film characters. Russell’s Hildy Johnson is a role model as a career woman, “newspaper man” (as they refer to her in the movie), talented raconteur, sparring partner, wordsmith and all around great gal.
Ex-star reporter for The Morning Post, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) stops by the paper to tell her ex-husband, the editor of The Post, Walter Burns (Grant) that she is remarrying. Her soon-to-be husband is dim, boring insurance agent, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy.) Hildy is sick and tired of the cutthroat newspaper business and longs to be a wife and mother in quiet Albany, NY where she and Bruce will live in wedded bliss with his mother.
Hildy’s plans are honorable and understandable from our perspective, as the craziness of the newspaper office is evident from the beginning. Walter, however, does not take her seriously. As soon as he hears the news of her marriage, Walter is intent on sabotaging Hildy’s plans by tricking her into covering one last story, the execution of murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen), which is scheduled for the next day.
Walter Burns is relentless in his pursuit of Hildy the newspaper ace with poor Bruce ending up the victim in most of his schemes. While Hildy’s onto Walter’s shady practices, the excitement of the scoop proves too difficult for her to resist. Before she realizes it Earl Williams is talking to her and she’s completely involved in the whole sordid affair. Eventually her relationship with Walter is rekindled amid the world that’s been good to her and her to it. The newspaper business is in her blood. Walter banks on that and wins.
Amid Comedy, there is Truth
His Girl Friday offers viewers a lot more than what I’ve already mentioned. The compelling, frenzied world of print journalism is spotlighted as well as in any other motion picture I can think of. The fact that this movie is a screwball comedy doesn’t preclude it from also addressing issues such as the responsibility of the press, the importance of truth and several forms of corruption. All are addressed effectively and seriously within the comedic elements.
Ad-Lib to Your Heart’s Desire
Also helpful to His Girl Friday – and perhaps why it is so entertaining upon repeated viewings – is the fact that Howard Hawks was open to ad-libbing, which lent even more fun to the proceedings. We notice Grant (in particular) taking full advantage as we watch. At one point, he describes what Bruce looks like and says, “He looks like that fellow in the movies – Ralph Bellamy.” Later he says, “Well, the last man who said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before I cut his throat,” referring to his own birth name.
Supporting Players Steal from the Best
THEN you get the terrific lot of supporting players, some of the best in the business, who help make every single scene here joyful. In a few cases, they even steal scenes from Cary and Rosalind. First, the aforementioned John Qualen who is memorable as the convicted murderer, Gene Lockhart plays the bumbling sheriff, Alma Kruger plays Bruce’s mean mother and the great Billy Gilbert delights as a messenger. PLUS! Porter Hall, Regis Toomey, Roscoe Karns, Helen Mack and of course Ralph Bellamy whose slow drawl lends the ideal contrast to the rapid-fire delivered by Grant and Russell, which further emphasizes just how wrong a choice for Hildy Bruce is.
Hurry Up With the Tricks!
“I tried to make my dialogue go fast. Probably twenty percent faster than most pictures.” – Howard Hawks
New York Times reviewer, Frank Nugent wrote, “Lederer…has transposed it so brilliantly it is hard to believe that Hecht and MacArthur were not thinking of Rosalind Russell, or someone equally high-heeled.” I believe the reason Mr. Nugent and others mention Hildy’s gender change from the original movie is because they were so impressed with Russell’s ability to match Grant line by line – I wish I could write this really fast in a way you’d notice. Anyway, the rapid-fire dialogue in His Girl Friday, which is front and center from start to finish, is a huge part of the movie’s charm. In fact, it may be what’s most memorable about the movie with exchanges taken to the breaking point. I catch a new line or two at each viewing. I’ve resisted watching His Girl Friday with subtitles to avoid being dependent on them. It is much more fun to go for the ride. As previously mentioned, individually Grant and Russell are each top-notch comedians. Together – sparring like Olympic champions – they are a once in a million duo.
Added to the speed you also get overlapping dialogue, which was unique in 1940 and a standout today as I doubt any actor worth his/her salt can replicate this type of environment on film. Here’s what Hawks had to say on the “trick” of overlapping dialogue in His Girl Friday…
“Sometimes we put a few unnecessary words in the front of a sentence and a few on the end so that people can overlap in their talking and you still get everything they wanted to say…we held a discussion and butt in to what each other was saying and it worked, we’d hear what each other was saying. But our little trick of adding the words in front and at the end makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.”
There I stood in front of my classmates and professor that day. Thirteen people in total if memory serves. I explained the origins of The Front Page, how Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the play as an homage to their days as reporters working the police beat in Chicago. I spoke enthusiastically about the actors, Hawks and the role words play in the movie and its production, making this – in my view – a terrific example for the assignment at hand. Finally, I talked about how His Girl Friday played a huge role in my love of classic movies. I remember watching it for the first time and being blown away by the entire package, a movie unlike any I’d ever seen. Upon concluding I looked out at the blank, glassy-eyed faces of the people who sat in front of me and felt dejected not so much because I felt I’d failed in my presentation, but because I felt sorry for the fools who could not recognize the uniqueness of the subject I’d chosen. Only the professor looked alive, delighted actually, at my choice. Annoyance quickly surfaced and I could not help myself. As I gathered my DVD and report from the podium, I snapped at the lot of them, “YOU’LL NEVER SEE ANYTHING LIKE THIS AGAIN, PEOPLE. You must know that.”
And so…must you.
I love everyone involved in the making of His Girl Friday, but I dedicate this to the talented, debonair, sophisticated, romantic, unique, ultimate movie star on what would have been his birthday. I love and admire him endlessly. If you’re interested in more on Cary Grant visit…