#7 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
I don’t really like how this is categorized as a screwball comedy. There are certainly screwball elements, but it gets too somber for too long. The characters also are simply too composed and professional. The only thing that really lends itself to the screwball comedy aspect is the sheer speed that the characters speak. Hawks had become well known for his fast dialogue that he directed, most evident in his drama Ceiling Zero, but His Girl Friday takes this up to an almost ridiculous level. Add in the embrace of overlapping dialogue, and you’ve got one of the fastest talking movies ever made. I watched the first twenty minutes or so with my seven year old son just before his bedtime, and he asked, “How do they talk so fast?” “Practice,” was my response.
Adapted from The Front Page co-written by Hawks’ former writing partner, Ben Hecht (as well as Charles MacArthur), the screenplay written by Charles Lederer, His Girl Friday tells the story of a two newspapermen and the pending story of the execution of a white man accused of shooting a black police officer. The one major change to Hawks’ adaptation is that Hildy Johnson went from a male to a female. Played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s adaption from 1974, Hildy is played by Rosalind Russell here (never once wearing the dress in the poster above because she’s a newspaperman, not a socialite). She’s on her way out of the newspaper business, marrying a nice man, Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin, despite the protestations of her former managing editor and husband, Cary Grant’s Walter Burns. He turned her from a young no-nothing into an ace reporter, and he’s indignant that she’s leaving the business and him. In an amusing reversal from Bringing Up Baby, it’s Grant who has a plan from the beginning to win over his female costar.
This story about Earl Williams, the man under threat of execution by the state, is just too good of a story to let by. He was let go from his job of fourteen years as a bookkeeper, spent a quiet evening with a girl he met that day, and then ended up shooting a black police officer. There are questions about his mental state, but Earl Williams’ well-being is as important to Walter Burns as Leo’s health was to Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. He’s a story, and Burns is willing to get the exclusive on Williams’ mental state and the end of his fight with the state no matter what it takes. He wants to be able to put up a headline that says that his newspaper, The Morning Post, saved Earl Williams’ life, not because it will save a life but because it’s just the goal of playing the newspaper game.
And the newspaper game is addictive. Like the manager of a casino, Walter knows that all he has to do is get Hildy back into the game once and she’ll be his again. It’s not quite that simple, though. Hildy says she wants the normal life being married to an insurance salesman will entail, and she keeps trying to run to him. Walter gets her involved a little bit, she goes as far as the current high of activity will take her, and then she returns to earth, looking for her bag and her way out.
The screwball elements are around the plotting of Walter keeping Hildy around. The promise to buy a large life insurance policy with a certified check, the hood he hires to plant a stolen watch on Bruce, and giving Bruce counterfeit money are all designed to keep Bruce from getting on the train out of town to Albany and, by extension, Hildy. As Bruce deals with all the setbacks that keeps him from the train, Walter distracts Hildy with the next step in finding the story. First is an interview with Earl Williams, where Hildy gains a personal perspective of the man that she wants to highlight in her writeup of the talk. After she tears up the paper to spite Walter for his continued torture of Bruce, she’s ready to get out again.
Everything turns around when Williams escapes from his last psychological examination (through the complete and comical ineptitude of the sheriff) and drops into the press room where Hildy has stayed behind as the rest of the newspapermen have gone out to investigate the jailbreak elsewhere. It’s another jolt of excitement for her, and she quickly hides him in the desk with the help of the girl Earl had spent the night with, Mollie.
This is where the movie turns somber as Earl Williams’ plight comes to the fore for a solid chunk of time. There are still slapstick/screwball elements especially around Williams being inside the desk as things play out around him, but the overall tone is much more tense and serious than one might expect. A man’s life being on the line really comes into focus, and I think it’s important for how the movie’s final moments play out.
The governor of the state had sent a reprieve, and for political reasons the mayor had hidden that. The resolution revolves around Walter and Hildy figuring that out and using it to their advantage to take down a mayor and proclaim The Morning Post heroic. Removing oneself from the delirious fun of the fast moving dialogue and action, the opening text crawl that implies that everything we’re about to see is representative of untoward behavior on the part of the press. It’s about men (and a woman) who will do anything, say anything, and undermine anything in order to get a story before their competitors. This is the comedic version of Ace in the Hole.
The dialogue is really rapid fire to the point that it’s sometimes hard to hear. However, there’s never a question about the overall point of conversation. The rapid fire nature of the delivery can make some of the witticisms difficult to discern, but never who wants what and why. This helps turn what probably should have been an hour and forty-five minute film into just over an hour and a half, making the movie feel like its constantly veering ahead, paced really, really quickly, and it’s all done without many editing tricks. The movie is largely filmed in long shots that track the actors speaking quickly back and forth, only going into tightly edited moments at particular instances of intense action that use cross-cutting dialogue. This is an approach that I think more modern filmmakers could and should take. It’s easier to appreciate the actors the longer we see them, and they get more time to play off of each other directly.
And Grant and Russell play off each other wonderfully well. Encouraged to improvise, the two bounce witty dialogue back and forth in ways that make it obvious how they are both completely toxic for each other, especially Walter for Hildy, but also how they are a perfect match at the same time. It’s a relationship that could never last, but they’ll keep coming back to each other because they’re addicted to the same thing, the newspaper business. They get the same highs and lows from chasing a great story, and any promise for a nice honeymoon at Niagara Falls is always doomed to failure because there will always be a strike to investigate.
This movie is fast and entertaining from beginning to end, but it has a surprising amount of pathos to it centered on Earl Williams. That our main characters are completely unconcerned with him as anything other than a story gives them a nasty veneer that the fast nature of the movie largely glosses over, creating a subtext that adds an interesting layer to the action. On the surface, it’s a fast, entertaining bit of newspaper business, but just underneath it’s more savage. That, I think, is what really helps this version rise to greatness.