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Movie Review – His Girl Friday (1940)
A highly praised classic romantic comedy directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer based on the stage play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Three immediate observations about this famous film:
1) It’s certainly still a fun movie. I ended up laughing out loud in several scenes even though her Girl Friday was shot 66 years ago! That says a lot about the staying power of this crazy comedy classic.
2) In terms of words per minute delivery, this is probably one of the most prodigious films ever produced. Talk about “talking texts”! Both Cary Grant (as the manipulative and exploitative newspaper editor Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (as the crackerjack and ambitious reporter Hildegaard ‘Hildy’ Johnson), as well as all the other characters, run the each other in the delivery of truckloads of cuttings. comebacks, jokes and sarcastic comments at the speed of a red machine gun. Words came cascading from everyone in a ceaseless torrent of verbiage. One wonders how many pounds the actors must have lost collectively after packing this.
His Girl Friday definitely represents the ultimate antithesis of the modern taboo against “tell but don’t show” in movies. It doesn’t have a single scene that isn’t deep in the show business.
3) Directorially, this is one of the most incredibly twisted films I’ve seen in a long time. It begins with a narrow focus on the Grant + Russell interaction and expands into the uncomfortable triangle formed by the two and Hildy Johnson’s boyfriend the insurance Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).
Then, without any forewarning, the scene shifts to a Press Room and into the antics of a bunch of crusty old cigar-playing reporters covering the story of a death row inmate who was about to be hanged the next day in he places it right under his window. Hildy is at the center of this long “Second Act” during which Cary Grant’s character is totally missing.
If you are going to watch his Girl Friday as a “Cary Grant movie”, and you have to, you will be very disappointed by this average sequence that lasts almost half an hour during which we almost forget about Walter Burns.
When Walter returns in Act Three, he’s his old strong self trying to put history first at his newspaper while forcing the corrupt sheriff and mayor to back down from their threats to imprison him.
The plot itself is not that complicated. Walter Burns (Grant) is an ambitious and unscrupulous newspaper editor in Chicago for whom “getting ahead” and beating other newspapers to the punch is more important than telling the truth. He’s a shrewd but charming and street-smart operator who’s trying to win back his ex-wife and newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell).
Knowing that in his heart Hildy does not care about anything in life as much as she does for journalism and the excitement of getting an exclusive story, Walter plays on her weakness to win her back by pretending that he is resigned to the his new life with Baldwin.
In the end, Hildy manages to hide the escaped convict (who says he is innocent and only killed a policeman by mistake) in a rollup desk in the Press Room and she gets an exclusive for Walter’s paper, leaving everyone her male colleagues in the dust. .
The slapstick comedy is full of clever and funny exchanges like the following:
Hildy: I can, I can, and I like it, besides. Besides, he forgets about the office when he’s with me… He doesn’t treat me like an errand boy either, Walter. He treats me like a woman.
Walter: It is, yes? How am I treated, like a water buffalo?
# # #
Hildy: I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda, oh, about four months, I think. It seems like yesterday.
Walter: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy. Have you seen me in your dreams?
# # #
Hildy: Listen up, big round-headed bamboo!
# # #
Bruce Baldwin (speaking of Walter): He has a lot of charm.
Hildy: Yes, it comes naturally; his grandfather was a snake!
# # #
Walter: Let’s see this model of virtue! Is it as good as you say?
Hildy: Why, it’s better!
Walter: Well then, what do you want with you?
Hildy: Ah-ha, you got me!
# # #
A fine film in which Grant and Russell prove that they have the manic energy and fluid skills to deliver their complicated lines without incident without sacrificing the physical comedy details packed into every scene. Two robbers who know each other better than anyone in life – and a well-meaning insurance salesman who looks like a boy in the woods next to the two main operators.
Needless to say, it is also an eye-witness to the way newspapers did business in the 40s. We are all fortunate that the journalism profession, despite all its faults, has a much higher ethical standard today .
An 8 out of 10.
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