Director: Howard Hawks
Production: Columbia Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 92 minutes. Released 18 January 1940.
Producer: Howard Hawks; screenplay: Charles Lederer, with uncredited assistance by Ben Hecht, from the play Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; photography: Joseph Walker; editor: Gene Havlick; art director: Lionel Banks; music: Morris W. Stoloff; costume designer (gowns): Kalloch.
Cast: Cary Grant ( Walter Burns ); Rosalind Russell ( Hildy Johnson ); Ralph Bellamy ( Bruce Baldwin ); Gene Lockhart ( Sheriff Hartwell ); Helen Mack ( Mollie Malloy ); Porter Hall ( Murphy ); Ernest Truex ( Benslinger ); Cliff Edwards ( Endicott ); Clarence Kolb ( Mayor ); Roscoe Karns ( McCue ); Frank Jenks ( Wilson ); Regis Toomey ( Sanders ); Abner Biberman ( Louis ); Frank Orth ( Duffy ); John Qualen ( Earl Williams ); Alma Kruger ( Mrs. Baldwin ); Billy Gilbert ( Joe Pettibone ); Pat West ( Warden Cooley ); Edwin Maxwell ( Dr. Egelhoffer ).
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Hollywood director Howard Hawks said he got the idea for His Girl Friday at a dinner party at which the guests were doing a reading of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play The Front Page . Hawks had handed the male reporter's part (Hildy Johnson) to one of the women while he took the managing editor's lines (Walter Burns). After a few pages of dialogue, Hawks grew excited and decided that the play was better with a girl playing Hildy Johnson. He called Hecht and suggested changing the reporter's sex for a future film project. Hecht liked the idea, but he had other project commitments; so Hawks hired Charles Lederer to write additional dialogue for a new script. Lederer had written the script of the 1931 movie version of The Front Page , directed by Lewis Milestone, and had co-written other Hollywood screenplays with Hecht. On His Girl Friday , he worked with Hecht (who receives no screen credit) to revamp characters and dialogue while preserving the wit and style of the original.
His Girl Friday 's pivotal plot issue is Hildy's (Rosalind Russell) decision whether to marry the tepid, dull Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) or team up with her ex-boss and ex-husband, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Although film critic Molly Haskell praised the way that the movie allows a woman to find her identity in a non-domestic sphere, Hildy still faces rather restrictive options— marriage to home, children, and pallid Bruce or marriage to career and ego with a maniacal Walter. Hildy's choice to remain with the press is less a decision to relinquish her "feminine" longings for home and family than a commitment to the continued excitement and kinetic activity of the world of journalism. Her decision to remarry Walter grows out of their mutual understanding, respect, and love for professionalism. Hildy's ultimate decision for an active, motion-filled life is her only possible choice in a "Hawksian" world. As Hawks himself suggested, her solution is the only way that she can work up enough sense of speed so that she won't have to think about how limited her options really are and how bad life really is.
When His Girl Friday premiered in 1940, it baffled and excited critics and public alike for just one reason—its speed. Hawks's actors overlapped their dialogue; they spoke in lower tones of voice; conversations ran almost simultaneously. Hawks reinforced the sensation of speed by keeping his characters in constant activity. For example, when he finds out that Hildy is getting married, Walter nervously reacts by rubbing his hand, touching the phone, picking up a carnation from a vase and slipping it into his buttonhole. All the while, he struggles to keep an impassive face. When he tries to convince Hildy to postpone her wedding plans so that she can write an important story, his impassioned, aggressive speech drives her around the room, first clockwise and then counter-clockwise. When Hawks cannot rely on his characters' motions, he uses such techniques as rapid cuts between the reporters talking into their telephones or a searchlight sweeping across the room to keep the pace frenetic. Hawks's comedy clocks in at 240 words-per-minute, about 100–140 words per minute faster than the average speaking rate; but his timing, camerawork and editing make it seem still faster.
The film is so mannered, especially in its pacing, that the degree of stylization calls attention to itself. When Walter Burns describes Bruce Baldwin, he says that he looks like "That actor—Ralph Bellamy." He later quips to one of the film's characters, "The last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." (Archie Leach is Cary Grant's real name.) Such references do not really disrupt the film but merely add to the movie's hilarious message on the absurdity of believing in the characters as real people. Coupled with the timing and acting, the parodic elements contribute to the development of an essay on the absurdity of any kind of ethical or moral commitments—any commitments to "normal values"—in the modern world.
His Girl Friday was the first screwball comedy to depart from the money-marriage-ego conflicts of Holiday , My Man Godfrey , and The Philadelphia Story , inserting into the same comic structure and pattern of action a conflict between career and marriage. Throughout the 1940s, career-marriage decisions for women provided the crises in several screwball comedies. His Girl Friday marked the transition from the subversion of women working for ends other than marriage to more explicit statements regarding money-marriage-sex roles in the genre in the 1940s.