Films made in the year 1940 seem to have gotten lost in the slew of classic films released in 1939 and the very exceptional Hollywood films made in 1941. So many A-list directors made renowned 1941 classics, like Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon,” and John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” the film which won the Oscar for best picture.
So, drawing a spotlight on 1940, this week’s Hidden Gem is Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” a film which may only be labeled as “hidden” by younger generations of filmgoers who are unaware of this wonderful comedy, which starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel.
This ingenious film was a significant adaptation of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur 1928 stage play about two Chicago newspapermen, a loud, bossy editor, Walter Burns, and his ace crime reporter, Hildy Johnson. Hawks and his screenwriter, Charles Lederer, altering this wonderfully chaotic and fast-talking comedy into a romantic tale by turning one of the reporters into a woman and changing the relationship between the two central characters by making them former spouses (instead of just male buddies), who now may work again for the same newspaper covering the criminal case of the decade.
The title “His Girl Friday” is an amusing play on Daniel Dafoe’s literary character, “Man Friday,” the servant to Robinson Crusoe. And by the circumstances of this film’s story, Hildy is certainly no servant to Walter.
Hawks begins the film with an on-screen text stating this story “all happens in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game—when to a reporter ‘getting the story’ justified anything short of murder.” The opening scene occurs in the busy newsroom of The Morning Post as former reporter Hildy Johnson (Russel) enters, accompanied by her fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). She seeks one last goodbye from her ex- editor and husband Walter Burns (Grant) before heading upstate to Albany for her wedding the very next day. But before she can get the words out of her mouth, Walter tries to get her to rejoin the staff to cover the story of an accused murderer who’s about to face execution.
Within hours the somewhat dim-witted and soft-spoken Bruce is nearly forgotten as Hildy’s journalistic spirit returns. She gets the opportunity for an exclusive interview with killer Earl Williams before she strongly concludes that Williams is not only innocent of killing a policeman, but he has also become a political pawn in a governor’s law and order platform. And soon, the old sparks of love reignite for Walter, too.
After a short examination from a famed psychiatrist Dr. Egelhoffer, who has the killer reenact the crime, Williams escapes his captors. He hides out in the press room of the criminal courts building, which all leads to a riotous resolution.
In director Peter Bogdanovich’s famed interview with Hawks from the 1960s, Hawks recalls how he got the inspiration for the gender change of the character Hildy Johnson. He was trying to prove how the original play had “some of the finest modern dialog that had been written.” Hawks asked a female friend to read the Hildy part, while he read the editor. He suddenly realized, “Hell, it’s even better between a girl and a man…” He called writer Ben Hecht with this revelation, and Hecht agreed saying, “I think it’s a great idea.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Grant and Russell are hilarious as the battling ex-spouses and newspaper pros. Hawks orchestrates comic pacing that is rapid-fire. Hawks encouraged his actors, especially his leads, as mentioned above, to babble and overlap their dialogue for maximum comedic effect. Characters barely finish a sentence when someone else begins speaking over them. Joseph Walker’s brisk moving camera work and Gene Havlick’s editing set a breakneck pace that further complements this swiftly moving 92- minute film.
“His Girl Friday” stands alone in its unique approach to this classic play. There had already been a 1931 film version of “The Front Page,” which wasn’t too effective, and later remakes fell disappointingly short, including Billy Wilder’s 1974 version that featured the usually hilarious pair of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Later still, there was a lame 1988 updated remake called “Switching Channels,” with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.
Ironically in 1940, “His Girl Friday” received no Oscar nominations, despite being a box office success. When I taught “His Girl Friday” in my screen adaptations film class nearly a decade ago, it was a class favorite.