Top 250 Tuesday #175 – His Girl Friday (1940)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #175 on the list, Howard Hawks His Girl Friday. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.


His Girl Friday is, simply put, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s one that I’ve watched and written about many times over the years. A few years back, when I was writing Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, it was one of the first films that I covered, and this is what I had to say about it then:

In 1940, director Howard Hawks set out, with screenwriter Charles Lederer to adapt for the big screen a play called The Front Page which had been written by  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The play involved Newspaper editor Walter Burns’s efforts to keep his star reporter Hildy Johnson from leaving the paper in order to get married and get a “repectable” job. During casting for the movie, however, Hawks reportedly had his secretary read Hildy’s lines and decided he liked the sound of the words coming from a woman. The script was quickly re-written so that “Huldy” became short for Hildegard, (and became Burns’s ex-wife) and the previously female fiancee became Bruce Baldwin.

As one watches the movie, it quickly becomes apparent that there are still sparks between Burns (played by Cary Grant) and Johnson (the lovely Rosalind Russell). It also becomes apparent that despite her continued protestations, Johnson is still drawn to the reporting life. Once escaped convict Earl Williams almost drops into her lap and then convinces her of his innocence, she is almost literally helpless to do anything but follow up on the story, even as her fiancee Bruce comes to realise that he has lost her.

hgf2The film maintains an incredibly quick pace throughout its 92 minute running time, containing plenty of verbal jabs between the two main characters along with Hawks’ trademark fast-cut dialog which often sees characters stepping on each others’ lines and repartee that shoots briskly along. Hawks himself said about the dialogue “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping.” Quite a bit of the dialog was ad-libbed, and there are also plenty of inside jokes, such as Burns’s remark that “the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat” (Archie Leach is, of course, Grant’s birth name.)

hgf3Grant is in top comedic form in this flick, perhaps his funniest outing until 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, and Russell proves well able to hold her own against his manic whirlwind, despite her disappointment with not having been Hawks’ first choice for the role and her feeling that Grant had most of the truly good lines. They are ably supported by a fine cast that includes Ralph Bellamy as Hildy’s fiancee Bruce and Alma Kruger as his mother. There can really be no argument, though, that Grant and Russell are driving this particular train and the rest are just there as passengers.

In order to keep this from being simply a reprint review, there is one aspect of the film that I’d like to touch on that I have always found quite interesting, and that’s the way that Hawks and Lederer take the role of Hildy and change it from a male lead into a female one.

hgf4Lately, there’s been a lot of discourse about “diversity” and what it can mean in casting for films. This, of course, just recently came up again when the announcement was made that an African-American actor was chosen to play the Human Torch in the next Fantastic Four movie. So one has to wonder what a late 1930’s internet would have made of the announcement that Russell would be taking over what had previously been a male role in The Front Page. Would it have been considered a progressively forward step for women in film, or would there have been incredible outrage and accusations of pandering? Most likely, a bit of both, as is usually the case, even today.

Interestingly, what seems to have been a bold choice really came about as a matter of coincidence. During the auditions for the character of Walter Burns, Hawks’ (female) secretary read the lines for Hildy and he liked the way they sounded coming from a woman and so he made the decision to rewrite the role to fit a female lead. Sometimes these “outrageous” choices come down to something as simple as that.

hgf5Of course, whatever the inspiration, the outcome can’t be disputed. The result is truly fantastic.

It does make me wonder one thing, however. with same-sex marriage so much in the news recently, has the time come for yet another take on the basic script, but this time perhaps going back to the original pairing of two men in the role, but keeping the romantic angle that His Girl Friday introduces? Is the time right for His Guy Friday? Or perhaps even Her Girl Friday? Of course, there are other complications such a remake would entail, since it couldn’t be set as a period piece, and bringing it up-to-date would necessitate other changes, since the very nature of reporting has changed so much in the ensuing tome. Still, it could be an interesting project, if done correctly.

Anyway, whatever the reasons for the changes at the time, and whatever remakes might be done in the future, His Girl Friday will remain a prime example of the screwball comedy, and will always retain its place in my own personal top 10.

So what are your thoughts on His Girl Friday? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.

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