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His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Howard Hawks’ superb screwball workplace comedy His Girl Friday is one of those classics that manages to convince new viewers of its greatness despite any inflated expectations caused by its sky-high reputation. It’s dated exceptionally well, perhaps because it’s a comedy of frazzled nerves that’s so cynical that it doesn’t even take itself seriously, but mainly because it and The Front Page, the play that it has been adapted from, have served as the prototype for so many subsequent films in its genre. The brilliant decision to change the movie’s lead character into a woman (she was a he in both the play and in its original film adaptation) results in a leading lady that’s unusually empowered for the era and an equal to Cary Grant’s romantic lead. Rosalind Russell imbues her Hildy Johnson with such unbelievable energy that one can’t help but root for her. She goes on about how she wants to be a human being instead of a “newspaperman”, but she’s so appealing precisely because she’s the sort of fast-talking, quick-thinking creation that could only exist in the movies.
The most distinguishing characteristic of Friday is its rapid-fire, overlapping delivery of dialogue. With a cast that’s working at peak levels, the movie prattles along at a breakneck pace, barely giving the viewer a chance to breathe between giggles. Even the brief silence during a double-take seems deafening in this loudmouthed context. Because the frenetic pace is so well sustained throughout, whenever it lets up to allow genuine emotion to shine through, it has the added benefit of giving the audience a much-needed chance to catch their breath. Consider, for example, the sublime moment when Cary Grant’s slick newspaper editor finds out that his star reporter and ex-wife is about to marry again. For the first time, he stops babbling, scheming, and blowing his hilarious hot air. He staggers silently for a moment before saying, “You knocked the wind out of my sails,” and immediately becomes something more than an automaton. Throughout, whenever the pace momentarily slows down, it’s so Hawks can better establish the emotional grounding of his characters. Before the film launches into its cacophonous second act, with Hildy’s arrival at a prison’s press room, Hawks allows a scene that establishes the camaraderie that exists between the reporters. Similarly, when one edgy character later wails about them, “They ain’t human!” and Hildy replies, “I know… they are newspapermen,” Hawks follows the outburst with a sobering scene in which the men show remorse for having gone too far in their joking.
Hawks’ snappy edits during His Girl Friday’s bridging montages keep up with the pace of the delivery in the dialogue scenes. While the characters are speaking, the director shoots with his typically, unobtrusive efficiency, always placing the camera precisely where it won’t call any attention away from the action. The stage play’s seams show most obviously during a scene in which a procession of reporters run into the press room with updates from a surging prison riot, but Hawks minimizes the feel that it’s a stagy plot device by placing it right after the jailbreak sequence, which is decidedly cinematic. His work with his actors is incredible enough to make one forget that a good forty-five minutes goes by without face to face conversation between the two leads. Because there’s never a dull moment in those forty-five minutes, the chemistry never starts fading. When Grant and Russell are together, it’s apparent to the audience that since Burns knows to appeal to Hildy’s sense of pride to get what he wants from her, the rules of the genre dictate that he’s perfect for her. As for Hildy, her contradictions only make her more loveable. At one point, she chastises the corrupt mayor by shouting, “You’d hang your own mother to be re-elected,” but because she’s demonstrated that she’d do the same to get a scoop, it doesn’t feel the least bit sanctimonious. That should hardly come as a surprise though: His Girl Friday is too busy being funny to have time for such unnecessary moralizing.
* * * * Masterpiece