I am not sure what went wrong six years ago when watching His Girl Friday for the first time had me conclude: Blech, that was lousy. As you can tell from the rating I now give this crazy comedy, I have changed my tune. As a journalist who seems to be surrounded by reporters who love this movie, I knew some years ago I was needing to give this flick another chance. Last night was it.
The bygone eras of moviemaking are not without a plethora of stories surrounding reporters. I am sure I have before mentioned how hip and relevant reporters were in old movies, which is quite the opposite of how they are today in both media and reality. His Girl Friday not only illustrates the tough racket in which these writers worked but also how different the newspaper publishing business was at the time – with multiple editions, half a dozen competitors and nearly nonexistent morals when a scoop was at stake.
His Girl Friday might be more about reporting than any other successful classic comedy. It pits paper publisher Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, against ex-wife and ex-reporter Hildy Johnson, acted by Rosalind Russell. Hildy has arrived at the newsroom to tell Walter she is getting married to an insurance salesman named Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) only a handful of months after divorcing the man who left his bride to take her honeymoon alone so he could pursue a story. It is a while before the reunion with Hildy ceases Walter’s reminiscing long enough for her to break the news. Immediately upon hearing about this wedding to take place the next day, we can see the gears turning in Walter’s head as he tries to quickly devise the means to prevent this union.
After making a fool of Bruce, Walter forces the trio to go to lunch. There he, after much negotiating and guilt-driving, convinces Hildy to spend her last two hours in town interviewing and writing a story on a man set to be hanged the next day for shooting a police officer. The man had lost his job and the paper had insisted he was insane, but all feared the last psychiatric exam would prove otherwise. Hildy hits the press room at the criminal courts building before bribing her way in to see the accused: Earl Williams (John Qualen). Without jotting down a single note, Hildy develops her story by convincing the man that speeches he heard in the park about production for use had him fire the gun only because it was meant to be used. She writes up the story in the press room but tears it up when she learns Walter has slyly had her fiancée arrested for stealing a watch –from a crook of all people.
Hildy’s reporting days seem over until Earl escapes from prison. Hildy nails down a prison worker to get an exclusive story of what happened –the convict was handed the sheriff’s gun to reenact the incident during his psych evaluation– so she phones that into Walter. Next, Earl shows up in the press room pointing a gun at the gal. She agrees to help him out and stashes him in a rolltop desk. Phoning Walter, she has her boss come to the courthouse so they can figure out how to hide the fugitive long enough so the paper can be the one to “capture” him. In the midst of this, Bruce has again been arrested through Walter’s meddling and the man’s mother is also kidnapped along the same lines.
Walter’s paper does not get to claim capture of Earl, but he and Hildy get another, scandalous exclusive that finally cinches the woman’s fate. No reporter that good can leave behind her trade.
Slapstick Grant is at his best in this well-written comedy where the verbal jokes fly faster than the physical ones. It is said to be one of the first films to have characters’ dialogue overlap. Previously, no ones lines were uttered until another player had completed his sentiment. Russell is also perfect in a role that had been played by a man in the stage version, titled “The Front Page.” The character was rewritten for a woman when Director Howard Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded when his secretary read the part opposite the other actors.
No trace of romance passes between our leads, and yet we know Hildy must return to Walter. Their passion lies in a common love of the work rather than for each other. Bellamy is great as a slightly slow joe who cannot see through Walter to his conniving ways. In one scene, Grant describes the character to another player as looking like that actor, Ralph Bellamy. Grant even pokes fun at himself later on when he says the last person to cross him was Archie Leach, which happens to be Grant’s real name.
- His Girl Friday is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.