HIS GIRL FRIDAY: The Screwball Pinnacle

The Screwball Comedy genre lasted for a relatively brief period of time but produced some of the greatest American films: TROUBLE IN PARADISE; IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT; BRINGING UP BABY, and nearly any of Preston Sturges’ major works. I would argue that the Screwball pinnacle is Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

Unjustifiably omitted from the AFI’s 1998 list (but ranked #19 on their 100 Funniest Movies list), HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a film that people one hundred years from now will still find funny. Although Sturges’ string of madcap screwballs that followed HIS GIRL FRIDAY are edgier and more modern, HIS GIRL FRIDAY manages to blend its acerbic bite with a surprisingly sensitive heart. This balance is embodied in the character of Hildy Johnson, a strong, no-nonsense Chicago newspaper editor played to perfection by Rosalind Russell. Opposite Russell is Cary Grant, hilarious and classy (as usual). The plot, in brief: Grant’s character, Walter Burns, has been divorced by Johnson and is now persistently trying to woo her back romantically by wooing her professionally. Unusually progressive for its time, the film actually condones Johnson’s decision to stay and work as an editor at Burns’ paper rather than settle down with her fiancée (Ralph Bellamy, straight as they come).

Dave Kehr has noted that Robert Altman owed much to HIS GIRL FRIDAY because of the film’s use of overlapping dialogue. There is a minimum of forced I-talk-then-you-talk dialogue in the script, further differentiating it from the mainstream screenwriting style of Classical Hollywood cinema. The dialogue is not only razor sharp, but fast. Although HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a holy experience when seen projected on 35mm, it deserves multiple re-viewings on DVD (once even with the subtitles on) just so the viewer can catch every word spurting out of Grant and Russell’s mouths. Hawks must have enjoyed himself on the set, watching these actors go at it take after take.

Though Charles Lederer’s adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play “The Front Page” looks great on the page, it is still just words on paper. The delivery and comic timing help make the dialogue in the film what it is. Perhaps the following passage is not the best example since it is more monologue than dialogue, but it is just too delicious not to include:

Hildy Johnson: [speaking to Walter on the phone] "Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain't going to be any interview and there ain't going to be any story! And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong!"

One thing I have always noted about the film is that there is barely any musical score. Musical accompaniment would not only distract the viewer but also fill the soundtrack with unnecessary clutter. The dialogue is the music. The exhilaratingly rapid-fire words flow out of the characters’ mouths so seamlessly they can only be described as lyrical. How surreal it is to watch people talk this way: the punchlines are too sharp and the words too quick to plausibly pass as realistic. One can only imagine how much time and rehearsal it took to memorize the script and make it pay off.

A worthy companion piece to HIS GIRL FRIDAY is the Coen Brothers’ madcap pomo experiment THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994), in which Jennifer Jason Leigh essentially performs Rosalind Russell’s character in HIS GIRL FRIDAY using Katharine Hepburn’s voice (topping Cate Blanchett’s imitation ten years later in THE AVIATOR). HUDSUCKER is an acquired taste, but it surely pays wonderful homage to a wonderful slice of American Screwball Comedy. One can only hope the AFI voters have more sense this time around and include HIS GIRL FRIDAY on the top 100.

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