His Girl Friday (1940)

“You’ve got the brain of a pancake. This isn’t just a story you’re covering – it’s a revolution. This is the greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley.”

‘His Girl Friday’, directed by Howard Hawks in 1940, is an American screwball comedy based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Rosalind Russell plays Hildy Johnson, a hardnosed reporter who is retiring from the business to marry her uncharismatic fiancé Bruce. Her ex-editor and ex-husband Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, has other ideas and preys on Hildy’s obsession with a good story to keep her from eloping. She becomes embroiled in the case of a convicted murderer which leads to a dramatic escape, a hostage situation, political corruption and an accidental kidnapping. It’s a fast paced, riotous farce with snappy and dense dialogue. Hawks’ big move was to change the gender of the reporter from the original play and to add a romantic subplot. The consequence of this is that although Grant is undoubtedly the star name, Russell is the centre of the film and, whilst the plot revolves around a fight for her heart in which she is really just an object, the wit and punch of her lines and the single-minded feistiness of her character make this movie feel rather progressive. The whole movie, from the dialogue through the acting to the whippy camerawork adds to a sense of pace and abandonment making it easy to get absorbed and easy to accept the actions of the two main, and slightly unpleasant, characters as they doggedly pursue their story. It’s easy to draw a line between this script and Aaron Sorkin’s later poetic fast talking, but here the actors were allowed the opportunity to ad-lib which gives the movie a sense of almost dangerous spontaneity. You can sense the fun the actors are having, which can sometimes be annoying or self-indulgent, but here it comes across as a part of the sense of anarchic farce.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watch in a double bill with ‘Roman Holiday’, another film about a reporter out of his depth.

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