Howard Hawks / US / 1940 / 92mins
Available on DVD & Blu-Ray Now.
A glitch in copyright renewal meant that His Girl Friday was, for years, a well-watched example in film studies classes. The copyright issue might also explain why no clean DVD has existed. This is, in large part, a neglected comedy masterpiece thanks in part to the awful title. The film is a reworking of 1931’s The Front Page which was in turn based on a popular stage play co-written by Ben Hecht. There is a 1970s version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau but this 1941 screwball classic with its rapid-fire repartee and perfect timing is the best by far.
Today’s offices (even the remaining newspaper ones) are as silent as a Trappist toilet with hushed tones and everyone glued to computer screens. Back in the 1940’s heyday of popular journalism it is a different, frantic atmosphere. Phones ring, doors slam and people shout in this febrile world of copy-takers and final deadlines.
Walter (Cary Grant) is the editor whose ex-wife, news reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell), is finishing up before going off to get remarried to a dull insurance man (Ralph Bellamy) who admits that ‘it’s a job that doesn’t help people when they’re alive but when they are dead. And that’s what counts’. Walter hopes to woo Hildy back with the allure and glamour of a job she loves and hates to leave. Everyone is cynical, a little corrupt and totally unsentimental. Hildy can put a man firmly in his place with just the arch of an eyebrow and if that doesn’t work a stinging one-liner. ‘I am still fond of you,’ she says to Walter. ‘I just wish you weren’t such a stinker!’
The fast-talking but natural delivery – some of it improvised – is a delight. The pace is breakneck and the mood is at once cruel and tender. Getting the exclusive newspaper story counts more than anything else even fact-checking or the hurt feelings of the victims. Why could they not have hanged the culprit earlier in the day, bemoans one of the grizzled newsman, so the story could have made the City edition. The same rules apply in today’s world of tabloid click-bait and the sidebar of shame.
Along with the wordplay there are sight gags as when Hildy rugby tackles a guy in the corridor. Grant and Russell spark off each other like loose electrical cables. The action unspools amid a welter of gangsters, politicians, cops and prostitutes – and editors who demand freedom of the press while getting the facts wrong. As Hecht said, ‘the worst thing in the world you can be is a sucker’.
In this two-disc special edition there is also the original Front Page but His Girl Friday is most definitely the main feature – the restoration is like the dialogue: as crisp and surprising as a slap across the face.