How ‘His Girl Friday’, One of the Best Movies of All Time, Led to Today’s TV Dramedies
This month Criterion released His Girl Friday on Blu-ray and DVD — which for many film buffs is long overdue — and offers a chance to revisit this classic film. More than 70 years after it was made, the film, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, holds up in a way that a lot of films from that era and screwball comedies don’t. This is a film that is laugh-out-loud funny, but also dark and emotionally and morally complex. It feels contemporary in a way that many old films don’t because the humor is so organic to the characters. In short, if the comedy-dramas that are so popular in today, from Louie to Atlanta to Orange is the New Black, have a forefather, it is His Girl Friday.
The film was based on the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which is currently being revived on Broadway. It had been made into an early “talkie” in 1931, but in 1940, director Howard Hawks wanted to remake the film starring Cary Grant as editor Walter Burns. At the time Grant was one of the funniest actors around — able to ad-lib, deftly handle complicated dialogue, engage in slapstick, and quickly turn poignant and dramatic. In Walter Burns, Grant was able to do all of this and play a cynical character who spends most of the movie trying to manipulate events and people, but also let him be noble and dramatic, even if that doesn’t last more than a minute.
In the play The Front Page the character of Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson was played by a man and it’s very much a bromance between Johnson and Burns. The word “bromance” didn’t exist then, but it was about two men and work and their shared temperament. Johnson and Burns are trying to save the life of a man scheduled to be executed the next day and deal with a corrupt mayor and sheriff.
Hawks came up with the idea of making the second lead a woman — Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson — transforming The Front Page into His Girl Friday. This gender switch changes the story and honestly makes the story and the characters much more interesting. The critic Andrew Sarris once defined screwball comedy as “sex comedy without the sex” and in His Girl Friday, it’s a movie where love is work and work is love, and the relationship between Johnson and Burns is about their shared temperament and their shared passion.
The film’s opening act was written specifically for the film as we learn that after working together for years, Burns and Johnson were married, it quickly soured, and she has returned after getting a divorce to announce that she’s engaged and is quitting. The overwhelming majority of the first act is banter between Burns and Johnson that is so fast-paced and hilarious that any description will fail to justice to it. Though one of Burns’ best lines has to be: “You’ve got an old fashioned idea that divorce is something that lasts forever, ‘til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy. Just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
Burns is clearly dazed when Johnson shows him her engagement ring, though he quickly recovers and plots to manipulate the situation just as he’s trying to manipulate the Governor into stopping the execution scheduled for the next day. Burns knows that the way to do that isn’t to charm her, but to get her back to work. Work is her true love, and even though she is able to catch him in his lies, she still agrees to write one last story.
The film does something important that the play didn’t do, which is to give Johnson a jailhouse interview with Earl Williams, the man who’s about to be executed. Johnson bribes the jailer for access, and the scene in which the two talk is striking. So much of the movie has been about people practically shouting and taking as fast as possible, but in this scene the two are practically whispering as Johnson is able to draw him out. The scene shows that Burns is manipulating her, trying to win her back and keep her from getting married, but she is a great reporter. Burns isn’t just flattering her when he says that no one else can write this story, he really does mean that.
The gender switching also transforms one of the play’s most famous scenes into something different as the character of Mollie Malloy enters the room to berate the reporters for the lies they wrote about her and about Earl Williams. The room falls silent as Malloy talks and is helped out of the room by Johnson. When Johnson returns, she stands in the doorway and says simply, “gentlemen of the press,” in a tone that makes it clear that everything Mollie said was dead on — and applies to her as well. And yet, when Earl Williams escapes, Johnson runs into the street, turns over sources, bribes people for information and gets the exclusive.
The film is deeply cynical but it’s never bleak. It’s the characters and their attitudes that transform the bleakness and turn the story into something else. If there’s something that writers and directors have taken to heart in recent years when writing more complicated, more dramatic comedies, it’s this. From Better Things to Master of None to Silicon Valley, the shows are funny because the characters are funny and respond to situations in a particular way.
It’s worth noting how the film looks. Most older comedies — and most contemporary comedies, to say nothing of multi-camera sitcoms — use bright and plain lighting. They almost telegraph that one is supposed to laugh. That’s not how His Girl Friday was shot and lit. The newsroom is lit differently than the press room which is different from the jail cell or the restaurant, making it clear that Hawks and his team wanted to create a film that looked as textured as the dramas they made. That’s certainly a legacy that can be seen in contemporary comedies.
In some ways the film has a conventional ending. Johnson and Burns get back together and he proposes that they get married again. She’s smart enough to see how she was being manipulated at almost every turn, but she also knows herself well enough to know that this is what she wants to do and this is what makes her happy. Perhaps some of that un-sentimentality comes from the origins of the story, that it’s about two men and their professional bonds, but the two getting back together at the end certainly feels far more organic and logical here than it does in many other films — like in say, The Philadelphia Story. Instead it feels right. That things are, in some way, back the way that they should be. Watching it again I was reminded how often Arrested Development and other shows manage to subvert just enough conventions to make their endings seem unusual, even though the stories are structured in a very conventional way. The telling of the story changes how we read the ending.
I would also argue that the film has a better, funnier ending than the play. But I won’t give it away. The genius of this film lies in just how quotable it is, in how many funny lines one discovers re-watching it because the first time around the dialogue came by so quickly and one was busy laughing at one line to miss the next two funny lines.
Criterion is releasing a restored edition of the film in a two disc package that also includes the 1931 film version of The Front Page, the 1940 radio adaptation of His Girl Friday, and two radio adaptations of The Front Page. Howard Hawks has long been an underrepresented filmmaker in terms of Criterion releases and quality restored versions of his great films. In the eyes of many people, including myself, he is one of the greatest American filmmakers, and doesn’t receive nearly enough attention or respect. I just hope that Criterion is planning to release Hawks’ other classic comedies like Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire.
One reason that I think Hawks made such good comedies is that he only made a handful of them. Much of his career was spent making some of the best westerns ever (Rio Bravo, Red River, El Dorado), the great Bogart-Bacall films (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), and films like the original Scarface, Sergeant York, Only Angels Have Wings. So many of his dramas were humorous, and even had musical numbers and interludes, and his comedies were dark and complex. In some ways, writers and directors today are catching up with what he was doing decades ago.
His Girl Friday remains one of his best films — and one of Hollywood’s best — for how it managed to combine comedy and drama, to make a movie about work and love, about professionalism, a cynical film that was deeply idealistic. It’s a film that feels very contemporary because so many aspects of the film have become part of the common language of contemporary film and TV. There are dozens of ways to think about, write about and analyze the film. In the end, though, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this is simply one of the funniest, wittiest movies ever made. And just as funny today as it was in 1940.