“You’re a newspaperman.”
“That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.”
His Girl Friday has received a few different origin stories over the years. One holds that director Howard Hawks hosted a tipsy after-dinner reading of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 hit Broadway play, The Front Page, and discovered to his delight that the central editor/reporter dynamic worked far better when played by a man and a woman, rather than two men. Another ties the story to Hawks’ secretary, who read the lead role either during an office debate or a round of auditions. Regardless, it was Hawks who came up with the idea to transform ace reporter Hildebrand Johnson into Hildegard Johnson. And in doing so, he found the romantic comedy in the classic newspaper comedy-drama.
Even if you’ve never seen His Girl Friday, you’re almost certainly familiar with its style. Along with The Front Page (its source material, which got a non-gender-flipped film adaptation in 1931), His Girl Friday created the image of journalists as fast-talking wheeler-dealers willing to do anything for the next big scoop—an archetype that’s been mocked by everyone from Zooey Deschanel on Saturday Night Live to Bojack Horseman. Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino have spent their entire careers trying to recapture His Girl Friday’s magnetic mile-a-minute magic. And Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson remains one of classic Hollywood’s most iconic no-nonsense dames.
Russell owns the screen from the moment Hildy confidently strides through The Morning Post newsroom, warmly greeting old colleagues and wearing the hell out of a striped dress and matching Seussian hat. The film’s title may reference the “man Friday” valet character from Robinson Crusoe, but it’s clear that Hildy is no one’s servant. She barges into the office of ex-editor and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) to inform him that not only is she leaving the Post, she’s retiring from journalism all together in order to settle down into a nice, quiet domestic life with her new mild-mannered fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, one of cinema’s first and best “Baxters”). Walter momentarily panics before coming up with a plan: He’ll remind Hildy that she’s got ink in her veins by getting her to cover the upcoming execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen).
Watching His Girl Friday is like sprinting a marathon. The 92-minute film fits in enough story for a movie twice its length, resulting in not just one of the fastest but also one of the densest comedies. Jokes fly by so fast and with such deadpan delivery that it’s easy to miss them until a second (or third or fourth) viewing. When Hildy brags that Bruce is a kind, sweet, considerate man who wants a home and children, Walter muses, “Sounds more like a guy I ought to marry.” Of their split, Walter argues, “Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.” As Pauline Kael observed in her seminal essay on Cary Grant’s star persona, “What makes Grant such an uncannily romantic comedian is that with the heroine he’s different from the way he is with everybody else; you sense an affinity between them.”
Hawks took the speed of his film very seriously. He purposefully set out to break The Front Page’s record for the fastest dialogue ever recorded. He also pioneered an overlapping approach, carefully planning and rehearsing when his actors would speak over one other to ensure their interruptions sounded natural but the story could still be understood. In an era before multi-track sound recording was available, it took up to 35 carefully managed overhead microphones to capture dialogue that clocked in at 240 words per minute—much higher than the average Hollywood film of the era (90 words per minute) or the average for American speech (140 words per minute). His Girl Friday has no score. Instead the film’s propulsive rhythm comes from the dialogue itself.
The plot, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of morally complex, tonally eclectic material that Hawks enjoyed working with during his long and diverse Hollywood career. Accused murderer Earl Williams unexpectedly emerges as the most sympathetic character in the whole film—a soft-spoken, down-on-his-luck man who’s become a pawn in a corrupt system. The Mayor wants to use Earl’s execution to earn support from Black voters in the upcoming election. (Earl murdered a Black police officer, seemingly on accident.) The sheriff fear-mongers by painting Earl out to be a devious Communist. Earl’s psychiatrist wants to use his infamous patient to get his picture in the paper. And Hildy is interested in whatever angle makes the best, most sympathetic cover story, even if she has to exaggerate some details to get it.
No one’s hands are fully clean in the world of His Girl Friday, but there are degrees of immorality. Though the journalists pull some underhanded tricks, it’s nothing compared to the blatant corruption of a Chicago-inspired political system where half the city’s payroll is made up of the Mayor’s relatives. For all their manipulations, Hildy and Walter never lose sight of the fact that they’re fighting to save a man’s life. Film critic A.O. Scott sums up the movie’s take on journalism as: “A nest of vipers and scoundrels, but the only hope for democracy!”
As in so many of Hawks’ films, the undercurrent of amorality is key to the madcap appeal of His Girl Friday. None of the characters grow or mature as they experience a wild night of prison escapes, kidnappings, suicide attempts, and near-arrests. By the climatic happy ending, Walter still hasn’t adopted any of the chivalrous niceties Hildy initially chastised him for lacking. In fact, her one big emotional breakdown comes after she briefly thinks Walter has turned over a new, nobler leaf. She sheds tears of relief upon realizing he’s still the same old scheming, conniving man she knows and loves—a brilliantly subversive bit that feels like the inspiration for a similar moment in Emma Thompson’s Sense And Sensibility adaptation.
Crucially, however, Hildy’s arc is an internal one. It’s not that Walter successfully tricks her into staying or even that she decides Bruce is the wrong guy for her. She simply comes to realize what she’s always known deep down: She could never really leave the fourth estate behind. As Sheila O’Malley puts it in her Bright Wall/Dark Room essay: “All you need to do is watch Hildy dash like a lunatic between two different telephones in the press room, barking out instructions into both mouthpieces, speaking so quickly it is unbelievable that you still understand every word, to know that this woman is doing exactly what she needs to be doing during her short time on this planet. Her desire to have a quiet life with a nice husband is sincere, but there are more primal drives on this earth, and those who define themselves by what they do will understand.”
Along with Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, Russell’s Hildy stands as one of the most iconic examples of a “Hawksian woman”: a tough-talking female character who can hang with the boys without losing her femininity in the process. Hildy also exemplifies how Hays Code censorship wound up inadvertently inspiring a string of fantastic female roles in the late 1930s and 1940s. Because filmmakers were limited in what they could depict, they had to get creative in how they conveyed sexual attraction. In Hawks and Grant’s previous screwball collaboration, Bringing Up Baby, the sparks came from physical comedy. In His Girl Friday, they come from verbal dexterity. There’s not so much as a single kiss in the film, but the way that Hildy and Walter finish each other’s sentences becomes its own metaphorical foreplay. For as sweet as he is, Bruce’s slow and thoughtful speech pattern clearly makes him an imperfect match for Hildy.
It was screenwriter Charles Lederer’s idea to make Hildy and Walter a divorced couple, which adds an extra set of personal stakes to the professional tension of The Front Page and turns the film into one of Hollywood’s quintessential comedies of remarriage. But His Girl Friday is as remarkable for what it doesn’t change from its source material as what it does. Hildy is still an ace reporter who commands the highest respect—not to mention genuine affection—from her all-male colleagues at the pressroom of the Criminal Courts Building. Lederer even inserts a scene where the men sneak an impressed peek at a draft of Hildy’s latest article. “Can that girl write an interview?” one asks in admiration. Eighty years later, it still feels refreshing to see that kind of non-toxic masculinity casually modeled on screen.
But His Girl Friday doesn’t paint an entirely rosy picture of newspaper camaraderie either. When a hysterical young woman named Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) chastises the pressroom for twisting her relationship with Earl into something tawdry, the men cruelly laugh off her insults, only to fall quiet when Hildy gently leads Mollie out of the room to collect herself. Hawks’ camera lingers on the shamefaced group for a full 48 seconds of uncomfortable silence—a lifetime in this manically paced film—before Hildy returns and greets the room with a simple, rueful, “Gentlemen of the press.” Hawks may be a famously unshowy director, but his subtle choices speak volumes.
Russell herself deserves a lion’s share of the credit for shaping Hildy into such a peerless screwball heroine. She was so far from Hawks’ top choice for the role that she titled the His Girl Friday chapter in her autobiography “Back Door to The Front Page, or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.” Eager to prove herself on a set that encouraged improvisation, Russell hired an ad writer to punch up her lines for her—fleshing out a character who didn’t fully pop on the page and ensuring that Hildy felt like every bit of Walter’s equal. (For his own ad-libs, Grant went meta, referencing his birth name—Archibald Leach—and describing Bruce as looking like “that fellow in the movies, you know, uh, Ralph Bellamy.”)
Though His Girl Friday is now considered one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, it took a while to enter the pantheon. Despite opening to strong reviews, it failed to receive any nominations at the Academy Awards, which instead favored Grant’s other 1940 romance about a man wooing back his ex-wife, The Philadelphia Story. In fact, His Girl Friday largely faded from the public consciousness until Columbia Pictures failed to renew the film’s copyright and it fell into the public domain in the late 1960s. Cheap copies sprung up all over the place (Amazon Prime currently offers two different streaming versions that vary wildly in quality), and the film was reassessed as a classic—not to mention the perfect film to teach students about everything from classical filmmaking to feminist film theory.
Looking back, His Girl Friday is a crucial fulcrum point on the continuum of romantic comedy history. The film is basically a wry 20th-century update of Shakespeare’s own verbally dexterous enemies-to-lovers romance, Much Ado About Nothing, something His Girl Friday acknowledges by having Hildy riff on one of Beatrice’s lines. (“Don’t listen to him, Bruce. I know him of old.”) And it’s since come to inspire decades of rom-coms in its own right—not least of all by making journalism a go-to profession for the genre. Unlike some of its cutesier descendants, however, His Girl Friday has a prickly edge that makes it just as unique as its outspoken, fast-talking heroine.
Next time: Before Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, or Black Widow hit the big screen, there was My Super Ex-Girlfriend.