Typically, when a work is adapted from stage to screen, some effort will be made to make the work more “cinematic,” applying certain elements—sequences that move from location to location, scenes with large crowds, and so on—that can only be hinted at, at best, in the theater. Not so with His Girl Friday—playing tomorrow at Film Forum‘s Newspaper Picture series—which, depending on how you look at it, is either an adaptation of The Front Page (1928) proper, or a remake of the movie of The Front Page (1931). Either way, the film, directed by Howard Hawks and adapted by Charles Lederer, credits Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the playwrights. The play was a smash hit about a reporter named Hildy Johnson who, arriving at the press room in the Chicago criminal courts building to say goodbye to his colleagues, winds up fighting hard for a huge scoop involving the escape of a man from death row, with the help of his boss at the paper, Walter Burns. The film convincingly evokes the rough-and-tough world of backroom journalism. But the stroke of genius in the construction of His Girl Friday was to make Hildy Johnson (Russell) a woman, and Walter Burns (Grant) her ex-husband.
Maintaining the theatricality of its predecessors, His Girl Friday opens up with a grand dialogue scene that seems to go on forever.
There are no action set-pieces in the film per se—some guns are fired, but the real gunslinging is verbal. You haven’t seen a screwball comedy until you’ve seen His Girl Friday. As Russell and Grant rattle off badda-bing badda-boom dialogue faster clip than you can say “Hollywood Golden Age,” (especially in their opening scene, which could be a one-act play all unto itself) the film thrives on a collision of top-notch writing, directing and acting talent. “Going once, going twice, sold!” Russell exclaims at the end of one particularly rapid run-on by Grant. That the characters are aware of the breakneck pace of their dialogue only adds to the film’s knowing zaniness.
It’s this breathtaking sight of seeing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell giving the performances of their careers that makes watching His Girl Friday such a delight. It’s not just a battle of the wits, but a slugfest of the cynical, acerbic souls of these two hardened newspapermen—and forgive me, but calling Russell’s character a newspaperperson here seems wrong: His Girl Friday features a female lead in a hardened, bitter atmosphere of tough men who can hold her own, and then some, in the old world of journalism, complete with cigars and poker games in the press room and two-bit crooks on the editor’s payroll (the rough-and-tough world of macho journalism here is at complete odds with the WASPy comedy-of-manners setting of most screwballs). Indeed, seeing how much more street-smart Russell is than her Albany born-and-bred fiancé (Ralph Bellamy, of course) is just as good for a laugh as it is clear in pointing out what she sees in him (as well as why she obviously can’t wind up with him).
One might imagine that with such an embarrassment of riches, Hawks didn’t have to do much more than yell “action” and “cut!” “A director,” Hawks once famously quipped, “is someone who doesn’t annoy you.” His Girl Friday is a film where the director recognizes the importance of letting his quality material speak for itself. And yet one cannot question that his sense of comedic timing, as well as pacing of dialogue in general, is more or less perfect. The dialogue sequences unfold with a speed and tension that contemporary action movies could only dream of; Hawks, understanding that quick cutting does not a suspenseful scene make, instead allows the fabulous talent of his actors and the never-let-up witticisms of his script to take their natural place. When he cuts, and when he moves the camera, it is always purposeful, never gratuitous—and it always tells you something. Note, for example, the first time the camera moves in that bravura opening scene. Hawks, by allowing his shots to be so static, and his takes to be fairly long, establishes a sanctity of camera movement (and this holds throughout the film) so that the slightest stylistic flourish carries great weight. Once Hildy begins to realize the futility of their back-and-forth, she stands up, confronting Burns, and the camera pushes in ever-so-slightly; a move that you might not even notice consciously, but subtlety enables Hawks to maintain full control over the scene’s emotional intensity. The result of all this is a Hollywood movie that absolutely surpasses the limitations of the screwball genre, as well as the comedy genre in general; the film becomes a treatise on the magnetism inherent in great cinematic rapport.
There’s no need to bother getting into all the reasons why a film like His Girl Friday can never be made by Hollywood again. Let it suffice to say that for those dear readers who are interested in a battle of the sexes that involves neither pop-culture irreverence nor mumbling narcissism, His Girl Friday cannot fail to delight.