His Girl Friday (1940) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“When I first started in pictures, an actor didn’t have the freedom to interrupt the dialogue. But in His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell and I were constantly interrupting each other. The sound men would say, ‘We can’t hear you.’ And we’d say, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to hear us. People do interrupt each other, you know.’”

—Cary Grant

His Girl Friday is known for its faster-than-fast overlapping dialogue, every line rat-a-tat-tatting like automatic weapon fire. There are times—in the crowded press room, for example—when no less than five or six people are all talking at the same time, and yet clarity is never sacrificed. The overlapping required specific timing on the part of the ensemble. Director Howard Hawks said in an interview with critic Richard Schickel, decades later, “Naturally, we used [overlapping dialogue] because that’s the way we all talk… Our little trick of adding a few words in front and adding a few at the end of a line makes it come out as clear as it can be. To me it sounds more like reality.” Reality hyped up on caffeine and cigarettes and sleep deprivation. The end result is something almost symphonic or orchestral, and is still the high watermark for fast-talking ensemble pictures.

But the thing about the fast dialogue that is so extraordinary here—and why imitators often fall short—is that the dialogue is not an empty gimmick. Every line is supported by characterization, motivation, action and re-action. Hawks immerses us in the cynical, hard-bitten world of crime reporters and the newspaper business, where everyone races to get the scoop regardless of who may be trampled along the way. One just assumes (because it is set up so powerfully) that this is how they all talk, this is the world they inhabit. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, heading up the cast, speak as quickly as the rest of them, lobbing linguistic explosives at one another like grenades, laughing when they detonate.

Hawks (and cinematographer Joseph Walker) filmed the action with an unfussy straightforwardness that not only eradicates distraction from the fastest dialogue ever captured onscreen but highlights the irresistible chemistry between Grant and Russell. Except for one or two scenes, the entire action takes place in the cramped unglamorous press room at City Hall. A lot of His Girl Friday is filmed in medium shot, with all of the actors crowded into one frame. What we are seeing plays out in real time. Hawks doesn’t “zoom in” for you; you have to decide where to put your focus in any given scene. His Girl Friday is one of those rare films that gets more dazzling with repeat viewings.

A remake of the wildly popular 1928 stage play and 1931 film The Front Page (considered by Pauline Kael to be “the greatest newspaper comedy of them all”), written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, His Girl Friday is so cynical that at times you wonder if eventually it will lose its nerve. His Girl Friday does not lose its nerve. As Walter (Grant) and Hildy (Russell) hurry out of the press room in the final frame—reconciled as man and wife and racing on to the next big scoop—she struggles, carrying a purse, her coat, and a suitcase. Instead of helping her out with any of it, he gives her an impatient look and says, “Don’t you want to carry that with your other hand?” In an earlier scene, he doesn’t hold the door open for her, and charges across a room without waiting for her, something she gibes him for. And so nothing has changed. Roll credits. The world portrayed in His Girl Friday is insular, brutal, and heartless. Comedy, and the enormous appeal of Grant and Russell, helps you swallow the pill. But it is still a pill.

Howard Hawks had had the bright idea to re-make the film but to change the star reporter “Hildy” (originally a man) into a woman. Hawks was interested in the world of men—the world of work and shared endeavor that bonded men together—but he was also interested in feisty, insolent women who could go toe to toe with men (without sacrificing their femininity). You rarely see portrayals of marriage or domestic life in Hawks’ films. He was interested in the interplay of wit and bravado between a man and a woman who, more often than not, cannot admit to each other (or to themselves) their true feelings. Howard Hawks’ people have a lot of pride. Part of the fun of his films (and they are tremendous fun) lies in watching prideful people ignore their own softness, their own needs and wants, in order to maintain the façade that they are individuals.

While there are conflicts between men and women in a Hawks picture, he often makes the conflicts look like the best fun in the world. David Huxley (Cary Grant), the workaholic paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, has a moment at the end of the film when he stands on his brontosaurus-scaffold, looking down at the dizzy dame (Katharine Hepburn) who has upended his entire life in a matter of 24 hours, and shouts at her, “I’ve never had a better time!” Huxley’s emotional outburst in that final moment is key to understanding Hawks’ unique take on the battle of the sexes. Yes, in Hawks’ male characters’ view, women can be annoying and too emotional, and muck up the serious work of men … but in the end, hanging out with them provides you “a better time” than you’ve ever had in your life.

It was well known about town that Rosalind Russell was not Howard Hawks’ first choice (or the studio’s first choice) for the female lead in His Girl Friday. She wasn’t even the second or third choice. Many years later, Russell titled the His Girl Friday chapter in her memoir “Back Door to The Front Page, or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.” She was so pissed off about it that she showed up to her initial meeting with Howard Hawks with wet hair, having just come out of the pool. It is not difficult to picture Hawks’ reaction to this ostentatious display of indifference: she had spirit, she was feisty, she was not intimidated or eager to please. In other words, the perfect “Howard Hawks Woman,” a trope all his own, fine-tuned through picture after picture, showing up in different guises from the beginning until the end of his long and illustrious career. Howard Hawks’ world was a macho one; he made films about pilots and gangsters and cowboys, stereotypically male pursuits. Women in such films normally inhabited a very clear female space, narrow and limited (although no less important as love interests or damsels in distress). Howard Hawks had no interest in those clichés. He presents us with sassy dames who barrel right into the center of the action, disturbing the all-male equilibrium to often sexy results. Lauren Bacall, making her film debut in To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart, was perhaps the pinnacle of this type of female character. In his direction to her, Hawks kept stressing that he wanted her to be as “insolent” as Bogart. No tears or feminine wiles were allowed—she was a tough gal in a tough world, and, in Hawks’ fantasy, only that type of woman could make a certain type of man happy. In Only Angels Have Wings, poor Jean Arthur is driven out of her mind trying to get close to Cary Grant’s tough-guy pilot.

Howard Hawks had a dream of equality between the sexes, where women were as cool and self-possessed as men, where they didn’t muck up the business of men with dreams of domestication and safety. But he was not interested in women who tried to be like men. He liked women in his films to maintain their femininity, their sex appeal—minus the stereotypical tears and sentimentality. His women are emotional daredevils. Watching Angie Dickinson banter with John Wayne in Rio Bravo is an object lesson of the perfect “Howard Hawks woman,” as is Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

After chatting with Russell for a bit, Hawks sent her straight to wardrobe to get fitted for some pinstripe suits. And that, as they say, was that. Rosalind Russell was Hildy from that day forth. Cary Grant, fresh off Only Angels Have Wings, was already signed on as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor and Hildy’s ex-husband.

The first scene in His Girl Friday is rightly famous, and should be studied by young directors who want to know how to present necessary information efficiently and naturally. Hildy, decked out in geometric pinstripes (coat and jauntily cocked hat) that make her look like some sort of manic playing card, swoops through the busy newsroom on her way to inform her boss/ex-husband that she is about to be married to a sweet, conventional guy named Bruce (played by Ralph Bellamy). As she makes her way across the room she is greeted affectionately and happily by everyone who sees her. You understand immediately that Hildy is not in any way, shape, or form a “his girl Friday”—rather, she is a star reporter at the newspaper, the best writer they’ve got. But like most Howard Hawks women, she wants to be a “woman,” too; she wants to have a normal life where her husband won’t cancel the honeymoon because of a coal mine disaster or a union strike.

Hildy bursts into Walter’s office, Walter rises to greet her, and so begins one of the best scenes in American cinema. Critic Molly Haskell remarks in an interview included in the special features of the DVD, that it’s like watching a boxing match between two fighters “in the same weight class.”

What you understand immediately is that the two are perfect for one another not just because nobody else on earth could keep up with them, but also because nobody else would put up with either of them. It’s a match made in screwball heaven. Pauline Kael, in her famous essay on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City”, observed that the 1930s screwball comedies “turned love and marriage into vaudeville acts and changed the movie heroine from sweet clinging vine into vaudeville partner.” Direct descendants of the dazzlingly witty Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Walter and Hildy are obsessed with one another, competitive with one another, and, finally, helpless in the face of the blatant chemistry binding them together. As Barbra Streisand’s Judy says in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (a 1972 homage to 1930s screwballs), “Listen, kiddo, ya can’t fight a tidal wave.”

The strength of His Girl Friday lies in the fact that we can see all of that from the get-go. When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns behaves in often-reprehensible ways, repeatedly jailing poor Bruce throughout the film on trumped-up charges, you understand that it’s only because he can’t bear to lose Hildy. Of course, the question remains: is it just her writing he will miss, or is it her? The beauty of His Girl Friday is that it does not distinguish between the two.

Hildy, throughout the course of the film, begins to re-discover who she really is: a “newspaperman.” 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.

Hawks is radical in that he makes the woman central to this ultimate journey, when so often the woman is forced to compromise in other films of that era (and ours). You must choose, if you are a woman: domestic bliss or a career. Here, Hildy gets both, although “bliss” is probably a wild misrepresentation. She and Walter Burns will live together, work together, and fight like cats and dogs until the end of their days. Life will be fun, messy, exciting, infuriating, busy, and focused. To Hawks, that’s what “having it all” looks like. And Walter Burns, ruthless as he is, understands that. He finds Hildy hilarious. He “gets” her. She will be safer with him, ironically, than with the more staid Bruce Baldwin.

Pauline Kael, in that same essay, observed, “Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don’t fool around with Gable. But with Grant there are no pressures, no demands; he’s the sky that women aspire to. When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves. He’s a slapstick Prince Charming.” When poor tragic Molly Malloy (played beautifully by Helen Mack) leaps out the window of the press room to hit the sidewalk a couple stories below, Walter is not only unmoved, but clearly conniving how he can work it to his advantage. In any other actor, such a reaction would be unforgivable. But in Grant’s hands, it’s deeply funny, and further evidence that Walter and Hildy are cut from the same cloth.

Stella Adler—The great American acting teacher and founding member of the Group Theatre—once said, “It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.” Her words could represent the Howard Hawks mantra, explored and examined in film after film after film, but His Girl Friday is the zany zenith. Despite all of the hilarity and slapstick, His Girl Friday has a serious, dark heart, and those who persist in believing that the ultimate in life is discovering “who you are” will wonder what all of those people are doing, racing around shouting into telephones at one o’clock in the morning. But Hildy and Walter know the real secret to life: What they DO is who they ARE.

And so they proceed to do it like Hercules.