Tuesday, March 8, 2011

His Girl Friday (1940)

“Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain't gonna be any interview and there ain't gonna be any story”

            His Girl Friday is quite possibly the smartest comedy film ever put onto celluloid. The face paced dialogue and wit are enough to possibly have made every screenwriter for a comedy film since green with envy. From beginning to end the wittiness and banter does not let up and only gets better and better.
            Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is engaged to be married to a sweet man named Bruce Baldwin. But first she wants to break the news to her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) who just so happens to also be her ex-husband. Walter obviously misses Hildy: he still remembers how he proposed and she tells him to stop constantly calling her and sending her telegrams. Hildy tells Walter she wants a nice life out of the newspaper business with her new husband who has stable job.
            Hildy’s fiancé Bruce is outside in the lobby waiting for her. Walter wants to meet him. He sees an old man in the lobby and immediately thinks the old man is the one who Hildy will be marrying. Bruce is not an old man but a nice man around his age. Hildy, ex-husband and fiancé go out to lunch. Walter with some egging on from Bruce gets Hildy to write one more story for the paper about a man who is sentenced to die the next day and who is proclaiming his innocence saying he was set up. Walter says he could write the story but he feels it needs a woman’s touch in order for the story to move people. Hildy has two hours to write the story before the train taking her and Bruce and his mother to Albany where they will get married and live.

You're losing your eye. You used to
be able to pitch better than that.
            Well the two hours get turned into a few hours as one hilarious thing after another happens to keep her in the press room and writing the story.

            The whole idea of His Girl Friday seems to be that Walter cannot stand to see Hildy getting remarried and does everything he possibly can to keep her near him and with the paper. It is almost as if Hildy does not realize Walter is manipulating her or if she does she does not care. Walter knows she could never not be a reporter it is what keeps her going and makes her happy.
            There is not one individual moment that sticks out more than others in this film. There are so many good scenes and so much fantastic dialogue it is hard just pinpoint one scene or line that stands out. If I were to list all the lines of dialogue that make this film so funny I would have to find the script somewhere and post the whole thing. So many lines carry a lot of sexual innuendo that are said either so subtly or so quickly that when you hear them you cannot help but laugh and be amazed. Entertainment Weekly a year or two back made a list of what they considered the best movie quotes of all time. I believe the number one quote or the number two quote was Walter asking Hildy “You want a set of fingerprints?” to which she replies “No thanks, I still have those.” It is a great line with so much more to it. The lines are said with other lines attached to it so you kind of have to keep a listen out for it.  The line, to me, that sets the tone for the whole film is when Hildy walks into the bullpen and asks a secretary “Is the lord of the universe in?” looking for Walter.
            Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell together are probably one of the best comedic pairings ever. They managed to be the perfect combination of sexy and hysterical. Grant was incredible at doing comedy (in fact, I think I like him a lot better in comedy roles than in his serious roles) he just knew how to deliver the comedic dialogue. In this film he does not go over the top silly with his comedy like in Bringing Up Baby or Arsenic and Old Lace he kind of does a straight comedy but delivers the jokes subtly. He was able to even make fun of himself a bit when Walter says to the mayor “The last man to cross me was Archie Leach” which was his real name. Russell is superb as Hildy Johnson. Russell plays Hildy with the perfect amount of cool dryness and sarcasm. Hildy is a good character although she winds up doing what a man wants her to do. I liked how she never let Walter really get to her she always gave it right back. Grant and Russell worked so well together, you could really see the sexual chemistry and longing that their characters had for each other. They both had such a great quick wit to them that really came out in their characters.
            A scene where I thought Russell was very good in was when Hildy went to the jail to interview the man who is sentenced to die and the guard won’t let her in. She goes through her purse, takes out a twenty dollar bill, pretends to pick it up, asks the guard “Say, is this your twenty dollars?” and the guard replies “I think so” and takes the money haha. She was a little pissed at Howard Hawkes for not thinking of her first for the role. A few actresses were considered for Hildy including Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard. Now I love both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard but I feel that both would have put too much emotion into playing Hildy.
            Ben Hecht who is possibly one of the greatest screenwriters ever wrote this film along with Charles MacArthur taken from a play called The Front Page. Both writers used to work for newspapers and knew very well how the world of a reporter worked and how they would do anything for a story. Many credit Citizen Kane with being the first film to have over lapping dialogue. Not so, His Girl Friday has enough over lapping dialogue that sometimes it is a bit difficult to follow not knowing who to listen to. Hecht wrote many of Hitchcock’s greatest films in the 1940s including Notorious also starring Cary Grant. Notorious is filled with a handful of subtle sexual references as well.
            His Girl Friday seventy years after its release still holds up its comedic gold. Everything from the casting to the screenplay down to the wardrobe was perfect. Chemistry and wit like Cary Grant’s and Rosalind Russell’s together will probably never be seen again in a comedy.  This film is the perfect example of how subtlety and quick humor is a lot more fun to watch than in your face crude humor. His Girl Friday should never go unseen by anyone especially those who call themselves film lovers.