His Girl Friday – 1940
Director – Howard Hawks
Starring – Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy
So this is one of those movies that I started, stopped, re-started, and re-stopped, before finally sitting down and watching the whole thing. There was no particular reason for my continued in-ability to sit through it, it just worked out that way.
In the end, all it took for me to finally sit down and dedicate and hour and a half to watching this movie was the simple little task of falling in love with a girl, patiently waiting 5 years or so for her and I to be single at the same time, start dating, immediately get engaged, and having her suggest that we show it at our wedding. Simple. At that point all I had to do was watch it.
For the un-initiated, His Girl Friday is a comedy of the screw-ball variety. It’s fast paced, and quick-witted with none of the rather dumb short-comings of another Howard Hawks / Cary Grant screw-ball comedy from 2 years earlier, “Bringing Up Baby”. Where that film was populated with infuriatingly stupid and aggravating characters grating on each other’s (and my) nerves, His Girl’s characters are smart, and they only build upon each other. Even when the characters are working at cross purposes, which considering it’s a screw-ball comedy means it’s quite often, nothing is dumbed down. Hokey slapstick is set aside in favor of smart dialog and strategic scheming.
Cary Grant, ever the charmer, plays the crafty, hard-nosed, newspaper editor, Walter Burns. When he finds out that his best reporter, not to mention former wife, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) is set to marry meek insurance man, Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy), and settle down to a life of mediocrity, Burns jealously tries to stymie the couples wedded bliss. He tries to lure Hildy back into the fold of the newspaper by dangling the biggest story of the decade in front of her. To her credit, Hildy sees what he is trying to do, but to her detriment she is tempted, and ultimately gives in to the chance to crack this story wide open.
Russell and Grant play fabulously off of one another, each regularly topping the other with calculated sarcasm and well placed wit. The rapid fire dialog is punctuated with priceless reactions that only illustrate just why these two people are made for each other. Both are driven, career oriented, people who are going towards the same goal, and in the process clashing with each other along the way to get there first.
Bellamy’s meek, milquetoast, alternative to Burns, is at once pitiable and loathsome. It’s easy to understand how this rather tame, safe alternative might have been attractive to a woman of Hildy’s strength and conviction as a break from Burns. After all, he is safe and controllable. He is a dramatically different choice from Burns’ fiery, aggressive, competitor. Although, while Hildy may have had moments of frustration with Burns, it is exactly that competition and desire that pulled them together initially and continues to pull them together. It is exactly this rivalry that intrigues them both, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that poor Bruce Baldwin doesn’t stand a chance.
Along with the two strong leads, and equally watchable secondary character, His Girl Friday has a whole cast of tertiary characters that really work to fill out the chaotic, hilarious universe in which this film exists. The bumbling sheriff, crooked mayor, shady cohort of Burns, convicted murderer, and unhappy mother in-law all weave together a dense enough tapestry to be at once believable and compelling. Hilarious and frustrating. Each of these characters does his or her part to occupy Hildy and Walter for the sake of the story without distracting them from each other for too long.
This film is a super strong testimony in favor of romantic comedies as being legitimate works of art, and currently resides as my favorite screw-ball comedy of all time. It goes a long way to rectifying my bad attitude (and Cary Grant’s reputation with me) in regards to Bringing Up Baby, not to mention it introduced me to Rosalind Russell who I had never seen in anything previously.
Perhaps the biggest benefit His Girl Friday has afforded me…I got to watch it with my favorite person, and the coolest girl around, and future wife. And I didn’t even have to trick her (much) into getting married. Bully for me!
“Our wedding movie.” – Ashley