skip navigation
His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday(1940)

  • Wednesday, August 13 @ 09:30 AM (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
  • Saturday, September 20 @ 08:00 PM (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
Up
Down

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

DVDs from TCM Shop

His Girl Friday An unscrupulous editor plots... MORE > $11.99 Regularly $14.99 Buy Now

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

SYNOPSIS

Romance and career collide when ace news reporter Hildy Johnson tries to leave her job and her editor/ex-husband Walter Burns, for a quiet life of wedded bliss. On her way out the door, Burns convinces her to tackle one last assignment -- a controversial execution scheduled for the next morning -- which is certain to be the greatest story of her career. Burns tries to keep Hildy busy while he thinks up ways to stop her impending marriage to the dull but respectable Bruce Baldwin. Meanwhile, Hildy finds herself aiding an escaped prisoner and uncovering a major political scandal.

CAST AND CREW

Producer-Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editing: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: M.W. Stoloff
Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Helen Mack (Molly Malloy), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson) Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Diamond Louie), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Baldwin) Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone)
BW-92m.

Why HIS GIRL FRIDAY is Essential

One of the greatest newspaper films ever made was born by accident. Director Howard Hawks was trying to prove that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play, The Front Page, still had some of the best modern dialogue ever written, but he didn't have two men to read a scene between editor Walter Burns and ace reporter Hildy Johnson. He gave Hildy's lines to his secretary, then announced, "It's even better this way." He got Hecht's blessing on the altered version, and the two started working on the script in 1939. But their work was going nowhere until Hecht's protg, Charles Lederer, suggested the story would be more focused if Walter and Hildy had been married and divorced previously. Eventually, Hecht had to leave for another project, so Lederer finished the script and took sole credit with Hecht's blessing. Initially, he called the film The Bigger They Are before settling on the more romantic title His Girl Friday (1940).

Hawks' first choice for the divorced editor was the leading man from his last three films, Cary Grant. After a few years as a suave leading man, Grant had risen to stardom as a wise-cracking divorcee in The Awful Truth (1937). He'd almost quit the film, however, over director Leo McCarey's habit of throwing out the script and having the actors ad-lib scenes. By the time he went to work for Hawks, another master of improvisation, he was a master at winging it. Hawks got Grant to play against type as the milquetoast harassed by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), then cast him as a he-man flyer in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). For His Girl Friday Grant played a rougher version of his usual sophisticated image, no great stretch for a man who grew up in the slums of London. He even added lines about himself, including a joking reference to "Archie Leach," his real name, and a reference to a man hiding in a desk as a "Mock Turtle," the character he had played in the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland.

The female lead in His Girl Friday was one of the juiciest roles ever written for a woman and one of the few female characters from Hollywood's golden age to be treated as an equal to her male lead. Yet Hawks ran into a lot of trouble casting it. His first choice was Carole Lombard, who had become a star in his screwball farce, Twentieth Century (1934). By 1940, however, she was too expensive and the studio, Columbia, couldn't afford her. The script then went to Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan and Ginger Rogers, all of whom turned it down.

Rosalind Russell jumped at the role. It fit perfectly with her move into fast-paced comedy that had started with The Women (1939). She knew she wasn't Hawks' first choice, however, and after a few days on the set felt he was treating her like an also-ran. "You don't want me, do you?" she asked him. "Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it." He obviously did as she turned in a performance that won her acclaim as one of the movies' funniest women. She also got a bonus when Grant introduced her to producer Frederick Brisson, whom she would marry a year later.

Although the final screenplay for His Girl Friday was a hefty 191 pages, the film clocks in at only 92 minutes (screenplays tend to run between one and one-and-a-half pages per minute). The reason was Hawks' insistence on using overlapping dialogue and rapid delivery throughout the film. As he would tell Peter Bogdanovich in an interview published in Who the Devil Made It (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997): "I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping." Since the film was made before the arrival of multi-track sound recording, he had to have the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead mikes on and off to follow the dialogue. Some scenes required as many as 35 switches.

His Girl Friday is one of three films often hailed as the ultimate screwball comedy. The other two are Bringing Up Baby, which also paired director Howard Hawks with Cary Grant, and The Awful Truth, starring Grant.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

Pop Culture 101 - HIS GIRL FRIDAY

His Girl Friday would be followed by two other remakes of The Front Page. Billy Wilder would direct a version bearing the original play's name in 1974. That version would star Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the leads, with Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett in supporting roles. In 1988, Ted Kotcheff would turn Hildy back into a woman in Switching Channels, starring Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. For that version, the workplace was changed to a cable news network modeled on CNN.

The working woman's battle to balance career and marriage was a staple of Hollywood filmmaking at the time, turning up in films as different as Woman of the Year (1942), the first Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, and Mildred Pierce (1945), the classic soap opera. Later films clearly influenced by His Girl Friday include Broadcast News (1987), with Holly Hunter, and I Love Trouble (1994), with Julia Roberts.

Jennifer Jason Leigh's tough newshound in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is an amalgam of the characters played by Russell here and by Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941).

In 2003, U.S. playwright John Guare adapted His Girl Friday to the stage by mixing the screenplay with elements of the original The Front Page. The production opened in London to mixed reviews, with Alex Jennings and Zoe Wanamaker in the leading roles.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

Trivia & Other Fun Stuff

With its fast-paced, overlapping dialogue recorded on multiple microphones, His Girl Friday marked a technical breakthrough for sound recording. Robert Altman would use a similar approach decades later for such trend-setting films as M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975).

Although Hawks was no great supporter of feminism, most of his leading ladies would become icons for the movement. "That happens to be the kind of girl I like," he would say, "so it's fun to be with 'em. I know 'em better. You might term them honest and direct" (Hawks quoted in Lizzie Francke, Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood). Among Hawks' liberated women are the characters played by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

This was the film that established Rosalind Russell's screen identity as a tough working woman who could hold her own with any man.

His Girl Friday was also one of the films that established Russell as one of the screen's top comediennes. She made it in the wake of her surprise success in The Women (1939), and it would lead directly to her return to Columbia Pictures for one of her signature roles, would-be writer Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen (1942).

His Girl Friday was the first of five films Hawks would make with screenwriter Charles Lederer. The other four were I Was a Male War Bride (1949), The Thing (From Another World) (1951), Monkey Business (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

This was the third of Hawks' five films with Grant. Previously they had teamed for the screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the action film Only Angels Have Wings. They would re-team for two more screwball classics, I Was a Male War Bride and Monkey Business.

Although His Girl Friday runs just 92 minutes, the shooting script was 191 pages long, with enough dialogue for a much longer film. The shorter running time resulted from director Howard Hawks' use of overlapping dialogue throughout.

Where the average rate of human speech is 100-150 words per minute, the dialogue in His Girl Friday has been timed at 240 words per minute.

Newspapermen visiting the set kept commenting on how fast the dialogue in the 1931 film version of The Front Page had been played. Finally director Howard Hawks screened both versions on side-by-side projectors to prove that his version was faster.

In the original play, Hildy wants to leave his reporting job in Chicago to move to New York City and get married. For this remake, Hildy works in New York and dreams of domestic bliss in Albany.

Except for the film's final moments, His Girl Friday has no musical score.

Two inside jokes in the film: Grant refers to a man named Archie Leach, which was the actor's real name, and says that Russell's fiance looks like "That actor - Ralph Bellamy," who actually played the role. Both were ad-libs.

Another inside joke: when Grant is pushing John Qualen, as the convicted killer, back into the roll top desk, he says, "Get back in there, you Mock Turtle." Grant had played the Mock Turtle in the 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland.

Russell's striped suits were inspired by the look of newspaperwoman-turned-screenwriter Adela Rogers St. John.

Cary Grant flunked his first screen test, made while he was working on Broadway. Executives at Paramount Pictures rejected him because of his "thick neck and bowed legs." He had to drive to Hollywood to finally land a contract.

Grant and Bellamy had played out a similar relationship (divorced husband and ex-wife's fiance) in The Awful Truth (1937), the film that had established Grant as a top comic actor.

Bellamy had performed in The Front Page as a member of George Cukor's stock company in the '20s, playing reporter Hildy Johnson.

During filming, Grant introduced Russell to theatrical agent Frederick Brisson. They would marry a year later - a first for both - and stay together the rest of their lives. Eventually, Brisson would move into producing, where those who didn't care for him nicknamed him "The Lizard of Roz."

by Frank Miller

Famous Quotes from HIS GIRL FRIDAY

"There's been a lamp burning in the window for ya, honey."
"No thanks -- I jumped out that window a long time ago." -- Cary Grant, as Walter Burns, trying to win back Rosalind Russell, as Hildy Johnson.

"Oh, Walter, you're wonderful -- in a loathsome sort of way." -- Russell, as Hildy Johnson, voicing her devotion.

"I intended to be with you on our honeymoon, Hildy, honest I did." -- Grant, as Walter Burns, trying to smooth things over with Russell, as Hildy.

"Well, I don't want to brag, but I've still got the dimple and in the same place." -- Grant, as Burns, flirting with Russell.

"You're losing your eye -- you used to be able to pitch better than that." -- Grant, responding when Russell throws her handbag at him.

"This is war -- you can't desert me now." -- Grant, trying to convince Russell to cover the execution.

"Nice little town, Albany. They've got a State Capitol there, you know." -- Ralph Bellamy, as Bruce Baldwin.

"Bruce, I uhlet me get this straight. I must have misunderstood you. You mean you're taking the sleeper today and then getting married tomorrow." -- Grant as Burns, deliberately misinterpreting Russell's travel plans

"I'm better than I ever was."
"That was never anything to brag about." -- Exchange ad-libbed by Grant and Russell when he asks about getting life insurance.

"You know, Hildy, he's not such a bad fellow."
"No, he should make some girl real happy."
"Uh-huh."
"Slaphappy."
"He's not the man for you. I can see that. But I sort of like him. He's got a lot of charm."
"Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake." -- Bellamy, as Bruce Baldwin, discussing Grant with Russell.

"He looks like, um, that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy." -- Grant, describing Bellamy, as Baldwin.

"Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain't gonna be any interview and there ain't gonna be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong!" -- Russell, telling off Grant.

"And that my friends, is my farewell to the newspaper game. I'm gonna be a woman, not a news-getting machine. I'm gonna have babies and take care of them. Give 'em cod liver oil and watch their teeth grow." -- Russell, bidding goodbye to her fellow reporters.

"All right, now here's your story. The jailbreak of your dreams. It seems that expert Dr. Egelhoffer, the profound thinker from New York, was giving Williams a final sanity test in the Sheriff's office -- you know, sticking a lot of pins in him so that he could get his reflexes. Well, he decided to re-enact the crime exactly as it had taken place, in order to study Williams' powers of co-ordination...Of course, he had to have a gun to re-enact the crime with. And who do you suppose supplied it? Peter B. Hartwell, 'B' for brains...Well, the Sheriff gave his gun to the Professor and the Professor gave it to Earl, and Earl shot the Professor right in the classified ads...No 'ads.' Ain't it perfect? If the Sheriff had unrolled a red carpet and loaned Williams an umbrella, it couldn't have been more ideal" -- Russell, back on the story after a startling new development.

"Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page...No, no, leave the rooster story alone - that's human interest." -- Grant, re-formatting the paper to take advantage of the jail break.

"Well, the last man who said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before I cut his throat." -- Grant, referring to his real name.

"We've been in worse jams than this, haven't we, Hildy?"
"Nope." -- Grant and Russell after their arrest.

Compiled by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

The original play, The Front Page, had been a hit on Broadway in 1928, with Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony) as editor Walter Burns and Lee Tracy as fast-talking reporter Hildy Johnson. It ran for 276 performances, helped by daily press for the trial and execution of husband-killer Ruth Snyder.

The play was written by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both of whom had been reporters in Chicago. Burns was based on Walter Howey, the editor who had taught MacArthur the ropes at the Chicago Examiner.

Hildy Johnson may have been based on Examiner reporter Hilding Johnson, who once scooped the competition with news of a verdict by piecing together scraps of torn ballots found in the jury's wastebasket.

The first film version of The Front Page (1931) starred Adolphe Menjou as Burns and Pat O'Brien as Hildy. At the time, it was considered one of the fastest paced talking films ever made.

Director Howard Hawks got the idea to re-make the film with a gender switch by accident. He was trying to prove his claim that The Front Page had the finest dialogue ever written for a modern stage play, but he didn't have a man available to read Hildy's lines. Instead he had a woman read the role, then realized that the relationship worked better that way. Hecht and MacArthur gave his idea their blessing, but neither was available to write the screenplay.

Originally, Hawks offered the screenwriting job to Gene Fowler, who had suggested re-writes when Hecht and MacArthur were writing the original play, but Fowler thought the idea was too preposterous.

Hawks pitched the idea of remaking The Front Page to Cary Grant in the lead while directing the star in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). At the time, Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn wanted to make the film with Grant as reporter Hildy Johnson and legendary newspaper columnist Walter Winchell as editor Walter Burns.

Hawks turned to reporter-turned-screenwriter Charles Lederer, who had contributed dialogue to the first film version of The Front Page in 1931 and frequently worked with Hecht, to write the screenplay. Lederer and Hecht (who was uncredited) worked on the script, but it was Lederer who suggested that Walter and Hildy be recent divorcees, which helped shape the characters and their interaction.

Hawks planted the film's overlapping dialogue in the script by instructing Hecht and Lederer to write the lines so their ends and beginnings were unnecessary. That way it wouldn't matter if other people were talking over them.

Lederer wrote three drafts of the screenplay. Major changes from first draft to shooting script included making Hildy less submissive and transforming her fianc from a bully into a comic patsy. The earlier drafts also opened with a scene in divorce court that indicated Walter and Hildy had been married and divorced three times.

All three drafts ended differently. In the first, Burns fakes an accident, which prompts Hildy to declare her love. The second ends as the stage original had, with Burns letting Hildy leave, then having her arrested. Only the shooting script ends with his letting her go with his blessing, which convinces her to stay. Not filmed, however, was that version's wedding scene.

The film's original title was The Bigger They Are. It was re-christened with the more romantic His Girl Friday during re-writes.

Concerned that the final draft still wasn't funny enough, Hawks called in Morrie Ryskind to polish the dialogue, as he had for the director's Ceiling Zero (1936). Ryskind would not receive a credit on the finished film.

Ryskind gave the film another ending, in which Burns and Hildy are married in the newsroom then immediately start fighting, leading one of the guests to comment "I think it's going to turn out all right this time." Unfortunately, Ryskind revealed this ending to other writers at the studio, and before the film could go into production another picture was shot with the same ending.

Hawks managed to ignore Production Code objections to Hildy's bribing the jailer to get an interview with condemned man Earl Williams, the kidnapping of Bruce's mother and the attempts to smuggle Williams out of the court building. One area where he deferred to them, however, was in the characterization of reporters as "the scum of Western civilization." To soften the film's depiction of the fourth estate, he added a written prologue setting the film in another era (though without any attempt to capture period costumes): "It all happened in the 'dark ages' of the newspaper game -- when to a reporter 'getting that story' justified anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today. Ready? Well, once upon a time --"

Harry Cohn originally wanted to cast Carole Lombard as Hildy to reunite her with Hawks, who had made her a star in the 1934 comedy, Twentieth Century. By 1940, however, she was such a popular star that Columbia Pictures couldn't afford her.

Before Rosalind Russell accepted the female lead, it was turned down by Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Claudette Colbert and Ginger Rogers.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

Rosalind Russell was insecure during the first days of filming, knowing that she had been far down on the list of choices for the female lead. Making matters worse was the fact that Hawks just watched her initial scenes with Cary Grant without making any comment. Finally, she expressed her frustration to Grant, who counseled, "If he didn't like it, he'd tell you." When she asked Hawks how he felt about her work, he said, "You just keep pushin' him around the way you're doing." That was enough to put her at ease.

To maintain the fast pace, Hawks encouraged his cast to add dialogue and funny bits of business and step on each others lines whenever possible.

Russell planned some of her "ad-libs." Concerned about the film's potential, she hired a writer from her brother's advertising firm to create some witty one-liners for her. She paid the man $200 a week on her own and never told Hawks about it. Grant caught on, however, and would ask her each morning, "What have you got today?"

To capture the film's fast-paced dialogue clearly, Hawks decided to use multiple microphones rather than one overhead boom mike. Since the microphones couldn't be turned on simultaneously, a sound technician had to switch from mike to mike on cue. Some scenes required as many as 35 switches.

With all of the improvisation during shooting, cameraman Joseph Walker had a hard time keeping up. He had a particular problem shooting Russell in a flattering manner, since he never knew exactly where she was going to be. The actress had sagging jowls that required careful lighting. Finally, he got her makeup man to paint a dark shadow along her jaw line, which camouflaged the problem effectively.

One scene required Grant to push Russell onto a couch. Hawks asked the actor to try shoving her harder. When Grant protested that he didn't want to kill her, Hawks said, "Try killin' 'er."

His Girl Friday finished shooting on November 21, 1939, seven days behind schedule. The delays were caused by the complexity of shooting the rapid-fire dialogue, which had to be carefully timed with business and movement. The restaurant scene in which Burns takes Hildy and Bruce to lunch took four days to shoot; the original schedule had only allotted two days for the scene.

The film's tagline was "They're at each other's throats -- when they're not in each other's arms.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, where it earned a respectable $155,000 during its two-week engagement.

"Overlapping dialogue carries the movie along at breakneck speed; word gags take the place of the sight gags of silent comedy, as this vanished race of brittle, cynical, childish people rush around on corrupt errands." -- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies."A tour de force for both Grant and Hawks...His Girl Friday represents a culmination for screwball comedy. With it the form has been pushed to its outer limits." -- Richard Schickel, Cary Grant: A Celebration.

"His Girl Friday is one of the very few screwball comedies that actually merits the label 'satire,' for unlike most others, this satire has an object -- journalism as practiced in the United States -- its tone is openly derisive." -- Ed Sikov, Screwball: Hollywood's Madcap Romantic Comedies."

"Perhaps the funniest, certainly the fastest talkie comedy ever made...Charles Lederer's frantic script needs to be heard at least a dozen times for all the gags to be caught; Russell's Hildy more than equals Burns in cunning and speed, and Hawks transcends the play's stage origins effortlessly, framing with brilliance, conducting numerous conversations simultaneously, and even allowing the film's political and emotional thrust to remain upfront alongside the laughs. Quite simply a masterpiece." - Geoff Andrew, TimeOut Film Guide.

"Film is not so much about the traditional battle of the sexes as it is about sexual differentiation. Hawks repeatedly shows that when characters put their guards down, they take on characteristics of the opposite sex and stop paying attention to others' genders. When no one's looking, the tough-talking male reporters become as gossipy as a women's bridge group...Grant is exceptional, particularly doing physical comedy...Russell is dynamic playing the most fascinating of the era's wisecracking women reporters. She's unabashed as this cunning, bawdy, aggressive, cigarette-smoking, unladylike female - it's a shame she wasn't offered such parts more often." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic.

"You only realize how good a film Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday is when you remember that Rosalind Russell is in it. Top-speed comedy and the floating aggression of Cary Grant actually managed to control the bossiness and overemphasis that spoiled so many of her films." - David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

"The film is so mannered, especially in its pacing, that the degree of stylization calls attention to itself. When Walter Burns describes Bruce Baldwin [played by Ralph Bellamy], he says that he looks like "That actor - Ralph Bellamy." He later quips to one of the film's characters, "The last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." (Archie Leach is Cary Grant's real name.) Such references do not really disrupt the film but merely add to the movie's hilarious message on the absurdity of believing in the characters as real people...His Girl Friday was the first screwball comedy to depart from the money-marriage-ego conflicts of Holiday [1938], My Man Godfrey [1936], and The Philadelphia Story [1940], inserting into the same comic structure and pattern of action a conflict between career and marriage." - Lauren Rabinovitz, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.

"One of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and from gag to gag." - Manny Farber, 1971.

"Frantic, hilarious black farce with all participants at their best; possibly the fastest comedy ever filmed, and one of the funniest." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"With more of the feminine-romance angle injected than was in the original, this new edition becomes more the modern-style sophisticated comedy than the hard, biting picture of newspapermen that Hecht and MacArthur painted in their stage play. Its remake in this revised form was a happy idea, especially since it still moves punchily, retains plenty of its laughs and almost all of its drama." - Variety Movie Guide.

AWARDS & HONORS

In his book Alternate Oscars® (Dell Publishing: 1993), cult film critic Danny Peary named Rosalind Russell Best Actress of 1940 for her performance in His Girl Friday. The film did not receive a single Oscar® nomination.

His Girl Friday was voted a place on the National Film Registry in 1993.

Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford

back to top
teaser His Girl Friday (1940)

One of the greatest newspaper films ever made was born by accident. Director Howard Hawks was trying to prove that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play, The Front Page, still had some of the best modern dialogue ever written, but he didn't have two men to read a scene between editor Walter Burns and ace reporter Hildy Johnson. He gave Hildy's lines to his secretary, then announced, "It's even better this way." He got Hecht's blessing on the altered version, and the two started working on the script in 1939. But their work was going nowhere until Hecht's protege, Charles Lederer, suggested the story would be more focused if Walter and Hildy had been married and divorced previously. Eventually, Hecht had to leave for another project, so Lederer finished the script and took sole credit with Hecht's blessing. Initially, he called the film The Bigger They Are before settling on the more romantic title His Girl Friday (1940).

Hawks' first choice for the divorced editor was the leading man from his last three films, Cary Grant. After a few years as a suave leading man, Grant had risen to stardom as a wise-cracking divorcee in The Awful Truth (1937). He'd almost quit the film, however, over director Leo McCarey's habit of throwing out the script and having the actors ad lib scenes. By the time he went to work for Hawks, another master of improvisation, he was a master at winging it. Hawks got Grant to play against type as the milquetoast harassed by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), then cast him as a he-man flyer in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). For His Girl Friday Grant played a rougher version of his usual sophisticated image, no great stretch for a man who grew up in the slums of London. He even added lines about himself, including a joking reference to "Archy Leach," his real name, and a reference to a man hiding in a desk as a "Mock Turtle," the character he had played in the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland.

The female lead in His Girl Friday was one of the juiciest roles ever written for a woman and one of the few female characters from Hollywood's golden age to be treated as an equal to her male lead. Yet Hawks ran into a lot of trouble casting it. His first choice was Carole Lombard, who had become a star in his screwball farce, Twentieth Century (1934). By 1940, however, she was too expensive and the studio, Columbia, couldn't afford her. The script then went to Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan and Ginger Rogers, all of whom turned it down.

Rosalind Russell jumped at the role. It fit perfectly with her move into fast-paced comedy that had started with The Women (1939). She knew she wasn't Hawks' first choice, however, and after a few days on the set felt he was treating her like an also-ran. "You don't want me, do you?" she asked him. "Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it." When he did, she turned in a performance that won her acclaim as one of the movies' funniest ladies. She also got a bonus when Grant introduced her to producer Frederick Brisson, whom she would marry a year later.

Although the final screenplay for His Girl Friday was a hefty 191 pages, the film clocks in at only 92 minutes (screenplays tend to run between one and one-and-a-half pages per minute). The reason was Hawks' insistence on using overlapping dialogue and rapid delivery throughout the film. As he would tell Peter Bogdanovich in an interview published in Who the Devil Made It (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997): "I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping." Since the film was made before the arrival of multi-track sound recording, he had to have the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead mikes on and off to follow the dialogue. Some scenes required as many as 35 switches.

In addition to His Girl Friday and the 1931 film adaptation, Hecht and MacArthur's original play also served as the basis for Billy Wilder's 1974 remake, The Front Page, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and Switching Channels (1988), directed by Ted Kotcheff and featuring Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve.

Producer/Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on the Play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: Morris Stoloff
Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

back to top