His Girl Friday
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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.
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