The Big Idea Behind HIS GIRL FRIDAY
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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 fiancé 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