His Girl Friday (1940) Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy Directed by Howard Hawks. Produced by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Charles Lederer. Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as produced by Jed Harris (14 Aug 1928, New York). Run Time: 92 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Screwball Comedy, Comedy.
As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, rarely does Hollywood make a story better the second or third time (or fourth or fifth for that matter). That doesn’t mean there are not exceptions to the rule. As oft cited, The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the third time the book had been adapted to the screen.
The play The Front Page (1928), written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, was made into a movie in 1931, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien and was quite successful on all fronts. Nominated at the 4th Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Lewis Milestone) and Best Actor (Menjou), this first film adaptation must have been considered pretty good in its day. (I have not seen this version.)
And the film would be remade subsequently, again as The Front Page (1974), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Again nothing to sneeze at, considering the talent involved. I remember seeing this and liking the film at the time.
But in between those two versions, The Front Page would get a twist and became a classic. Sometime in pre-production, director Howard Hawks was trying to prove that the Front Page contained the finest modern dialogue ever written, and he began to read the part of Walter and asked his secretary, a woman, to read Hildy's part. Liking what he was hearing, Hawks called Hecht and suggested changing Hildy's character to a woman; His Girl Friday was born.
Charles Lederer, who had written additional dialogue for the first adaptation, was given credit as the screenwriter for His Girl Friday. Most of the original dialogue and all of the characters' names were left the same, with the exception of Hildy's fiancé which was changed from Peggy Grant to Bruce Baldwin.
Casting the part of Hildy proved to be quite difficult as a number of actresses were considered. Hawks wanted Carole Lombard, whom he had directed in Twentieth Century (1934), but the cost of hiring Lombard as a freelancer proved to be far too expensive for Columbia to afford.
According to reports published in the Hollywood Reporter at the time, Irene Dunne was slated to play the role and production was postponed because she felt the role of Hildy was too small and insisted that the writers rewrite her part. Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullivan, and Ginger Rogers were all offered the role, but turned it down. Jean Arthur was offered the part, and was reportedly suspended by the studio when she refused to take it. Joan Crawford was reportedly also considered, before Hawks turned to Rosalind Russell.
Russell didn’t find out about the search until after she had accepted the part. Supposedly she found out about all the actresses who'd turned the part down while reading an article in the New York Times on the train ride to New York. Nothing like knowing you’re someone’s nth choice.
But Russell wasn’t happy with her part either. According to her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer's work into the movie.
The film opens with a written prologue: "It all happened in the "Dark Ages" of the newspaper game--when a reporter "getting the story" justified anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today. Ready? Well, once upon a time…”
Former reporter Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Rosalind Russell) returns to the newsroom at The Morning Post following her divorce from Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who happens to also be the paper’s editor. They haven’t seen each other for several months and Walter has been trying to win her back as his wife and as a reporter on the paper.
|Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) makes what she thinks will be her last visit to The Morning Post newsroom.|
Walter is engrossed by the impending execution of Earl Williams, a timid bookkeeper, sentenced to death for killing an African-American policeman. He wants to lure Hildy back and lies to her that his star reporter is preoccupied with his wife being pregnant. He tells Hildy that the paper needs her to cover the story.
But Hildy insists she’s through being a reporter; she’s engaged to an insurance man from Albany, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), and will be leaving Chicago for good to be a wife and mother. Walter insists on meeting Bruce and invites them to lunch. At the restaurant, Walter learns that the couple are leaving, with Bruce’s mother, on the four o’clock train, so he has to act fast.
|Walter Burns (Cary Grant) starts right in driving a wedge between Bruce |
Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and Hildy.
The always scheming Walter convinces Bruce that only Hildy can write the story that will save an innocent man’s life. Hildy agrees to write the story on the condition that Walter buys a $100,000 life insurance policy from Bruce. Walter, of course, agrees and he goes back to the newspaper with Bruce for the medical exam. Meanwhile, Hildy goes to the press room at the county criminal building, where she meets with her cynical brethren of the press. They warn her that she’ll never be able to walk away from being a reporter.
|Hildy makes herself at home in the Press room at the county criminal building.|
After interviewing the befuddled Williams (John Qualen), Hildy meets Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), the only person who has shown any compassion towards Williams. Her act of kindness has won her the contempt of the reporters in the room. Hildy takes pity on Mollie.
|Hildy interviews Earl Williams (John Qualen).|
But soon, Bruce telephones and tells Hildy he’s been arrested for stealing a watch. Hildy knows Walter has master-minded Bruce's arrest and leaves to bail Bruce out of jail. When she returns to the press room, she is more determined than ever to leave, but sounds of gunshots and the news that Williams has escaped force her reporter instincts to supplant her common sense. She calls Walter and tells him about Williams' escape and talks to Warden Cooley (Pat West) to get the rest of the story.
While Bruce waits in the cab for Hildy to write her story, Walter sends Evangeline (Marion Martin), a prostitute, to frame Bruce. Walter describes Bruce to Evangeline as "looking like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy."
|Walter sends Evangeline (Marion Martin) to frame Bruce.|
After bribing Cooley for his story with $450 of Bruce's money, Hildy calls Walter and demands repayment. In response, Walter sends his stooge Louis (Abner Biberman) to Hildy with $450 in counterfeit money. Soon after, Hildy receives another call from Bruce, who has been jailed for "mashing."
Meanwhile, Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) confer about their political fortunes. The Mayor heads a graft-ridden administration and needs the execution of Williams to deliver the black vote on election day. At that point, Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert) arrives from the Governor’s office with a reprieve for Williams. The two men try to bribe Pettibone into forgetting the reprieve.
Back at the press room, while Hildy is waiting for Louis to arrive with her money, Earl Williams climbs in through the window. Bruce calls at that moment; he is still waiting for Hildy to bail him out of jail. Hildy tells him to wait and then calls Walter to tell him that she has found Earl Williams.
As soon as Hildy gets off the phone, Mollie Malloy pounds on the press room door. When she sees Williams, she bursts into the room and when the reporters begin to file in, Hildy and Mollie hide Earl in a roll top desk belonging to one of the reporters, Roy V. Bensinger (Ernest Truex), who happens to fancy himself a poet.
Bruce’s mother, Mrs. Baldwin (Alma Kruger) enters the press room and begins to chide Hildy about foresaking Bruce for a murderer. The other reporters think something is up and start to ask questions. In order to divert them, Mollie jumps out the window. The reporters run out of the room to examine the extent of Mollie's injuries just as Walter and Louis arrive.
|Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) throws herself out the window to divert the reporters' attention.|
Walter works out his scheme, but Mrs. Baldwin sees everything. In order to keep her quiet, Walter tells Louis to kidnap Mrs. Baldwin, which he does. Walter calls the newspaper and makes plans with his assistant editor, Duffy (Frank Orth), to transport the roll top desk back to the Post. While Hildy is typing up her account of capturing Williams, Bruce walks in demanding his money. He tells Hildy that he is leaving on the nine o'clock train. Hildy then hands Bruce the counterfeit bills Louis had delivered, of course, not knowing they’re fake. Bruce leaves before Hildy realizes he’s gone.
|Bruce tries and fails to get Hildy to leave with him on the nine o'clock train.|
She is still writing her story when a disheveled Louis enters and tells her and Walter that the cab he was in with Mrs. Baldwin was in an accident with a police car. He admits that he left Mrs. Baldwin at the scene of the wreck and ran for it.
Next, the sheriff and the other reporters return, and the sheriff begins to question Hildy about what she knows about Williams. Mrs. Baldwin returns and accuses Walter of having her kidnapped. The sheriff is anxious to find an excuse to arrest Walter, but he emphatically pleads his innocence, going so far as to pound on the desk, the sign they’d worked out with Williams that the coast is clear.
|The arrest of Earl Williams.|
Williams responds in code and with guns drawn, the sheriff opens the desk and finds the fugitive. The sheriff then handcuffs Walter and Hildy and threatens Walter, who responds that the "last man who did that to me was Archie Leech." (A reference, of course, to himself.)
|The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart), on the phone, and The Mayor (Clarence Kolb)|
think they finally have the goods on Hildy and Walter,
who's paper has been at odds with their administration.
Just then, Pettibone, intent on doing his job, returns with Williams' reprieve much to the delight of Walter. The mayor knows he’s been caught and tries to whitewash over things and demands the sheriff release his good friends Walter and Hildy. As Walter advises Hildy to go after Bruce, Bruce calls and tells Hildy that he has been arrested for spending counterfeit money. Realizing that Walter has tricked her once again, Hildy breaks down and cries. She doesn’t want to go away with Bruce and would rather be with Walter. They plan to marry again and have a real honeymoon this time.
|Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert) returns a second time with a reprieve for |
Earl Williams, saving Walter and Hildy, as the Mayor looks on.
Walter calls his city editor, Duffy, to announce that he and Hildy are getting married and will spend their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Duffy informs him that there is a strike in Albany, which is on the way, and Walter plans on covering the story. He wonders out loud if Bruce might be able to put them up as he and Hildy leave the court house. She is, of course, carrying her own luggage.
Cary Grant is a very versatile actor, there is so little that he can’t do on screen. He plays the scheming and manipulative editor, Walter Burns with his usual finesse. While this is not the greatest role he would ever play, it is certainly one of the funniest. Grant and Rosalind Russell make a good team, but he makes a good team with just about every woman he shares the screen with.
Russell more than holds her own with Grant, no doubt somewhat aided by lines from her ghostwriter. Despite the exhaustive search for a Hildy, it’s hard to imagine any other actress playing the part but Russell. While not manly by any means, Russell was never considered to be a sex symbol either. She is pretty enough to understand why men would be attracted to her, but she seems to have more going for her than looks alone.
Rosalind Russell started as a fashion model and a Broadway actress, before coming west as a contract player at Universal Pictures. But she didn’t feel like she got any respect and was able to get out of her contract. She found better success at MGM. Her breakthrough role was in the drama West Point of the Air (1935) opposite Robert Young. She began to be cast in roles originally intended for Myrna Loy. Her career would get a big boost in The Women (1939), which also established her reputation as a comedienne.
Throughout the rest of the forties and fifties, Russell would act in both comedies and dramas, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for My Sister Eileen (1942), Sister Kenny (1946), Mourning Becomes Elektra (1947) and for the role she is most associated with, Auntie Mame (1958).
Her suitor in His Girl Friday, Ralph Bellamy, was used to playing second fiddle to Grant, having previously played opposite him in The Awful Truth (1937). In that film he lost Irene Dunne to Grant, just as he loses Russell to him here. His portrayal of Bruce is spot on. Bruce gets turned inside out and every which way by the faster thinking Walter Burns. Bellamy plays an affable man being taken advantage of as well as anyone could. You end up feeling sorry for him by the end, as he really does nothing wrong.
Bellamy made his film debut in The Secret Six (1931) and worked in film and television until 1990, when he appeared in Pretty Woman. Bellamy acted in a variety of genres, from comedies to dramas, horror and musicals. Other films he appeared in include: Boy Meets Girl (1938), Carefree (1938), Dance, Girl Dance (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Oh, God (1977) and Trading Places (1983). He also is known for playing President Franklin Roosevelt, first on stage in Sunrise at Campobello and then in the film version in 1960. He would later appear as FDR in two television mini-series, The Winds of War (1984) and War and Remembrance (1988).
Another actor who had shared screen time with Grant prior to His Girl Friday was Abner Biberman. While Abner seems to have been born to play Louis, he had been Grant’s nemesis Chota in Gunga Din (1939). A character actor, Biberman would appear in such films as Each Dawn I Die (1939), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Another Thin Man (1939), Captain Kidd (1945), Winchester ’73 (1950) and Viva Zapata! (1952). But there was more to Biberman as well. He wrote, directed and acted in The Golden Mistress (1954), an adventure film set in Haiti starring John Agar. He would later work in television directing on such series as Maverick (1957), 77 Sunset Strip (1958) and Gunsmoke (1965).
|Abner Biberman, at far right, as Louis, Walter's enforcer, in His Girl Friday.|
Biberman plays Louis with a comedic toughness. He doesn’t attempt to get into the frenzied wordplay, but he still gives a solid performance.
The cast is full of character actors like Billy Gilbert as Pettibone, Clarence Kolb as the Mayor and Gene Lockhart as Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell, who play their parts with a great sense of comedic timing. Gilbert and Kolb both got their separate starts in Vaudeville, while Lockhart got his break on Broadway.
His Girl Friday is considered to be a Screwball Comedy. As discussed in our review of
Bringing Up Baby (1938), the genre is characterized by a female that dominates the relationship with the male central character, whose masculinity is challenged. His Girl Friday does one better, by taking what had originally been a male role and casting it with a woman. While Russell’s Hildy is not masculine, per se, she is working in what had been, at the time, a male dominated profession, news reporter. The hilarious word play ends with marriage, but not necessarily the promise of happiness as by the end Walter is already falling back into his old patterns.
One of the things I like best about the film is that despite the fast talking, the story is still quite easy to follow. The film takes you along for a fast trip, but it doesn’t throw you from the train on the curves. While the film was released in 1940, it is an honorable 1939 film, having been shot between September 27th and November 21st of that fabled year. Definitely some of the creative magic from that year rubbed off on this production. If you have never seen this movie, you should and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself watching it anytime it’s on.