Well Sam and Jon predicted my next move accurately in the Grapes of Wrath comments thread. His Girl Friday stands as one of the only truly perfect Hollywood era comedies, along with The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). (Is it a coincidence that Cary Grant was in all three?) Every element is in perfect sync, so much so that watching His Girl Friday makes us resent the mediocre movies that take up the majority of theater space and air time. (Though we can forgive most of the bad ones. At least they can still be entertaining in a perverse way. I’d rather watch Linda Blair in Roller Boogie than just about any Katherine Heigl “comedy.”)
This movie is another gem from Howard Hawks. He took a slightly better than average 1931 newspaper drama, The Front Page, and by tweeking the characters and the story a bit, turned it into a first rate comedy. What we appreciate is how much care Hawks spent with the script: the dialogue crackles with wit, puns, and innuendos that elevate the script to some of the best movie writing – comedy or otherwise – ever. Consider the scene in which a hapless messenger tries to deliver a stay of execution for a prisoner to a befuddled sheriff and his exacerbated mayor. The mayor, overly conscious of public opinion against the prisoner, doesn’t want the stay, the sheriff takes orders from his city hall boss, and the messenger just wants to get rid of the message. The three talk in circles as each tries to pass the message off on the other, misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other along the way. Their dialogue overlaps and intertwines; double meanings and playful puns pile up into one of the funniest scenes of all time, which is amazing considering neither Cary Grant nor Rosalind Russell, the brilliant leads of the movie, don’t appear in it.
That’s how we know the movie is special. When supporting players are allowed to briefly overshadow their leads (and they rise to the opportunity). Here it would not have been easy to do with Grant and Russell. They transform already great material into something divine. Grant plays Walter Burns, the hard-nosed editor of a major metropolitan newspaper always looking out for the scoop (even if it comes a little dishonestly) or the fresh angle on a tired story. The story of the moment is the impending execution of a convicted murderer, a man who stubbornly refuses to give interviews. All seems lost until Hildy Johnson (Russell) walks into his office to flaunt her new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy). Not only was Hildy Walter’s top reporter but she was also his wife. Walter realizes he needs the best for this story and the best just walked into his office. Even though she is determined to retire and get married, Walter is equally determined to snare Hildy back into the newspaper game. Through cunning, flattery, treachery, even kidnapping, Walter gets Hildy for just this one last story, confident he can remind her that the newspaper game is in her blood and that one last adrenaline rush of getting the story in just under the deadline will disabuse her of any goofy retirement ideas and, just possibly, win her back as a wife.
Of course we’re never sure if Walter is consciously trying to win her back; maybe he considers winning her back the easiest way to keep her working for him – or vice versa. Or, the more likely third option, that for Walter there is no distinction for their relationship. Whichever is the case Walter’s schemes, Hildy’s reactions, and her poor fiancé’s desperate attempt to collect her and catch a train all culminate into one of the greatest movie comedies. Hawks’ measured insanity never feels out of control or over the top, but it’s always funny and, even seventy years later, still feels fresh. How could this movie, one of my favorite of all time, not be the best of 1940?
What are your favorite movies of 1940? What do you think I missed? Or got right? Next up will be the best performances of 1940.