His Girl Friday – Best Pictures of 1940 (#1)

Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday"

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.

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12 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

12 responses to “His Girl Friday – Best Pictures of 1940 (#1)

  1. A great choice for number 1 – Hawks at his finest. For me,’The Front Page’ was already a great movie, with incredibly sharp dialogue from Hecht and Macarthur, but this remake cranks it up even further and Grant and Russell are both fantastic. I work in newspapers and this script is very true to the business in so many ways – especially love that scene at the end with Grant rearranging the next day’s paper over the phone!

    Reading your stimulating essays about your choices for 1940 has been great fun, and it’s shown just what a great year this was – people always say 1939 was the greatest year, but 1940 must be up there too. I agree with you on most of those I’ve seen, though the exception for me is ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which I can’t warm to. To my shame I haven’t seen ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, though I studied the book for O-level at school and still remember it vividly 35 years later, but anyway hoping to put that right very soon as I’m watching a lot of John Ford at the moment.

    I’ve had a go at doing a top 10 from 1940, or should I say from those films I’ve seen that year…

    His Girl Friday
    Sans Lendemain
    The Shop Around the Corner
    Rebecca
    Arise, My Love
    The Philadelphia Story
    They Drive By Night
    The Mortal Storm
    City for Conquest
    All This, and Heaven Too

    • This one was no contest for me. His Girl Friday is head and shoulder better than anything from 1940.

      I’m glad you have enjoyed the essays for 1940 though I knew you weren’t a big fan of Pride and Prejudice. (I saw your exchange with Allan Fish over at Wonders in the Dark.) Since you are a Ford fan, I definitely recommend seeing The Grapes of Wrath, a very good adaptation of the book.

      I like your list as well. Like all of us, these lists are only based on what we’ve seen. They are more snapshots of our preferences at a particular time. I haven’t had a chance to see Sans Lendemain or Arise, My Love. I liked the others you mentioned that aren’t on my list, though not enough to break into the top ten. They Drive by Night is probably my favorite of them despite Ida Lupino’s over the top courtroom scene.

      • Thanks, Jason – my favourite part of ‘They Drive By Night’ is the first half, about the lorry-driving and with Bogart cast against type, rather than the second half, where I do find Lupino over the top, as you say!

        • Jon

          Jason,

          Good choice for number one and I definitely can appreciate its placement at the top. If I did my own top list, I think I would have these:

          1. Pinocchio- In my opinion, may be the most universal and farthest reaching in terms of scope from this year. Donkey scene and whale scene are terrifying and memorable for many people even today.
          2. The Great Dictator – Some powerful stuff here from Chaplin and many brilliant set-pieces: bouncing globe scene, the speeches etc.
          3. The Philadelphia Story
          4. The Grapes of Wrath
          5. His Girl Friday
          6. Rebecca
          7. Christmas in July
          8. Fantasia
          9. The Bank Dick
          10. Pride and Prejudice

          Can’t wait for 1941!

        • Some great choices here. The only ones I am ambivalent about is The Great Dictator (though I can understand why some might like it, I’ve never connected with it) and Christmas in July. I liked a lot of “Christmas,” especially some of the supporting roles, but I don’t think the movie holds together all that well. I did especially like the moment when Dick Powell tells Raymond Walburn his terrible slogan and Walburn, deadly serious, says, “I love it. I can’t wait to give you my money.”

        • Yes I agree that the first half is stronger. I wish Bogart had a bigger role in the picture, mostly because I’ve never been a big George Raft fan.

      • Jon

        I tend to really like the Preston Sturges films from this time period and there are quite a few good ones. They are probably a little more idiosyncratic than universally liked though. I think The Great Dictator can be kind of stagey, but for 1940 lampooning Hitler like this and portraying the barber and Hitler in the same film, I can’t deny Chaplin and that’s why it’s up there for me.

  2. Yep, Jason, I expected this too, and it’s a great choice! I just came upon this post Jason, and will try and respond quick as I’m leaving with part of the family to attend a Monday evening Keaton double (THE GENERAL and THE BLACKSMITH) at the Film Forum as part of the 12 week Festival of the silent clown’s work there.

    You have supported your #1 choice with a master class analysis and appreciation. This may well be Ford’s greatest film (though Allan and a few others would go with BRINGING UP BABY) and it’s one of the cinema’s great comedies by any barometer of measurement. I know you love this form, and this is surely it’s finest hour.

    My own #1 film of the year as I expressed days ago is:

    The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)

    Runners-Up in no particular order would be:

    Rebecca (Hitchcock)
    Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch)
    His Girl Friday (Hawks)
    The Thief of Baghdad (Powell)
    Our Town (Wood)
    The Mortal Storm (Borzage)
    Pinocchio (Sharpsteen)
    Jud Suss (Germany; Harlan)
    Fantasia (Sharpsteen)
    Night Train to Munich (Reed)
    The Bank Dick (Cline)
    H. M. Pulham Esq. (Vidor)
    The Great Dictator (Chaplin) what a Criterion blu-ray just released!!!!
    Remember the Night (Leisen)
    Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Cromwell)

    • I had a feeling you had this one pegged from the very beginning. I think I am getting predictable. Your list is comprehensive (the only one I haven’t seen is Jud Suss), though I have to say I wasn’t a big fan of The Thief of Baghdad or H.M. Pulham Esp. The had some nice performances in them and, in Thief, some interesting visuals, but they still underwhelmed me.

      To say that this one or Bringing Up Baby is Hawks’ (who I know you meant when you typed Ford) best comedy is one of those excruciatingly pointless exercises, but that won’t stop me from trying. Both are brilliant movies, but I think I prefer His Girl Friday ever so slightly, for whatever that’s worth. For anyone who hasn’t seen them: watch both — and many more from Hawks. That’s the best answer.

      Thank you as always for the high praise.

  3. Pingback: Buster Keaton, Bob Clark, “The Tree of Life,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Went the Day Well?” and staging of Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm” on Tuesday Morning Diary (June 1) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. jeffrey

    Here is my list of the top ten movies of 1940

    1. His girl friday
    2. The Philadelphia story
    3. The grapes of wrath
    4. Fantasia
    5. Arise my love
    6. The letter
    7. Rebecca
    8. Pride and prejudice
    9. Foreign Correspodent
    10. The great McGinty

    • Great list Jefferey. You aren’t the first to mention Arise My Love so I guess I need to get to that one. Somehow I missed it. I like all the others you mention that don’t appear on my list (especially The Letter), though as I said before I’ve never connected with The Great McGinty.

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