Film discussion

His Girl Friday (1940) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history. 

If there is a lesson to be learned from watching the characters interact with each other in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, it has to be that if you have something to say, say it as fast as possible. With every character in every scene delivering their dialogue at a pace best described as a million miles per hour there is a threat that everything could become overwhelmingly fast, and yet once one gets on board with it, it’s hard not to just get swept along by its sense of pace, not to mention style.

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While It Happened One Night is sometimes regarded by some as a screwball comedy, it has a more sedate sense of delivery and while it falls into the realm of romantic comedy for sure, it’s less of what is most popularly known as screwball. On the other hand, His Girl Friday is the dictionary definition of the genre and it really could have only come from Howard Hawks. The film wasn’t even Hawks’ first time delivering this type of film; only two years previously he delivered the equally iconic Bringing Up Baby which also happened to feature His Girl Friday‘s leading man, the one and only Cary Grant.

This will not be the last time we’ll be talking about Grant as the leading man of a romantic comedy, because if there was an actor with a performing style and sense of class that represented the romantic leading man of the period then it was without a doubt Grant himself. His on-screen persona, of more often than not being the type of leading character to end up with his leading lady at the end of the film, after a large amount of sexual chemistry has been worked up via the delivery of wittily written and delivered dialogue, made him one of the leading actors of his generation. So many of his films remain forever popular with future generations, some being defining works of the romantic and comedy genres.

Always looking dapper in a suit and with a transatlantic accent that delivered his frequently witty dialogue in a way that looked easy but which had a style of its own (he was born in England, but moved to the US when sixteen), Grant’s on-screen persona and performing style was tailor-made for the romantic comedy genre. Sure enough, he could subvert the romantic style of character that he could inhabit so easily to devastating effect, not least in his Alfred Hitchcock collaborations Suspicion and Notorious (although Hitchcock would have him revert to somewhat more traditional form with To Catch a Thief and the deservedly iconic North by Northwest), and truthfully His Girl Friday was just a continuation of a persona that had been given a brilliant work out in The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby, his previous collaboration with Hawks.

Thrown into the mix with His Girl Friday was Rosalind Russell. The film is very much made of both her and Grant delivering their dialogue at each other, across each other, frequently overlapping and doing so in a way that becomes increasingly faster and faster as the film goes on, the pace ratcheting up to near farcical levels come the final scene.

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Like It Happened One Night, there almost appears to be a suggestion that the best, funniest romances in the movie world are to be found when one is employed as a reporter. Where Frank Capra’s film was very much a romance that took in a road trip across the United States and various modes of transportation, His Girl Friday’s origins on stage as The Front Page (written by Ben Hecht, who did some uncredited work on the screenplay here) are somewhat apparent as so much of the film takes place in interior scenes within the newspaper office that is the central setting of so much of the action. Intriguingly, the stage play itself had already been adapted before in 1931 and produced by Howard Hughes.

The 1940 version though is the one that everyone remembers more vividly – and how could you not? The potent combination of Grant, Russell, and so much overlapping dialogue, some of which was improvised – not least Grant’s character referring to Archie Leech (Grant’s actual birth name) in one of the funniest scenes of the film – gives the story a relentless joy that has lost none of its spark.

The work of Hawks has had its own influences on future generations of movie directors; his westerns were an inspiration to John Carpenter, while Peter Bagdonavich and Polly Platt would create their own tribute to His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby when they produced and directed What’s Up Doc in 1972. Even television writers such as Amy Sherman-Palladino and her work on classic television series Gilmore Girls and current hit The Marvellous Mrs Maisel frequently tips her hat to Hawks’ work here (not least with scripts that are said to be almost double the length of most other television scripts because of the amount of dialogue that is directed to be delivered fast).

Pace and speed is perhaps one of His Girl Friday‘s most lasting legacies, although it’s most important one can also be said to be the character of Hildy. Russell’s performance is every bit the equal of Katherine Hepburn’s in Bringing up Baby, holding her own against Grant’s character even when he throws every obstacle in her way to ensure she doesn’t get married to someone else. In the original play that His Girl Friday was taking its inspiration from, that character is a man, but was changed to a female with added romantic element later on in the writing process.

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The character has been a clear inspiration to the likes of Lorelai Gilmore and Midge Maisel, not to mention the whole dynamic between Russell and Grant inspiring two of the best bit-part players in the latter episodes of Netflix’s dark animated tragi-comedy Bojack Horseman.

While very much a film of its time, with some questionable gender politics (Grant’s charater Walter is effectively trying to stop Hildy from getting married to someone else in the film’s most frequent running joke), His Girl Friday is so damn enjoyable and brilliant at what it does that it’s hard not to get swept along by it. And when it’s a film as fast as this one is, that isn’t very difficult.

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