(The following is my contribution to the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2015 essay collection commemorating the 17 films voted in this year by the staff of Muriels writers and voters. For daily updates and all-new writing on the inductees, please visit the the Muriels official Web site, Our Science is Too Tight.)
God help the poor uninitiated soul who, in turning on Turner Classic Movies and encountering Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) for the first time, knows not enough about this dizzying reshuffle of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page to at least take a few deep breaths before jumping in. It’s hard to imagine a faster, more breathless and whip-quick movie, from any genre, that all at once feels so fleet, dense and confident, without betraying even the slightest whiff of desperation, as this one.
Hawks kicks the movie off with one of the great introductory scenes ever—reporter Hildy Johnson (embodied, the way God surely intended, by Rosalind Russell) swooping through a big-city newsroom, the camera in hot pursuit, acknowledging past colleagues of the reporting life with the breezy assurance of someone who thinks she’s cast off a whole litany of childish and corrupt things in favor of stability and a more conventional life. (One 1.5-second-long exchange has Hildy blithely asking a columnist friend, “How’s ‘Advice for the Lovelorn’?” The columnist’s response: “My cat just had kittens.” Hildy: “It’s her own fault!”)
Of course, Hildy couldn’t be more wrong. She’s on her way toward one final encounter (or so she thinks) with her ex-boss, the charming, abrasive, brilliantly shifty and manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who never met a story, or an employee, or a local politician he couldn’t bend to suit the paper’s ends. In a fatefully brilliant move, Hawks commissioned ex-newspaperman-turned-screenwriter Charles Lederer to rewrite Hildy, the co-lead character of The Front Page, as a woman after hearing his secretary run some of Johnson’s lines in preparation for a proposed remake.
But it was Lederer’s inspiration to make Hildy and Walter a recently divorced couple, upping Hecht and MacArthur’s astringent newspaper satire with a jolt of screwball comedy energy, and factoring in Hildy’s hayseed fiancé Bruce Baldwin—you know, looks like the fella in the movies-- what’s his name? Oh, yeah, Ralph Bellamy—as one more toy for Walter, and Lederer, to play with. The script was added to and subtracted from by actors and writers alike throughout the shoot and ultimately fashioned into the basis for what has arguably eclipsed Hecht and MacArthur’s original to become the definitive version of The Front Page, one of the biggest hits of the American stage.
None of it would work nearly as well as it does without the inspiration and thorough commitment of the entire cast, from Bellamy and his exasperated mother, played by Alma Kruger, to the stalwart character actors Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart as, respectively, Chicago’s corrupt mayor and sheriff, to the press room overflowing with cynicism and nasty wit provided by the likes of Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey, to John Qualen as poor, rattled radical Earl Williams, around whose impending execution for murder the entire movie churns and crackles.
Cary Grant’s comic timing and inspiration has never been better, or more the beneficiary of a relentless pace, than it is here. What other actor could possibly even approach Grant having dinner with Bellamy and Russell, enduring her shin kicks under the table, and shooting microsecond-long bursts of perturbed glances back at her, all while patronizing Bellamy as he prattles on about the honor of his chosen profession—the insurance industry? Grant set an impossible standard for every comic leading man as Burns 75 years ago, and even in the modern cinema of information overload his work has yet to be bested.
But the movie belongs to and rests on the padded shoulders of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, who manages to stand out in Hawks and Lederer’s conception as a career woman who plays cynical and callous and single-minded as a way of keeping up with the boys, because she has to, of course, but also because she feeds on the energy of a business teetering on its own razor’s edge of morality and excess. (It’s clear she can outwrite them all too.) Hildy isn’t considered a soulless shrew for being tough and smart (think Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen), and she gets points for style—one of the things I used to love about watching His Girl Friday growing up was the havoc that outrageous zigzag pantsuit and hat she wears during the opening sequence would wreak on my TV’s horizontal resolution. This is Russell’s movie; she breathes life and precious fire into it.
And together with Grant and the others, she realizes a seemingly impossible level of locomotion and grace with the movie’s dialogue that becomes its own almost hallucinatory joke— the speed itself can make you laugh hysterically. One can imagine Robert Altman, whose own sense of a bustling, often claustrophobic community of individuals often seemed a naturalistic, loose-limbed extension of Hawks, watching and listening to the rapid-fire, often overlapping delivery of the actors in His Girl Friday, his own facility with how dialogue and information could be delivered taking root.
One great hazard of writing about His Girl Friday is resisting the temptation to devolve into the simple retelling of the movie’s countless dazzling setups and payoff lines (I’ve indulged here just the once), but the jokes are too many and too layered into the material to possibly be perceived in one sitting—no enthusiastic critic could possibly spoil them all. If you see it in a theater (highly recommended, if you can swing it), you’ll have to see it again to catch all you missed because of the laughter of the audience. And each time I’ve seen it, in whatever format, I’ve noticed and been surprised by something new. If you have the sort of retention ability for comedy that I have, which is little to none, then a movie as rich and rewarding as His Girl Friday becomes its own self-sustaining, self-rejuvenating fountain-- American farce pitched with a complete lack of pretense that fulfills the highest standard of the art of the screwball comedy, which can be revisited again and again, playing as hilariously and as exhilaratingly the 15th time as it did the first.