Reviews of Classic Movies: 'His Girl Friday'
If you decide to watch a classic movie (especially one released before 1950), one of the first things that jumps out at you is the way people spoke in the time the film was made. There’s something about the word choice, the accents, and the grammar that instantly date the film – and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s one of the many reasons film makes for such an excellent cultural time capsule; there are few better ways to learn about how people behaved in the first half of the twentieth century than to watch movies from the period.
Even though watching a movie from the 30s or 40s might make for a linguistically educational experience, does it make for an entertaining one? It’s inevitable that 70-80 years after a movie’s release, some scenarios and jokes might seem hokey or old-fashioned. It’s also possible that modern audiences would find the classic film too familiar, since they may have already watched dozens of newer movies that were influenced by the classic title.
Thankfully, there are old films that dodge the ravages of time and remain just as sharp and relevant as the day they hit screens. One of the best examples is the romantic comedy His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks and released in 1940. The movie is a full 74 years old, and yet when I watched it for the first time recently, I was struck by how outrageously funny it still is. There are scenes in His Girl Friday with the exact same fiery wit that makes current comedies sizzle, and better yet, the film’s story is actually more layered than many recent releases.
The story follows two journalists who used to be married: Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). Hildy shows up at Walter’s newspaper office to tell him she intends to give up being a reporter and marry a bland insurance salesman, only to get drawn into writing one last story about a murder case. As the investigation unfolds, Walter schemes to scuttle Hildy’s new marriage, while Hildy finds herself on the trail of some high-level political corruption. Hildy then has to decide whether to see the story through or to take the easy route and leave the news game for good.
Admittedly, at times His Girl Friday feels simply like an average studio comedy from the period: Hawks uses only a handful of sets, and the scenes are blocked and filmed like a stage play. What sets the film apart are its script and performances. Hawks reportedly encouraged improvisation on his films, and so Grant, Russell and the rest of the cast barrel through the story, sometimes talking over each other in a way that makes their exchanges (and their many arguments) feel refreshingly natural.
By the final act, most of the characters become so exasperated with each other that the dialogue is mostly whip-smart barbs and banter, and few actors do that as well as Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. And in a notable shift from what Grant’s fans might expect, Russell gets some of the best material in the film, including some almost Shakespearean insults:
“Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain't going to be any interview and there ain't going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong!”
Russell was also lucky that the central concept of the movie – a newspaper editor feuding with a reporter who used to be his wife – wasn’t the original plan for the film. It wasn’t until Howard Hawks heard his secretary reading lines in an early rehearsal that he decided to re-write the reporter role for a woman. The crucial detail is that Hawks didn’t try to make the role overtly feminine. Hildy is simultaneously career-focused and family-oriented; she’s smart and tough, but not unfeeling. She becomes a striking example of a strong female role in a very male-dominated industry (which was even more so in 1940).
The fact that the film was so ahead of its time with its gender politics has certainly helped make it a classic, but it’s always appreciated when a movie can so thoroughly entertain us while it’s teaching us an important lesson. You still feel the influence of the movie today, even in unexpected places like the recent Marvel triumph Guardians of the Galaxy (yes, really). For that reason, His Girl Friday gets three stars out of four.
Have you seen His Girl Friday? If so, what did you think? Does the dialogue stand the test of time? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!