Release Year: 1940
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (play "The Front Page")
When you think of an idealized 1940, a few things probably come to mind.
You might think of the awesome style they had way back when. That was a time when fedoras were actually cool and gloves were a year-round accessory.
You might think of the music: of dim nightspots where people jitterbugged and Lindy-hopped until the wee small hours of the morning.
And you might think of the crackling dialogue of the original screwball comedies.
Screwball comedies take wit to the next level. No sooner is one joke cracked than another is being set up. No sooner is one is one double-entendre lobbed than another one is bounced back. It's a style of dialogue that crackles in time to the rustling of popcorn and fizzes along in time to the whirr of the film projectors.
It's old. It's weird. It's totally iconic.
And while 1940's His Girl Friday wasn't the first screwball comedy, it's screwball comedy at the height of its game.
Adapted from the 1928 play The Front Page, His Girl Friday is about the fast-paced, high-tension world of the newspaper business. The Morning Post is investigating the death penalty of Earl Williams, a mentally ill man convicted of murder. The paper is corrupt and opportunistic, but the politicians involved are corrupt-er and opportunistic-er… and much, much wittier.
And into this pun-filled newsroom waltzes Hildy Johnson, the ex-wife of newspaper guru Walter Burns. She's decided to leave the newspaper biz to become a housewife… but she's such a wordsmith (and Walter's such a charmer) that you know immediately that there's no way Hildy's going to stick for a life of pie-baking and bottle-feeding.
What you don't know, though, is how Walter is going to win her back—but you can be pretty sure it will come in a blitz of witticisms, sly asides, and wordplay.
In the original The Front Page play, Hildy was a man. But director Howard Hawks made her a woman instead—and so the story about newspaper ethics becomes a romantic comedy. A romantic comedy about the two best-looking and quip-happy people we've ever seen.
This film generates Breaking Bad-levels of chemistry between its stars, but it didn't wow critics initially. The film didn't get any Academy Award nominations, and a review in The New York Times seemed more bemused than enthusiastic. (Source)
But, much like Hildy warms up to Walter, the critics have warmed up to His Girl Friday. The film is regularly listed as one of the great screwball comedies, and one of the funniest movies of all time. It's been preserved in the National Film Registry. And, bonus—since it went out of copyright in 1968, it's also been reproduced and redistributed; you can find digital versions on the web with ease.
But even though you can peep His Girl Friday any time you like, that doesn't mean that people haven't tried their hand at adaptations and reworkings. The 1974 film The Front Page and the 1988 film Switching Channels were both based on His Girl Friday, and the movie also inspired a 2003 stage play (also called His Girl Friday).
Yup: decades after mandatory gloves, swing-dancing, and saying "You're a card!" went out of style, Hildy and Walter's sound-barrier breaking wit battles are still very much in demand.
Question: What is this?
HILDY: The mayor's first wife, what was her name?
WALTER: You mean the one with the wart on her?
Answer: You know what that is, Shmoopers? That's a butt joke.
The scriptwriters threw in a gratuitous gag suggesting that the mayor's wife had a wart on her tuchus. Just in case the joke doesn't register in text like it does on the big screen: "Fanny" can be the mayor's wife's name, but it could also mean the part of her anatomy where the wart is.
Is that uplifting? Is that deep? Is that the sort of high-culture, intellectual content you expect to have explicated upon when you click on over to our venerated Shmoop halls of hallowed wisdom? The answers are no, no, and maybe but you shouldn't, shame on you.
So if this is the sort of thing you can expect from His Girl Friday, what is the point of studying it? You don't need us to explain to you the deep meaning of butt jokes. Or… do you?
Okay, so yes, butt jokes don't necessarily need a road map (to mix a butt metaphor—gross). But there are some interesting things about this butt joke.
Specifically, there's a woman collaborating on that butt joke.
Specifically-specifically, there's a woman collaborating on that butt joke… in 1940.
In 1940, women were supposed to be domestic mothers. Sweet wives. Pie-baking goddesses. They weren't supposed to be professionals, and they certainly weren't supposed to be sharp-talking wisecrackers spitting out… butt jokes.
But in His Girl Friday, Hildy gives as good—or sometimes better—as she gets: butt jokes and all. And that's a big part of the reason the film is worth studying and thinking about. The film is about changing gender roles; about the forces that pull women towards domesticity on one hand and career on the other.
Should a woman want someone to protect her? Or should she want someone to create butt jokes with? Should she choose a mate that's a steady, reliable chap… or a butt joke-loving slickster newspaperman? Should she find a man who will take her on honeymoons and shower her with praise… or a dude who will abandon their honeymoon for the next hot-tip newspaper scoop (but do so while spouting butt jokes)?
Does a woman want to be treated like a woman, or like a water-buffalo (as Burns puts it)?
That's a question that still is relevant today—not least in the movies, where there still aren't that many leading actresses who get to be water buffaloes. Basically, His Girl Friday is worth studying because gender roles—and butt jokes—are worth thinking about.
Cary Grant introduced Rosalind Russell on set to producer Frederick Brisson. They married a year later. (And no, they never divorced.) (Source)
Russell felt she didn't have as many good lines as Cary Grant, so she hired her own scriptwriter to add some better ones. Hawks allowed for ad-libbing, so Russell would sneak her pre-written lines in during shooting. (Maybe Russell was ever sneakier than Walter, huh?) (Source)
The first choice to play Hildy was Jean Arthur, who turned it down. Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne also turned it down. Everyone turned it down, just about, before it was offered to Rosalind Russell. She was a little bitter about that—who can blame her? (Source)
The (first) Front Page
His Girl Friday came along later, in 1940.
Hold the Presses for Howard Hawks
The Turner Movies Classics page for Hawks, including a biography and links to information about his many films.
Home of the Screwball
A site devoted to screwball comedies, including discussions of the most important films in the genre, essays on audiences, and links to contemporary reviews.
The Front Page—Hildy's a Guy Again
A 1974 film directed by Billy Wilder starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter. Based on the original play, it also draws inspiration from the film.
Switching Channels—Hildy's a Girl Again
A 1988 film with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, and Christopher Reeve, loosely based on His Girl Friday.
"The Maddest Newspaper Comedy of Our Time"
The original 1940 New York Times review of His Girl Friday.
Lots of Dialogue
A discussion of the film, including an extensive plot recap with numerous quotes.
"The Gags/Minute Ratio"
An analysis of His Girl Friday's cinematography and gender politics.
"Let's Listen In to One of Their Tender, Idyllic Love Scenes"
An original trailer for His Girl Friday. Oddly much of it shows scenes from the film with dialogue removed—which seems like it misses the point.
"Duke, How Do You Like This Idea?"
A 1971 interview with Howard Hawks, focusing mostly on his Westerns and his relationship with John Wayne.
Just the Crazy Dialogue, Please
A live radio performance, with Grant and Russell, of His Girl Friday (somewhat condensed from the movie version). Note that there's a laugh track as well.
Known for His Tough Women
A brief audio biography of Hawks
She Learned About Men From Him!
The original movie poster for His Girl Friday. Walter looks awfully crafty, doesn't he?
A promotional image for His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy all mugging enthusiastically.
I Can See Your Tonsils, Cary
Another promotional image. Rosalind Russell looks like she's about to dissolve into giggles.