Howard Hawks may be the most famous and influential American director you've never heard of. During his lifetime, he was thought of as just another ol' Hollywood hand: a guy who worked in lots of different genres and had no particular style to call his own.
Hawks never won an Academy Award on any of his pictures, even though he worked with many of the greats in cinema. Besides Cary Grant (on His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby) he famously launched Carole Lombard's career with Twentieth Century (1934) and worked with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
He also directed the first pairing of uber-super-duper-superstars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944), and he worked with the great novelist William Faulkner, who adapted The Big Sleep (1946). His most famous collaborator, though, was actor John Wayne, who worked with Hawkes on Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966) and other pictures.
So, Hawkes knew everybody important and had enough cards in his Rolodex to fill a crowded saloon (if he was making a Western) or a newsroom (if he was making a screwball comedy.) But nobody respected him.
…other directors started to talk about how awesome Hawks was.
Brian DiPalma, a Hollywood bigshot, remade Hawks' 1932 Scarface, with Al Pacino in 1983, just to show how awesome the original was. John Carpenter redid Rio Bravo as Attack on Precinct 13 in 1976, and remade his horror film The Thing in 1982.
Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Altman said he was great. Critic Leonard Maltin called him "the greatest American director who is not a household name." And the accolades went on. And on.
And hey—if all the brightest stars in the Hollywood galaxy think Hawks was hot, who can argue with that? Not even the Academy—they gave him a special honorary award in 1975 to show that they'd screwed up by not lauding the awesome films he'd made way back when.
Though Hawks was a subtle storyteller rather than a pyrotechnic stylist, he did have particular themes that interested him. Many of his most famous films, like Rio Bravo and The Thing From Another World, focus on men bonding together and facing a common foe.
His Girl Friday's interesting because it seems to do the opposite of that. The original script was about two guys bonding and doing guy things, like writing newspapers, fighting corruption, and making butt jokes.
But Hawks suggested making Hildy a woman—and suddenly found he had a love story.
This film ain't mushy, though. In fact, much of its appeal comes from the fact that it sounds a lot like a buddy movie: the dialogue is mean, the jokes are about butts, and the characters are snide. In other words, it frames its romantic comedy in the competitive, joshing male buddy dynamic. And Hildy's such a dynamic character in part because she gets to be competent, funny, and abrasive… in a way that women often weren't allowed to be in Hollywood films.
Hawks got his themes in there quietly, sideways, and made an awesome movie because of it. Hey—maybe, like Hildy—they'll even name a cigar after him.
The original script for the play The Front Page was written by two newspaper guys, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. MacArthur had worked at the City News Bureau of Chicago before he went on to work in screenwriting. Hecht worked for the Chicago Daily News as a war reporter—and as a crime reporter (Hildy is a crime reporter in The Front Page).
Hecht went on to be a famous screenwriter, novelist, and all around mover and shaker. (He's even supposed to have ghostwritten Marilyn Monroe's autobiography My Story, though he denied it). Richard Corliss, a film historian, said "Ben Hecht was the Hollywood screenwriter" and added "Hecht personifies Hollywood itself."
But though he personified Hollywood, and wrote snow drifts of film scripts, Hecht didn't write this film script. (He did chip in a little, though.)
Instead, His Girl Friday was adapted by Charles Lederer. Lederer had worked with Hecht on the 1931 film adaptation of the play The Front Page, so he had a running start on this second adaptation. (The Front Page got adapted over and over. It was like a superhero franchise, but with fewer tights and better hats.)
Lederer was a lifetime Hollywood dude. His parents were both in theater, and when they divorced he was raised in Hollywood by his aunt, actress Marion Davies. Film was in his blood; snappy dialogue was in his DNA.
And His Girl Friday is perhaps his most famous collaboration with Howard Hawks. (The other one that's in the running is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Yup: Lederer was a bigwig.)
Hecht and Lederer were famous, accomplished, and brilliant zingers flew out of their mouths whenever they opened them. But the most brilliant piece of writing on the film didn't come from either of them. It came from Howard Hawks.
The story is that in an early reading of the script, Hawks had a female assistant read the part of Hildy Johnson. He liked the way it sounded, and so decided to make Hildy a woman rather than a man. That change transformed His Girl Friday from a newspaper story to a romantic comedy about working women and the battle of the sexes. It's one reason why His Girl Friday is great, rather than just really good.
And the other reason why this script is so super-memorable? That's because of the way the lines are delivered: in super fast overlapping dialogue. That's a Hawks trademark.
Columbia Pictures during the 20's and 30's was known as a lowbrow, low-rent establishment—the kind of studio that other studios snickered about behind its back. That all changed in 1934, though, when Frank Capra directed one of the first screwball comedies, It Happened One Night, for Columbia.
The film was a huge commercial and critical success, and suddenly Columbia was the one snickering at the other film studios, stealing their lunch money, and giving them swirlies. Good job, Columbia.
But while Columbia was now in the big leagues, studio head Harry Cohn still didn't like to spend a lot of money on his movies. As a result, he gave his film's limited budgets—and in the case of His Girl Friday, this meant that Howard Hawks couldn't hire the leading lady he wanted. He'd hoped to get Carole Lombard, who he'd worked with in his film Twentieth Century—but she was too expensive. So he tried a whole bunch of others, until finally Rosalind Russell agreed to do the script.
Cohn was notoriously difficult to work with — which is to say, he was a giant bully and creep. He had his chair made specially so it would be taller than the others in his office and he could loom over people. He also pressured actresses for sex… because he was horrible.
Cohn would often interfere with the filmmaking, and His Girl Friday was no different. For example, he hated the line where Cary Grant says of Hildy's fiancé, Bruce Baldwin, "He looks like that actor… Ralph Bellamy." The joke was that Bruce Baldwin was played by Ralph Bellamy—but Cohn thought it was a slight on the actor, or the studio, or some such. He tried to get the bit removed—but Hawks convinced him to let it be, and it's probably the most famous laugh line in the film.
Howard Hawks was known for straightforward, Hollywood direction—skilled, but not, say, Hitchcock stylish. His Girl Friday has a few moments of cinematic flourish, like the very beginning sequence where the camera does a long shot tracking Hildy through the newspaper office, with the reporters rising in excitement to welcome her back.
But for the most part, things are pretty low-key. What few sets there are in His Girl Friday are static, reflecting the script's origins in the theater production of The Front Page.
There's one dazzling exception—the dialogue. Characters often finish each other's sentences, or talk at the same time. Howard Hawks notes:
"I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping." (Source)
Check out, by way of example, how Hildy finishes Walter's sentence in their first big conversation, mocking him by sneering out the lines,
HILDY: Anytime! Anyplace! Anywhere!
(If Rosalind Russell sneered at most people like that, they'd just go crawl under a desk and die forever. Cary Grant just keeps right on going though. Because he's Cary Grant.)
And here's the thing: naturalistic dialogue is actually almost impossibly tricky—not just for the actors who have to speak it, but for the sound people who have to capture it. They didn't have multi-track recording in 1940, so it was difficult to ensure that everyone's voice showed up on tape.
To manage it, Hawks rigged up a whole bunch of microphones over his actor's heads, and then would turn them on and off as needed. Sometimes this switching on and off and back and forth would occur thirty five times in a single scene. (Source)
It seems like asking a woman if she's a water buffalo should be the work of a moment… but in reality, it takes a lot of effort.
We can see the influence of Howard Hawks on the later (but not greater) director Robert Altman. His dialogue was just as naturalistic—people talked over each other, mumbled, and sped through their lines like over-caffeinated auctioneers—but his overall presentation of his material was understated and subdued.
But lets pay homage where homage is due: Hawks was there first. And nowhere does his signature style shine brighter than in His Girl Friday.
Sidney Cutner and Felix Mills were both composers who worked in Hollywood during the 1940's. Neither of them is especially famous. But they don't need to be, because there's hardly any music in His Girl Friday.
There's a couple minutes of zippy, cheery band music at the beginning over the opening credits, a few romantic string flourishes at the end, and… that's about it.
Maybe Hawks figured there was so much talking there was no need for music. Or that any superfluous music would drown out the hailstorm of quips and quotable quotes flying out of the mouths of Russell and Grant.
Whatever the reason, the newspaper folk in His Girl Friday are hard-nosed, no-nonsense people who get through the film with only the euphonious sounds of their typewriters for accompaniment.
His Girl Friday is a beloved classic. Howard Hawks is famous. Cary Grant is an icon.
But…1940 was a long, long time ago.
Cary Grant still has his fan clubs, but old pop culture is old… no matter how dashing.
In short, there are no Mollie action figures with real open window, and no Hildy Johnson t-shirts proclaiming, "You're wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way." (Although we wish there were.)