Classic Hollywood…Now With Snappier Dialogue
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.