His Girl Friday (1940)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 32min

There may be screwball comedies that can match His Girl Friday in its sheer narrative lunacy, but Howard Hawks’ satirical take on the newspaper industry stands unparalleled in its breakneck pacing which, when combined with its rhythmic, rattling screenplay and the verbal gifts of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, becomes an accelerating effort to keep outdoing its own hysteria. Hawks himself can turn a phrase and orchestrate performances like he is the one delivering them, as his actors breathlessly zip between lines to the point that their dialogue begins to overlap and multiple conversations emerge all at once, creating similar chaotic soundscapes to those that Robert Altman would innovate thirty years later. It is curious that Altman never used this device to create a film about journalism though, as within this newsroom setting Hawks discovers the potential of its seemingly permanent state of urgency, and charms his audience into a whirlwind of words and wits.

Even as the master of gender comedy sets a ridiculous standard in his own madcap narrative pace, his leads are more than up to the challenge of pushing it even further, all in service of their characters who insistently chase up crucial information and loose ends across a number of plot threads. This complex balancing act poses a tricky challenge for Russell in particular, as although former reporter Hildy Johnson finds herself drawn towards a quiet life of marriage and children, she also simultaneously falls prey to the temptation of re-entering her old career as a newspaperwoman, where her spark of passion ignites into a full blaze and lures her into a primal feeding frenzy.

Rosalind Russell, a wicked force of comedy here in His Girl Friday, and an appropriately loud costume to match that persona.

From the moment she walks into the newsroom in her matching zig-zagged hat and coat as if they were entirely normal fashion choices, Russell owns every moment she is onscreen. Not only does she prove her ability to match Grant with every comedic beat, but at one point she even demands that Hawks’ camera keep up with her as she frantically moves side to side, switching between concurrent phone calls. It is a well-timed dance she is leading here, and one that points to her own skilful characterisation of a competent woman so entranced by her work that she barely hears her fiancé, Bruce, threaten to leave her.

Not only is the promise of good news story too much to pass up, but when the escaped convict at its centre winds up in her own office, the chance to use her own unique position to take down a corrupt politician is entirely irresistible. Of course, it takes a few minor manipulations on the behalf of Walter, her ex-lover and editor, to keep her around. In a hilarious running gag that he sets in motion, he ensures that Bruce continues getting arrested so that he remains out of the way, though this situation only escalates when the heavily foreshadowed arrival of his mother finally transpires to complicate things further.

Subplots comically punctuated by the slamming of doors open and shut, efficiently keeping the narrative moving along.

As this kidnapping sublot contributes to the overall tapestry of this narrative, it is just one of several irreverent plot threads dealing with the darker side of humanity, including attempted suicide and death threats. There is a certain hint of amorality here, as while such weighty topics pass through the story, these journalists brush them off with comical ease as nothing more than minor distractions to be dealt with in the moment and never considered again.

Many screwball comedies get by without being overly attentive to their visuals, but there is some superb staging of ensembles in this newsroom.

Rapid montages and brisk camera movements can be found here to match the pace of dialogue, but for the most part it is in deftly staged compositions of actors within this office of low-slung lamps that the film is visually elevated to a level that few other screwball comedies have reached, pairing some of Hawks’ greatest direction with one of his most masterful screenplays. Even as doors slam open and shut in markers of narrative threads jumping in and out of this story of their own accord, he never once loses control of His Girl Friday’s eccentric rhythms, sparring, and effervescent chemistry.

Among the best shots of the film in its fantastic lighting and camera placement, as Hildy visits the imprisoned Earl Williams.

His Girl Friday is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s