Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
His Girl Friday (1940)
Welcome to the film of the future. It was made in 1940.
You may know His Girl Friday as the Howard Hawks comedy (based on the play, The Front Page) with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and steel-spring-snappy dialogue. I know His Girl Friday as the movie of tomorrow.
But Conrad, you old fool, you said it yourself: the damn film was made in 1940! How could a film 68 years old qualify as next-gen?
Well, let’s start with the basics. The film’s plot follows Hildy Johnson (Russell) and Walter Burns (Grant), two newspaper enthusiasts. Well, you could say that one of them is the editor of the (fictional) The Morning Post, and the other is not only the man’s star journalist, but his leading lady. The two were made for each other. Only, Hildy wants out. Unhappy with Walter’s boisterous attitude, she headed for the hills. That is, left him for another man (Ralph Bellamy). Burns, a crafty little fellow, does everything in his power (short of murder) to break them apart.
Cary Grant’s performance as Walter Burns is iconic: a fast-talking smart-ass, Burns is a scoundrel you are completely in league with, every step of the way. He has two saving graces: his comedy and his genuine love for Hildy.
Rosalind Russell is no slouch either: in a time when women in film were generally passive and unremarkable, she pulls off the strong, intelligent woman with style. His Girl Friday paints her character as a prodigy with titanic writing abilities—and though the film takes place in a time when women had barely been taking voting rights, Russell commands the screen every time she is on it, her male colleagues dwarfed in comparison (even visual comparison—she appears to be taller than any man surrounding her).
Apparently, Howard Hawks allowed the actors to ad-lib as much as they wanted, and clearly Grant and Russell seized the opportunity. The back and forth between them is what makes the film great: rife with material, the two actors spit at each other with straight faces, never stopping for breath. It’s fun to watch Grant work his magic—he’s obviously having some fun of his own creating and inhabiting this iconic character. “You never miss the Walter ‘til the well runs dry,” he quips to Russell, before she tells him that she is getting married to another man the next day—and suddenly everything slows.
These are the best moments, when the film suddenly breaks the pace of its white-water dialogue and becomes silent. Suddenly there’s genuine terror in the usually playful eyes of Walter Burns—but just for a moment. Then the verbal tirade begins again. It is these dramatic moments in which the film becomes wonderfully self-conscious, the characters themselves are fully aware of the melodrama of the situation and become exasperated with it. It is in these moments that the film wins the audience over.
Sorry, let me correct myself: this film is not the film of the future, but it should be the film of the future. Why do we have decades of throwbacks to classics like Die Hard, when we haven’t seen anything close to this since Woody Allen’s golden age? I call for a new decade of film geared toward dialogue-lovers and mad-lib addicts. Oh wait…
I’ve been talking a lot about the dialogue and the acting, but truth be told, the story is a winner, as well. It’s an interesting little exploration of journalism and journalists, and how far they are willing to go. There’s also an escaped convict, corrupt politicians and a desperate attempt for an historic front page.
With style and intelligence, this film is a classic. It was way ahead of its time, and it’s something nearly everyone can enjoy. If you’re interested in dialogue, like to laugh, or enjoy life, this film is a must-see.