Adapted from the classic stage play The Front Page, the 1940 film His Girl Friday stands out as one of the most fun and well-written comedies. Journalistic hijinks and an escaped murderer only make up the backdrop for the chaotic and charming tug-of-war between a newspaper editor and his ex-wife, formerly the star writer for the very same paper.
Romance is handled in the unique and caustic way of the press, with Cary Grant’s Walter Burns pulling every underhanded trick in the book to win back his ex, Hildy Johnson, played by the magnetic Rosalind Russell. Not only seeking to make her his wife again and get her bumbling new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy) out of the way, Walter remains convinced that his top reporter will also return to The Morning Post just as easily.
Director Howard Hawks utilizes the talents of Grant and Russell to bolster an already strong screenplay, with help from lines from the original play. An understanding of the power of improvisation and energized delivery help him bring the best out of his actors, and therefore the script. Grant was especially encouraged to ad-lib throughout shooting, resulting in about a week’s delay in production but, more importantly, providing priceless moments for his character.
“He looks like that fellow in the movies. You know … Ralph Bellamy.”
The other leads were also constantly adding their own dialogue and playing off of one another, meaning more retakes. The restaurant scene with Walter, Hildy, and Bruce took four days to film due to the complex nature of shooting scenes this way. However, their added humor helped the movie maintain its pace and unique rhythm.
When rewriting the original play, Hawks designed the dialogue specifically to suit this rapidity. Noting that in real life people often interrupt one another, he actually denoted specific points and cues in the script that would indicate where actors were meant to interrupt each other. His Girl Friday was one of the first films to feature this technique.
By using this method, Hawks had the perfect overlapping dialogue to help maintain the breakneck pace of several scenes. The beginnings and endings of many of the sentences written for the film were essentially useless, meant to be overrun with another’s dialogue. This technique works especially well between the leads, considering their characters’ relationship.
This more familiar and authentic manner of speaking and arguing — constantly punctuating one another’s stories and rants — helps give the impression that we are listening to two people who know each other very well.
“A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write, ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.’ Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.”
By changing the character of Hildy in the play to a woman, originally a male ace reporter, Hawks brought in the added draw of a love-hate relationship to the story. Decades of romcoms have all been devotees of the trope — and what better way to portray this kind of relationship than through cutting, runaway exchanges between your characters. The excitement of the breakneck dialogue accentuates their onscreen chemistry in a way that a more traditional manner of delivering lines couldn’t.
However, it’s not just the snappy words that count, it’s who exactly is delivering them. Throughout the movie, all of the characters written as “dumb” or to be outwitted also speak accordingly. These individuals (Bruce the inept new husband-to-be, Earl Williams the runaway murderer, and Pettibone, to name a few) speak noticeably slower than Grant and Russell’s characters.
The audience now has the idea that those who speak the loudest, fastest, and whose conversations overlap in that exciting way are the heroes, even though they are the archetypal unethical journalists of the story. Rooting for these personas then makes you root against more naive people like Hildy’s new beau. Bruce over and over again takes the brunt of Walter’s schemes, but we don’t want him to succeed. If the film had a different tone you might otherwise be on the side of the man who doesn’t regularly manipulate her.
Bruce: “You know, Hildy, he’s not such a bad fellow.”
Hildy: “No, he should make some girl real happy.”
Hildy: (Under her breath) “Slap-happy.”
Beyond the fast-talking, colorful characters that populate His Girl Friday, Hawks used a few technical tricks to help achieve the rapid-fire dialogue he’d been dreaming of. Using multiple microphones per scene, the sound mixer would turn them on and off on cue. Allegedly, certain scenes required as many as 35 different mic switches.
Hawks’ goal was to make the film with the fastest dialogue on record. Aside from this, though, the fast-talking nature of the movie became the perfect tool for heightening every aspect of its humor. Furthermore, by creating such a dialogue-heavy film, the director effectively made the perfect movie for those who love words — all about the people whose lives center around the written word.