What a dope I was!
I’m a recent convert to this film and considering the talent involved with it, that’s surprising: Howard Hawks is among my favorite directors--El Dorado (1967) is my favorite film of all time-- Cary Grant is brilliant in everything I’ve ever seen him in, and Rosalind Russell’s career was made with her performance, though I first became smitten with her after seeing her take bitchiness to the highest plane in The Women (1939). So two years ago I gave the film another chance. By then, I had become familiar with Screwball Comedies and had seen a number of 1930s movies in general and had loved them. This time around I was immediately pulled into the plot, I was enamored with the characters, and the dialogue was brilliant. The film was always great; I just wasn’t ready for it before.
A brief synopsis: His Girl Friday begins as former reporter Hildy Johnson, now divorced from her husband and editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), stops by the newspaper offices to inform Walter of her impending marriage to ho-hum insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter, always trying to influence Hildy, urges her to come back to the paper and remarry him. The two strong-willed professionals pick up where they left off, with biting verbal exchanges delivered in wonderful, machine-gun fashion. Hildy is intent on marrying Bruce, but when a big story breaks, she and Walter get pulled into the maelstrom, and Hildy must decide if she will start a new life with Bruce, or if her life and career with Walter matters most while bedlam breaks out around her.
His Girl Friday, like legendary composer Duke Ellington, is “Beyond Category.” The film's reputation is as a comedy even though it has some dramatic moments, it manages to stretch across the boundaries and entertain as both. Like real life. I'm not big on plots, because a film's main draw for me is its characters. Actors who react to one another and who are so natural in their characterizations that they’re not acting at all. They don’t speak the lines, they mean them! It’s why I love Golden Age pairings like Tracy-Hepburn, Bogart-Bacall, Powell-Loy, Grant-Hepburn, and now, Grant-Russell. It’s two characters responding to each other and we are quickly clued into their past relationship, everything we know about that relationship is further emphasized with each great line of dialogue. Grant trades in the sometimes-awkward, klutzy leading man of The Awful Truth and Holiday, and replaces it with a domineering, sometimes dark side of the Grant persona in the Walter Burns character (which would best be seen in Hitchcock’s Notorious). Beginning with His Girl Friday, Grant was to embark on a series of great roles himself. Director Howard Hawks’ set was fast and loose, with Hawks allowing improvisation from his players. Grant’s dialogue with Russell was often made up on the spot, with Russell employing a writer to provide her with her own “improvised” retorts to Grant’s barbs.
It was surprising to discover that the film’s star, Rosalind (aka "Roz") Russell (1907-1976) failed to earn an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress. 1940 was a competitive year for Best Actress, but I took it for granted that I’d see Russell’s name on the list of nominees, seeing as the film has earned decades of praise and namedropping-- Not a chance! As a matter of fact, the film itself didn’t get nominated for Best Picture and this was during a time when there were ten films per year up for the big prize. I’ve seen all the Best Actress nominees’ films and none of those performances can surpass Rosalind Russell’s brilliance in His Girl Friday. In fact, the movie stands as Rosalind Russell’s defining moment on film (as far as I’m concerned, her latter-career role in Auntie Mame (1958) runs a distant second).
Of all the things that are great about His Girl Friday, its best attribute is Rosalind Russell’s performance as Hildy Johnson. It's wonderfully played and impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Among the noted actresses who turned down the part: Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur (who didn’t like working with Hawks), Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne. It’s shocking, considering how good a showcase the role was and Hawks’ sterling reputation as an A-List director. The Hildy Johnson role is the typical Hawksian dame. Witness her triumphant return to the newspaper office. Among the male reporters, she’s “one of the boys”, yet she’s feminine without being feminist and tough without being hard. Hildy never cries foul because of her gender and it’s never an issue. She’s capable of taking care of herself, and not gullible, never falling for Walter’s stock lines and gives just as good as she gets. She does have one great moment of vulnerability and--without spoiling the ending-- it pulls together the most important element of the story, characterwise, and it lets the viewer know even more about Hildy and her dilemma. It's a beautiful realization of the two leads' relationship and stands as one of the best moments in the film by who I consider the "real" Best Actress of 1940, Rosalind Russell, in a movie I had to watch three times in order to appreciate its many charms.