His Girl Friday ★★★★

Film School Dropouts Weekly Challenge: Week 6 - Genre - Romance - Screw Ball Comedy
100 Films by 18 Directors: Howard Hawks

In January, I had the pleasure of seeing a Broadway play for the first time in my life. It was a Christmas gift I had gotten for my mother and it was for the latest revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play The Front Page. Starring Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson, and John Goodman as Sheriff Peter B. Harwell, the play was tremendous. Mind you, I have nothing to compare it to, but for the entire nearly three hour runtime, it had both of us in constant fits of laughter. The fast-paced, witty dialogue barely gives the audience a chance to catch their breathe, plus the talented cast of Lane, Slattery, Goodman, and a smattering of terrific actors that are quintessential "know the face, but not the name" guys, the recent revival of The Front Page was a joy. As a result, I was eagerly anticipating viewing one of the first film adaptations of the play and probably the most well known. Sporting a new title and a more romance-focused plot, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday often parallels the play with its witty and smart jokes that somehow feel as fresh as ever given today's current political environment.

Needless to say, His Girl Friday hardly disappoints. Changing Hildy Johnson from a man to a woman may not be my favorite choice as it does change the banter a bit between the manipulative Walter Burns and dedicated newsman Hildy, but Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell make it work. Together, they have great comedic chemistry and really let loose with fast-paced and smart jokes that make sure the audience is paying attention. Though the play is focused solely in the press room, His Girl Friday takes a little bit to get to the pressroom, first introducing us to the new scenario before dropping us into the hectic place that is the pressroom. Awaiting the hanging of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man convicted of killing a black cop who must die for the Mayor and Sheriff to get the black vote, the press room is packed with a whole cast of characters. Unfortunately, the hour and a half gives little room for the supporting cast to make headway like in the play. As opposed to the film, the play opens in the press room with the supporting cast leading the charge for much of the first act until Hildy arrives part way through. Walter Burns does not even appear until the second act. Naturally, with Cary Grant in the film in the 1940s, things had to change for the film. That said, it works and Grant and Russell turn in typically good performances.

The writing, with such great source material, is also very good. Featuring incredible wit and political satire (the gag with the journalists all witnessing the arrest and changing the story to fit their needs), His Girl Friday stands the test of time. It is not the kind of old school comedy that finds jokes in the situations, but in the words and wit of the writing. This is what has helped the material and the film itself not feel so aged in comparison to other comedies of the era. Plus, with such charming leads, it is hard for His Girl Friday to not be at least a little bit funny. This one definitely had me laughing for the whole 90 minutes, which fly by incredibly painlessly.

The other part of this film that came off as a bit hokey was the ending. Likely the by-product of changing Hildy to being a woman and the need of Hollywood to have a happy ending, putting the divorced couple back together and quickly casting aside Hildy's fiance in less than a minute feels disingenuous. She and Walter have great banter, but were fighting less than a minute ago when she found out about the counterfeit money. I have no idea why they had to be together as it feels as though it cheapens the product a bit with a far too whimsical and silly ending to a film that, though incredibly funny, is quite serious in its political critiques and portrayal of the use of the death penalty in an inherently political society.

A classic of screwball comedy, His Girl Friday stands the test of time. Though the DVD copy in my possession looked badly dated and desperately in need of restoration, with the film becoming too bright/white at times or overly dark or the sound randomly decreasing in volume, it is still a great film. A true testament to the smart writing and terrific cast that this film and play is somehow still relevant to society, perhaps even more so than it was back when it was first made.