“Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page … No, leave the rooster story alone, that’s human interest!
— Walter Burns, His Girl Friday
The story wasn’t confirmed by anybody except Howard Hawks. Like most Hollywood operators in the studio era, Hawks didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. But apparently His Girl Friday came about because of a party at Hawks’s place in the late ’30s. Hawks’s favorite play was Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s, The Front Page, a knockabout romp about Chicago newspapermen that was a 1928 Broadway smash in 1928 and filmed in 1931. To prove his point that the play contained the greatest modern dialogue, Hawks thought it could work even with swapped genders. He asked a woman at the party to read the (male) part of Hildy Johnson, a reporter leaving the business to get married only to be snookered back into covering a sensational story by his wily editor Walter Burns. Hawks’ spark was what turned a classic into a masterpiece, now included in an essential two-film release from Criterion.
Unlike his lionized peers Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, Hawks didn’t stick to one genre. He made some crime and war dramas like Scarface (1932) and The Road to Glory (1936), but was better known for romances and screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Twentieth Century (1934). His defining characteristic, though, served him in good stead for his newest project: speed.
Lewis Milestone’s take on The Front Page already had some of the fastest-paced dialogue ever filmed. Hawks wanted to top that for his new, gender-swapped version, now called His Girl Friday (1940). To do that, he amped up techniques that he had been perfecting already, like improvised dialogue to improve the flow, and having the actors talk over one another. Most importantly, though, he needed to switch up the story itself.
The original play was set entirely in a Chicago newsroom. There, a gaggle of reporters played poker, swapped gossip, and cracked wise while waiting for the big story to unfold. In the courtyard beneath their window, the city was preparing to hang one Earl Williams, convicted for killing a police officer, early the next morning. After a long stretch of gab and needling, as the reporters are assuring Johnson he’ll miss the rush once he’s married and settled down, gunshots shatter the window.
Jailbreak! Williams is on the loose. Giving in to the excitement, Johnson jumps back into the fray, and spends the rest of the play balancing covering the story, trying not to get bamboozled back into his old gig by a scheming Burns, hiding a fugitive, and placating his wife and future mother-in-law who are waiting for him to take a train to New York and his new life.
Spectacular and cynical fun as it was, there was one glaring problem with The Front Page, something highlighted in the star-studded, and impeccably staged, but somewhat lackluster Broadway revival: The first act can drag. Hecht and MacArthur seemed so in love with the feel and noise of the newsroom they so superbly recreated — many newsmen of the time swore by the play — that they committed a cardinal sin of journalism: they buried the lead.
As mentioned, Hawks’ first big change was to recognize that the tension crackling between Johnson and Burns made the play into something of a platonic love story; something Hawks would revisit later with Red River and Rio Bravo. Making Johnson into a woman brought that tension to the fore. That required a rewrite, though, and Hecht was busy on Gone With the Wind. When Hawks hired Hecht protégé Charles Lederer, who had done some script work on Scarface, things snapped into place. Lederer’s idea was to make Johnson and Burns not just reporter and editor, but divorced husband and wife. This introduced one element utterly lacking from The Front Page: Romance.
Milestone’s adaptation is also included in the Criterion release. Unlike some DVD packages that include other film versions, though, his take on The Front Page is worth viewing in its own right, and not just as a comparison to His Girl Friday. Produced by Hawks, it was a crafty, elegant interpretation of the play’s effective but somewhat chilly humor. It moves like a race car, from the sarcastic title card “This story is laid in a Mythical Kingdom…” to the famous last line, “The son of a bitch stole my watch!”
The depth of cynicism and cold brutality on display, though, can chill the effect of the gags that it shoots off like fireworks. Not for nothing did critic Walter Kerr call the play “a watch that laughs.” Along with Johnson’s increasingly frantic efforts to escape his old, addictive, but ultimately soul-killing profession, Milestone’s starkly shadowed and showily proto-noir cinematography just add to the sense of entrapment.
Hawks was no sap, but he probably saw the problems inherent with this approach. First, The Front Page was released in Hollywood’s adventurous pre-Hays Code period. After 1934, though, all that drinking wouldn’t pass muster, nor would a character who openly identified as a “streetwalker”, or the cynical talk about “Red Menace” witch hunts or the mayor needing to execute Williams because he had the bad luck “to shoot a colored policeman in a town where the colored vote counts.” (All versions are weighted with racially retrograde language; the Hays Code not caring so much about that.) Second, everybody likes a love story.
Entertaining as The Front Page was, His Girl Friday has nearly all its humor but played at twice the speed and three times the pep. (One of the Criterion release’s better supplements has part of a Peter Bogdanovich interview with Hawks, which included a brief scene-to-scene comparison of the two films.) The rat-a-tat mix of verbal combat, innuendo, and occasional straight vamping (Grant shows his true vaudevillian here) is just about the sharpest and funniest American comedy ever put on screen.
Hawks does everyone a favor by sweeping away most of that first act, knowing that the kinetics of the rest of the story tell us everything we need to know about the newsroom anyway. As the newly feminized Johnson, Rosalind Russell blows into the offices of the Morning Post. She’s announcing to Burns (Grant) that she’s soon no longer going to be his ink-stained wretch but a happily married woman. He flits about her, jibing and arguing, looking for an angle while defending his record as a husband / boss (“was it my fault the coal mine collapsed again?” is his explanation for their canceled honeymoon). She deflects him as handily as a master fencer: “Walter, you’re wonderful … in a loathsome sort of way.”
The changes are remarkable. Hawks’ brisk rhythms and stripped-down framing hone in on the performers. Russell curls herself into the dialogue not like some grand Actress but a seasoned, limber, and verbally dexterous comedienne. Grant plays Burns with a fey touch, far more lightly than Adolphe Menjou’s darker take for Milestone. His Burns is still a bastard, of course, and not above passing fake currency to his ex-wife or hiding an escaped convict to topple an administration and sell a few extra papers.
But as Hawks likely knew, Grant could sell Burns as more scoundrel than villain. He could also do it with a knowing wink to the audience, as in the line where Burns snaps back at an insult that “the last person to say that to me was Archie Leach, a week before he cut his own throat” (Archie Leach being Grant’s real name).
The encouragement of improvisation from Hawks probably helped the sinuous ease with which she and Grant fold into each other’s lines. The connectedness of their performances is particularly apparent in the scenes where Burns is running rings around Johnson’s slower, squarer fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), who barely speaks the same language as this pair of fast-talking, fast-thinking operators. The electric crackle of teasing combat makes for a primer on screwball comedy.
Unlike many lesser screwball comedies that preceded it, and the far lesser romantic comedies that came after, His Girl Friday doesn’t demand that Johnson learn her place as a woman. All along, she’s the one saying that she wants to become a housewife, but we’re meant to know that it’s forced. Burns schemes to get her back into his employ and arms because he’s in love with her. But he also needs her as a reporter.
Johnson is glamorously beautiful, of course: When she tells Burns he wouldn’t have hired her if she hadn’t been “doll-faced”, he replies, “Why should I? I thought it would be a novelty to have a face around here a man could look at without shuddering.” But she’s also rough-and-tumble, as Hawks women tended to be, and great at her job. One scene here that doesn’t exist in the original shows Johnson interviewing Williams in his cell. It’s a pip: She’s warm, soothing, and understanding, drawing out the downbeat lunatic’s story as easy as a skilled hunter bringing down a lame deer.
The newsroom men are the ones who can’t believe she’ll walk away from a job she’s so good at. There’s a key scene when Johnson has left the room and one of the guys is reading her copy aloud. For a moment, these adrenaline-jazzed cynics who Johnson is forever describing in opposition to “human beings”, are quieted as they marvel at her work. They hear a writer. And they respect her for being the best of what they aspire to — when not drinking, playing poker, inventing stories, bribing witnesses, and all the rest of it. This is traditional Hawksian acknowledgment of professionalism — there’s no higher compliment in his films than to be thought good at something. Johnson is the best.
Instead of pushing a tough, whipsmart woman like Johnson toward the approved marriage that was assumed to be the end game for all female characters (then and now), His Girl Friday can’t wait to get her away from the snoozy Baldwin and back into the thick of things. Neither can the audience.