I’ve tried to love His Girl Friday, really I have.
I know it’s a screwball comedy classic from Howard Hawks, whose Twentieth Century practically inaugurated the genre, and who directed Girl Friday star Cary Grant in the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby and the also funny I Was a Male War Bride. (He also made the spectacular The Big Sleep, which is not screwball, but with its insane plot twists, crackling banter and romantic complications somehow feels not entirely unlike a transposition of the soul of screwball into the meter and rhythm of noir.)
Yet despite its blistering dialogue and wacky plot swings, His Girl Friday doesn’t work for me on one crucial level: I just don’t care whether or not Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell wind up together, largely because neither character is particularly likable or sympathetic. In fact, if anything, I think Russell might be better off with Ralph Bellamy, and that’s never a good thing.
Part of the problem, surely, is that His Girl Friday is essentially trying to remake two movies at once. On the one hand, it follows Lewis Milestone’s 1931 hit The Front Page as an adaptation of the newsroom stage comedy of that name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. But it’s also largely a retread of an earlier Grant screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, directed by Leo McCarey (Going My Way). Both films pit Grant against costar Ralph Bellamy, who is engaged to Grant’s ex-wife (Russell in Girl Friday, Irene Dunn in Awful Truth).
This juxtaposition of the plot of The Front Page and the postmarital bickering of The Awful Truth has been accomplished by flipping one of the The Front Page’s principals from a man to a woman. In its original form, The Front Page followed the unscrupulous efforts of newspaper editor Walter Burns to prevent ace reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson from leaving the paper to marry his fiancée and move to New York. His Girl Friday ups the ante by making Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) Burns’s ex-wife as well as his ace reporter, and having Burns (Grant) scheming to prevent Hildy from marrying, settling down and having children in order to get her back both as his employee and as his wife. (For what it’s worth, Front Page cowriter Hecht reportedly loved Hawks’ idea of making Hildy a woman.)
Other than His Girl Friday, I’ve never seen any version of The Front Page, and have no idea whether the story would work without the romantic angle, but I don’t think it works with it. The film asks us to root for Burns over rival Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy) largely because Baldwin lives in Albany with his mother, carries an umbrella, and doesn’t have a job that requires him to be a professional scoundrel or that will keep him from ever having a decent marriage or home life. It also asks us to accept that distaff-Hildy isn’t cut out for a decent life with a caring man and a house and children, since she has newspaper ink in her veins and belongs with a telephone glued to her ear and typewriter keys under her fingers.
Call me an Albany-living mama’s boy, but when Hildy tells her male colleagues in an early scene that she’s going to be a woman, not a news-getting machine, and have babies and take care of them, and give them cod-liver oil and watch their teeth grow, and not have to worry any more about crawling up fire escapes, getting kicked out of front doors, or eating Christmas dinners in one-armed joints — well, I for one think that sounds kind of nice. I find it hard to indulgently shake my head and say “Who’s she kidding? Raise babies when she could be eating Christmas dinners in one-armed joints? Not Hildy Johnson! She’ll soon figure out what’s good for her!”
The Grant–Bellamy rivalry from The Awful Truth reaches new lows here as Burns repeatedly has Baldwin arrested on false charges, even getting his grey-haired old mother carried off by a strongarm thug. Hildy’s no better: Her callousness in the face of a quick interview with a condemned death-row inmate who seems to have gotten a raw deal is off-putting, and she blatantly makes up a false rationale for his actions, not to get him off the hook, but for political purposes. Perhaps Lubitsch could have made capital punishment (not to mention attempted suicide) work in a romantic comedy, but Hawks can’t overcome the native tastelessness of the material — which, of course, was the point in the original non-romantic version of the story.
Here’s one thing I do sort of like: Burns’ dismissive comments about the “old-fashioned” idea of divorce as something that lasts forever: “Just a few words, mumbled over you by a judge. We’ve got something between us nothing can change.” This inversion of contemporary sensibilities regarding marriage and divorce is both a clever conceit and an intriguing idea. If only the movie had bothered to care about this supposed bond between them, rather than focusing solely on their common love of the newshound business.
One should be rooting for Cary Grant to get the girl, which means he ought to deserve her — and if that’s more or less the case here, well, it’s only because the girl turns out to be no great shakes either.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.