Cary GrantRalph BellamyRoscoe KarnsJohn Qualen
His Girl Friday
Medium: film
Year: 1940
Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Actor: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Clarence Kolb, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey, Abner Biberman, Frank Orth, John Qualen, Helen Mack, Alma Kruger, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Edwin Maxwell
Keywords: The Front Page, favourite, comedy
Country: USA
Format: 92 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 30 April 2013
"Moffat's main influence is His Girl Friday."
As a Doctor Who fan, I was thus inevitably going to watch this. Verdict: it's brilliant. I made a note to give it to people as Christmas presents... and it's only April. It becomes even more staggering if compared with the somewhat loathsome 1931 film based on the same stage play, with only modest changes and often the same dialogue. I can hardly conceive of a stronger illustration of the differences that can be wrought by playing what's mostly the same text in another way.
It's the second film based on Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page. The first one was racist, unpleasant and I hated everyone in it. This one though is adorable and had me practically weeping with laughter. The reasons include:
(a) It's not racist. Unfortunately one of the journalists still tells a story that includes the phrase "piccaninny in a patrol wagon", but crucially the plot point about the black policeman is played colour-blind. It's done deftly, with no more than a dialogue tweak, but the difference in impact on the audience is colossal. This one factor is the difference between "hateful" and "enjoyable". Also no one uses "white man" as a term of praise.
(b) These cynical, fast-talking gag machines are also human. This is almost a surprise. The film's so good at being clever and funny that it lulls you into expecting only a dazzling surface. Don't fall for it. The hard-bitten journalists who've just been chewed out by Helen Mack get all the clever, callous dialogue that they had in 1931 while she's there... but after she's left, they go quiet and stop playing cards. That's barely even a change to the text, yet it makes a world of difference. Rosalind Russell twice breaks down in tears, giving us a real human reaction instead of the expected comedy one. Cary Grant is a treacherous snake who'd sell his grandmother for a news story, but he's also uncompromising when it comes to taking down the corrupt politicians who've been running Chicago for generations.
Mayor (as an obvious prelude to financial inducements) - "You're an intelligent man..."
Cary Grant (without even thinking about it) - "Never mind that."
(c) The often-vicious dialogue is much more clearly attacking those who deserve it. "Hard to tell; so many cockroaches around." You like these people. It's fun to spend time in their company. Even when uttering pure poison, it's either affectionate banter between friends or being aimed squarely at a target. The journalists' cynicism about Hartmann's deputies is a scream, for instance.
(d) The messenger (Billy Gilbert) is a simpleton. That one character note, without a word of dialogue changed, stops the film from being evil.
(e) Cary Grant. My word, Cary Grant. Apparently many critics in 1940 thought he was miscast and that Clark Gable would have been better. I'm sure he'd have been good too, but Grant had me on the floor. The thing about Cary Grant is that he's so good at being charming and natural (i.e. himself, basically) that one falls into the trap of assuming he can't do anything else. Here though, he's playing smarmy, overbearing scum and doing it in a way I'd never expected... while also, at the same time, having every ounce of Cary Grant's charisma and comic timing. He's so deliciously phoney! His first few lines are delivered like a Gerry Anderson puppet. He's not a ham, but he's playing one. I'm crazy about him here, even in details like his "hmmmm"s, or "excuse me, Madam".
It's one of the all-time great comedy performances, I think. He's having such fun being loathsome that my brain turned inside-out and I couldn't wait for him to say or do something even worse.
(f) Rosalind Russell. Stories differ on what inspired Howard Hawks to change the sex of the play's protagonist, but it was a masterstroke. The 1931 film is mean, thin and unsatisfying in how it treats its female characters. Here though, Russell is the magnificent, all-conquering queen of her world (and far stronger than Pat O'Brien had been in 1931, incidentally).
The ending crashes and burns, though. It doesn't fit. It's the obvious conclusion, given the gender switch, but it implies that Russell's character's had her brain removed. (Look at her performance. The actress agrees.) Everything else in the film grows organically from what went before, but this is shoehorned.
(g) Howard Hawks. He's famous for his rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, but this film is where he developed that. Multi-track sound recording wasn't yet available at the time, so to get the effect he wanted, Hawks would have the sound mixer turn different overhead microphones on and off up to 35 times while shooting a scene. It's astonishing. The characters are perfectly capable of talking normally, of course, but look at Russell's two-minute interview with John Qualen, for instance. Great Scott. Russell also does the best version I've seen of that old "two telephones" gag, in large part due to the pace at which Hawks drove it.
Things that were better in the 1931 version:
(h) the hypochondriac.
This film gobsmacked me. It made me fall in love with characters as trustworthy as rattlesnakes and finds coherence and even moral integrity in it. Russell is perfect, but Cary Grant is downright explosive. He'll be funny even when his character's talking drivel, while there are few pleasures as pure as that of hearing him call Gene Lockhart an "insignificant, square-toed, pimpled-headed spy." As to what he does to Baldwin's mother... I was howling. I like all the cast, though, with Ralph Bellamy being at once adorable and also the gullible mug and bore that the script's demanding of him. There are some fiendish balancing acts of tone, likeability and potentially iffy material in this film, but it gets away with them all (except the ending) so effortlessly that you don't even notice.
Watch out if you're trying to buy a copy on DVD, though. It's in the public domain and so there are lots of different releases out there, many of them of poor quality.
"I like him; he's got a lot of charm."
"Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake."