Playing screwball with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
DIRECTED BY HOWARD HAWKS
It’s hard to overestimate Howard Hawks’s impact on American comedy. A silent-film titan who reinvented himself in the early days of the talkies with Scarface, Hawks found another niche in lighter fare like 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, deemed “the screwiest of the screwball comedies” by auterist critic Andrew Sarris. His next comedy, His Girl Friday, is a subtler turn of the screw—a smart, fast-talking newsroom farce with one foot tentatively grounded in reality.
Hoary as its marriage politics seem at first, there’s something seductively modern about the film, which is as much a portrait of obsessive professional types as it is a reunion of sparring lovers Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In a significant gender reversal from the hit Broadway play on which it’s based, Russell plays Hildy, a semi-retired reporter drawn back into her old job by ex-husband and former editor Walter (Grant). Tempted as she is by the siren call of her insurance-selling dud of a fiancé (Ralph Bellamy), who’s promising a pretty house in Albany, Hildy can’t turn down a scoop involving a convict who may be in line for a reprieve on the eve of his execution.
Staunch conservative that he was, it’s to Hawks’s credit that he has Hildy’s choice of career over marriage play as a no-brainer from the start, even if Walter ultimately holds the keys to both paths. That nascent progressiveness is surprising, but His Girl Friday is mostly an airtight stylistic exercise either way. Oft-imitated by filmmakers like Robert Altman, and stolen outright by Aaron Sorkin in his HBO series The Newsroom, the film’s overlapping dialogue still impresses. Not yet blessed with multi-track sound recording, Hawks reportedly had to make do with a bevy of microphones, switched on and off by an overtaxed mixer, whose efforts pay off.