His Girl Friday is a 1940 American screwball comedy film directed by Howard Hawks, from an adaptation by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur of the play The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur. The major change in this version, introduced by Hawks, is that the role of Hildy Johnson is a woman.
The film stars Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson and features Ralph Bellamy as Bruce Baldwin.
The film was #19 on American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Due to a failure to renew the copyright registration, the film entered the public domain in 1968; the 1928 play it is based on remains under copyright until 2024.
Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is a hard-boiled editor for The Morning Post who learns his ex-wife and former star reporter, Hildegard "Hildy" Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is about to marry bland insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and settle down to a quiet life as a wife and mother in Albany, New York. Walter determines to sabotage these plans, enticing the reluctant Hildy to cover one last story, the upcoming execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen).
Walter does everything he can to keep Hildy from leaving, including setting Bruce up so he gets arrested over and over again on trumped-up charges. He even kidnaps Hildy's stern mother-in-law-to-be (Alma Kruger). When Williams escapes from the bumbling sheriff (Gene Lockhart) and practically falls into Hildy's lap, the lure of a big scoop proves too much for her. She is so consumed with writing the story that she hardly notices as Bruce realizes his cause is hopeless and returns to Albany.
The crooked mayor (Clarence Kolb) and sheriff need the publicity from the execution to keep their jobs in an upcoming election, so when a messenger (Billy Gilbert) brings them a reprieve from the governor, they try to bribe the man to go away and return later, when it will be too late. Walter and Hildy find out in time to save Walter from being arrested for kidnapping.
Afterward, Walter offers to remarry Hildy, promising to take her on the honeymoon they never had in Niagara Falls, but then Walter learns that there is a newsworthy strike in Albany, which is on the way to Niagara Falls by train.
His Girl Friday was originally supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of The Front Page, with both the editor and reporter being men. But during auditions, a woman, Howard Hawks's secretary, read reporter Hildy Johnson's lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female and the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns. Most of the original dialogue and all of the characters' names were left the same, with the exception of Hildy's fiancÃ©, Bruce Baldwin.
Hawks had a very difficult time casting this film. While the choice of Cary Grant was almost instantaneous, the casting of Hildy was a more extended process. At first, Hawks wanted Carole Lombard, whom he had directed in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, but the cost of hiring Lombard in her new status as a freelancer proved to be far too expensive, and Columbia could not afford her. Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne were offered the role, but turned it down, Dunne because she felt the part was too small and needed to be expanded. Jean Arthur was offered the part, and was suspended by the studio when she refused to take it. Joan Crawford was reportedly also considered.
Hawks then turned to Rosalind Russell. During filming, Russell noticed that Hawks treated her like an also-ran, so she confronted him: "You don't want me, do you? Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it."
The film had the working title of The Bigger They Are, and was in production from 27 September to 21 November 1939.
In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer's work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, "What have you got today?"
The film is noted for its rapid-fire repartee, using overlapping dialogue to make conversations sound more realistic, with one character speaking before another finishes. Although overlapping dialog is specified and cued in the 1928 play script by Hecht and MacArthur, Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich:
"I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."
To get the effect he wanted, as multi-track sound recording was not yet available at the time, Hawks had the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead microphones on and off as required for the scene, as many as 35 times.
Grant's character describes Bellamy's character by saying "He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know...Ralph Bellamy!" According to Bellamy, the remark was ad libbed by Grant. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn thought it was too cheeky and ordered it removed, but Hawks insisted that it stay. Grant makes several other "inside" remarks in the film. When his character is arrested for a kidnapping, he describes the horrendous fate suffered by the last person who crossed him: Archie Leach (Grant's real name). Another line that people think is an inside remark is when Earl Williams attempts to get out of the rolltop desk he's been hiding in, Grant says, "Get back in there, you Mock Turtle." The line is a "cleaned-up" version of a line from the stage version of The Front Page ("Get back in there, you God damned turtle!") and Grant also played "The Mock Turtle" in the 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, this line is the same in the 1931 movie "The Front Page."
His Girl Friday premiered in New York City on 11 January 1940, and went into general American release a week later.
In 1993, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
His Girl Friday was 19th on American Film Institute's list of AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs, released in 2000.
Quentin Tarantino considers His Girl Friday one of his favorite films.
His Girl Friday was dramatized as a radio play on the September 30, 1940 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray and Jack Carson. It was dramatized again on The Screen Guild Theater (March 30, 1941) with Grant and Russell reprising their film roles.
His Girl Friday and the original Hecht and MacArthur play were later adapted into another stage play, His Girl Friday, by playwright John Guare. This was presented at the National Theatre, London, from May to November 2003, with Alex Jennings as Burns and ZoÃ« Wanamaker as Hildy.
The 1974 filmThe Front Page was based on the His Girl Friday model, with Walter Matthau as Walter Burns, Jack Lemmon as Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson and Susan Sarandon as Hildy's fiancÃ© Peggy Grant.
The 1988 film Switching Channels was loosely based on His Girl Friday, with Burt Reynolds in the Walter Burns role, Kathleen Turner in the Hildy Johnson role, and Christopher Reeve in the role of Bruce.
- His Girl Friday complete film on YouTube
- His Girl Friday at the Internet Movie Database
- His Girl Friday at the TCM Movie Database
- His Girl Friday at AllMovie
- His Girl Friday is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- His Girl Friday at the American Film Institute Catalog