Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

His Girl Friday


WRITTEN by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur & Charles Lederer
FROM THE PLAY The Front Page by Hecht & MacArthur
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Sidney Cutner & Felix Mills
ART DIRECTION by Lionel Banks

Ben Hecht was a very prolific screenwriter from the ’30s to the ’60s, with over 140 credits. You look at the list and it seems he at least had a hand in half the good movies that came out in that time, often uncredited. His most durable play was The Front Page, which has been filmed or televised six times, of which I’ve seen four.

In 1931 it starred Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien as editor Walter Burns and star reporter Hildy Johnson (whose name I stole for my novel Steel Beach). Hildy is leaving the paper to get married; Walter has no intention of letting him do so. He throws every obstacle he can think of in the way of the happy couple, secure in his knowledge that Hildy will never be happy unless he’s out there in pursuit of the news. The film is amusing, but slow and static, because sound was new and movies couldn’t move around very much. It ran 101 minutes

In 1940 Howard Hawkes changed Hildebrandt to Hildegarde, cast Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and did it again.

In 1945 and 1948 it was staged for television. I’d sure love to see either of those. (One was for the BBC.) Television in 1945! Very, very primitive.

In 1974 Billy Wilder changed Hildy back again, into Jack Lemmon, and paired him with Walter Matthau. It works okay, but is slow. It took Wilder 105 minutes to tell the story.

In 1988 it was updated to television news, they changed all the names, but the Hildy character is played by Kathleen Turner. It runs 105 minutes and doesn’t really work.

Now back to 1940.

Howard Hawks made it as a screwball comedy, and called it His Girl Friday. That was a type of romantic comedy that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, to its loss. (About the most recent mostly-successful example I can recall is Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?) The genre was pretty much invented by Frank Capra with It Happened One Night, and developed by such greats as Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Preston Sturges. All it took to turn The Front Page into a screwball comedy was the stroke of genius of changing Hildy’s sex. The play is funny enough as written, but adding the sexual tension moves everything up a level.

And Howard Hawks did the whole thing in 92 minutes.

Watching it, it’s easy to see how he did it. There is seldom a moment when somebody isn’t talking. Talking? Rattling, chattering, shouting, hollering! Talk about a talkie! This is a movie about talking, wisecracks, putdowns, all played broadly with never a pause to catch your breath. That’s how he did it. How he made it work is the wonder. Many directors have tried it and hundreds have failed. But I can never take my eyes from Cary Grant and Roz Russell, they might have invented the word “chemistry,” and they seem to hate each other, and they hardly ever even touch each other. And it doesn’t dissolve, in the end, into a sappy lovefest; these people just aren’t like that. No, the best they can achieve is a recognition that this is who we are, so we might as well get used to it and go on together, because nothing else will work.

Two little bits of business: At one point Grant is describing Hildy’s fiancée to a thug he has hired to plant counterfeit money on him. “He looks like that actor fellow … Ralph Bellamy.” Guess who is playing the poor schmuck?

And one line of Cary’s dialogue goes like this: “The last man that messed with me was Archie Leach …” Which was the name of the poor but attractive cockney lad who came to Hollywood to seek his fortune and was named Cary Grant by the studios.