Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page! His Girl Friday (1940)

When I started watching His Girl Friday (1940), I didn’t know what to expect, and I was just there because Howard Hawks directed it. I mean, THE Howard Hawks, the magician director of the western movies, what is he doing in a screwball comedy? Well, here it goes. Until I watched Some Like It Hot, this was the funniest film I have ever seen, and now the two share the first place. For all of us outside the USA, screwball comedies were named after unpredictable baseball pitches. During the Great Depression, people were eager to get some hope along with social class critique. Remember, this is the Hays Code time, so this was the first step towards ridiculing the unrealistic lifestyle the Code wanted to show. This comedy is characterized by the battle of the sexes, in which a female dominates over the male character, and divorce and subsequent Hays code obligatory reconciliation are common themes.

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play newspaper professionals who are not only business but also romantic rivals.
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play newspaper professionals who are not only business but also romantic rivals.

Hawks encouraged his actors to be spontaneous and was determined to break the record for the fastest film dialogue. In order to achieve that, he screen both movies to prove how fast his film was. What else could we expect from a gunslinger director? Whopping 240 words a minute compared to a normal rate of 90 words a minute in most films!

– Bruce Baldwin: I like him; he’s got a lot of charm.

– Hildy Johnson: Well he comes by it naturally, his grandfather was a snake.

The classic screwball plot involves winning back the girl.
The classic screwball plot involves winning back the girl.

This is the remake of a film called The Front Page, and Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson was originally a man, but Hawks liked how his secretary read Hildy Johnson’s lines, so he decided to cast a female for the role. Cary Grant was cast almost instantaneously, but casting for the female role took a while. Hearing about that, Russell spitefully showed up for her audition with her hair still wet from swimming. In her autobiography, she named the His Girl Friday chapter Back Door to The Front Page, or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice. In this film, Cary Grant plays an editor for The Morning Post names Walter Burns who is still in love with his ex-wife Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, who’s about to marry an insurance salesman and settle to live as a housewife in Albany. Walter is determined to sabotage her plans by urging her to do just this one last story. The story of a murder case! Of course, as the plot thickens, Walter is doing every possible trick in the book to stop her from leaving.

Hildy Johnson: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

The title itself is ironic since Hildy is not a servant in the film like Defoe’s Friday, nor a girl Friday assistant, but rather an equal to Walter, or even more intelligent than him. Both Hildy and Walter talk extremely fast, unlike other characters who are slower, which seems to imply less intelligence. Hildy wants to settle down, but the whole film shows that her true nature lies in newspaper business where the action, the thrill, and the most interesting work happens, showing a different role of women, who were often portrayed just as housewives. In the end, Hildy and Walter remarry, which Bordwell names a closure effect since the film returns back to its start without actually tying all the loose ends left from the professional plot of the film, unlike the romantic portion of the film.

Cary Grant was cast almost immediately. In her autobiographical chapter about 'His Girl Friday', she used the subtitle 'How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice'.
Cary Grant was cast almost immediately. In her autobiographical chapter about His Girl Friday, she used the subtitle How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.

Hildy Johnson: [Hildy’s on the phone telling Walter how Earl Williams escaped while being watched by the sheriff Hartwell] Of course he had to have a gun to re-enact the crime with. And who do you think supplied it? Peter B. Hartwell. B For brains.

Hawks is a master of lighting. The gloomy cell has barely some light, while the newspaper agency shines in all its glory, contrasting different worlds. Hildy is both a woman and a man, her stories have a woman’s touch, but she’s also the best newspaperman in the room. She wants a domestic life but strives for fame and success. Jellerson and Anderson claim that Hildy unintentionally deconstructs different ideologies, by not fitting in the binary opposition. After all, the gender switch Hawks made works quite well. This movie is fast-paced, extremely funny, and shows not the importance of a story like in Wilder’s case, but the importance of the dialogue, which can be the main advantage of a film if done right. Consider Before Sunrise trilogy, where spontaneity and time constraints are also expressed the best in great dialogue, creating a romantic story of love and reconciliation from a different, stream-of-consciousness point of view.

'His Girl Friday' reconstructs ideologies by showing that a woman does not have to choose from established binary oppositions.
His Girl Friday reconstructs ideologies by showing that a woman does not have to choose from established binary oppositions.

Rosalind Russell wasn’t happy that her role had fewer punchlines than Cary Grant’s so she hired her own writer. Hawks allowed for spontaneity and didn’t notice it, but Grant knew she was up to something, so he greeted her every day by stating: “What have you got today?”. Such rivalry is felt on screen all the time, and you can rewatch this movie over and over to get all the jokes that are hiding in there. So, what are you waiting for?

Walter Burns: No, no, never mind the Chinese earthquake for heaven’s sake…Look, I don’t care if there’s a million dead…No, no, junk the Polish Corridor…Take all those Miss America pictures off Page Six…Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page…No, no, leave the rooster story alone – that’s human interest.



Bordwell, David (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Brookes, Ian, ed. (2016). Howard Hawks: New Perspectives. Palgrave.

Grindon, Leger (2011). The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies. Wiley-Blackwell. 

Jellerson, Donald and Nathan Anderson (2013). Gender and Ideology in His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). The Cine-Files.

McCarthy, Todd (1997). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press.

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