I hate to be asked what my favorite movie is (how can you pick just one when there are so many great films, which you love for so many different reasons?), but I was asked in an interview a few years ago, so I had to come up with an answer. The one I eventually came up with—His Girl Friday—is still what I’d say if anyone asked. Other movies (not a lot, but some) may be as wonderful as Howard Hawks’s brilliant adaptation of The Front Page, but I don’t think any others mean quite as much to me personally. So I watched it again this morning, as I have every couple of years since I first saw it in a revival theater in Austin.
That was in the late ’70s, a few months after I’d dropped out of college. I was free to a fault then, alienated and untethered, with a pretty good idea of what I was running from but no clue what I was going toward. I hadn’t yet found my tribe. Then I walked into His Girl Friday and there it was, a word-drunk world where the only thing worse than hypocrisy and corruption was lacking a sense of humor, where chivalry was nothing but paternalism in a top hat, where you knew Hildy should ditch her dull fiancé for her ex-husband, Walter, because of the sheer joy with which Hildy and Walter duked it out, toe to toe and newspaperman to newspaperman, in a battle of wits they both wound up winning. (Well, that and the fact that Walter is played by Cary Grant, the greatest romantic comedy star the movies have ever produced.) It hit me like a ray of hope for my future beaming straight out of the past—not that there was anything the least bit dated about it, aside from the black-and-white film stock and the references to things like Stalin and “the European war.”
I hadn’t yet met anyone remotely like the people I saw in the movie, either in life or in the films of the ’60s and ’70s. More importantly, I’d never seen that exhilaratingly equal a partnership between a man and a woman, or that great an appreciation of a woman’s need for—and right to—a career of her own. His Girl Friday told me those things were out there, in scenes like the one where one of Hildy’s colleagues reads the story she left in her typewriter while she’s out of the press room and then says: “I still say anybody who can write like that ain’t gonna give it up permanent to sew socks for someone who works in the insurance business.” Amen and hallelujah, brother.
Too smart to mess too much with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s original, except to change Hildy to a woman (and cast Roz Russell in the part) and give a romantic spin to the heat between her and the editor who’s fighting to keep her, Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer give us one of the best-written movies ever filmed, which seems appropriate considering it’s a clear-eyed, almost entirely unsentimentalized tribute to the power of the press. No wonder Hawks wanted to remake this story: Walter, Hildy, and their fast-talking colleagues are prototypical Hawksian professionals, people who see things clearly and feel them deeply but always keep the patter light, their cynicism just a smokescreen thrown up to shield tender hearts.
This is not quite a perfect movie. The slightly mawkish scenes with Earl, the death-row prisoner, and his friend Molly verge into the kind of condescension that can be the flip side of liberal-lefty compassion, and the cartoonishly clueless Pettibone (broadly played by Billy Gilbert) who keeps trying to deliver the governor’s reprieve for Earl feels as if he was dropped in from another movie.
In both cases, the staginess works against the movie’s greatest strength: the emotional authenticity that makes it feel more like a drama than a comedy despite a constant stream of exquisitely funny lines. In the past, I’ve been struck by how fast people in this movie talk, especially in the scenes with artfully overlapping dialogue (Robert Altman must have loved Hawks). What I noticed more today is how beautifully crafted all that dialogue is. Everyone speaks in his or her own specific voice, and nearly every line advances the story and/or tells us more about the characters.
Other movies may have done talk this well, but I’ve never seen one do it better.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.