Thank God It’s Friday

Melissa Anderson on His Girl Friday

Howard Hawks, His Girl Friday, 1940, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 92 minutes. Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns (Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant).

BAM’S TIMELY REVIVAL of Howard Hawks’s great 1940 screwball comedy showcases two once-thriving, now nearly extinct traditions: print journalism and meaty roles for women in funny films. In one of cinema’s most felicitous gender reassignments, Hawks’s movie, written by Charles Lederer, transforms the two male leads of its source material—Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 hit play The Front Page—into ex-spouses Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy, an ace reporter for the Morning Post, arrives at the office to tell Walter, also her editor, that she’s quitting the business to tie the knot and settle down in Albany with dopey insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy); Walter schemes to win her back, to both the paper and the altar.

A paragon of what Stanley Cavell has called the “comedy of remarriage,” His Girl Friday, with its rapid-fire banter, is a battle between equals, the defining dynamic between men and women in comedies of the 1930s and early ’40s. (Hawks’s other comedies from this era, like 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and 1941’s Ball of Fire, offer further proof.) Seen today, when women in romantic comedies are routinely humiliated, such as Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth or Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, a film made seventy years ago seems completely radical: Hildy’s drive and love of her profession aren’t treated as pathologies, as they are in these two 2009 releases, but as the very core of her being. “I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaperman,” Hildy, racing to meet deadline, typewriter keys flying, tells baffled Bruce, slowly beginning to realize she’ll never join him on the 9 PM train to Albany.

Though every cast member in His Girl Friday, including the numerous bit players, has a star turn, the film belongs to Russell, giving her best performance and sealing her place in the funny-lady pantheon. But according to Turner Classic Movies’ website, she wasn’t Hawks’s first choice: Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, and Ginger Rogers all told Hawks no before he cast Russell. Convinced that Hawks was treating her like an also-ran, Russell snapped at him early in filming: “You don’t want me, do you? Well, you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.” He did.

His Girl Friday screens at BAM December 18–24. For more details, click here.