From the Vaults: ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940)

2010_0622_His_Girl_Friday_01 I once read an excellent book about single life that included this recipe for depression: “Go out and rent a movie with Cary Grant in it, come back and put the kettle on.” This advice has never failed me. You cannot go wrong with Cary Grant; his movies are invariably cheering (although “Arsenic and Old Lace” can be headache-inducing). Even in a weepy thriller like “Notorious,” it’s just nice to see him, you know?

The best thing about “His Girl Friday” is what a great ensemble he’s got. Ralph Bellamy is hilarious and Billy Gilbert always absolutely slays me in his small part as Joe Pettibone, but the movie really belongs to the magnificent, suit-wearing, bon-mot-slinging Rosalind Russell. Usually with Cary Grant movies you want to be Cary Grant, but here you really want to be Rosalind.

Does the plot need rehashing? Grant plays Walter Burns, editor of the Morning Post newspaper, and Russell is his ex-wife and ex-star-reporter Hildy Johnson. She drops by to tell Walter she’s marrying boring insurance man Bruce (Bellamy); she’s tired of the exhausting, unpredictable newspaper business and she’s got no regrets about divorcing Walter: “Instead of two weeks in Atlantic City with my bridegroom, I spent two weeks in a coal mine!” she snarls. Distraught but externally unflappable, Walter starts pulling strings to get her back in the newsroom.

2010_0622_His_Girl_Friday_02The movie’s based on a play, “The Front Page,” in which Hildy Johnson is a man — and, obviously, there’s no  love story angle (well, Hildy wants to get married, but to a woman). In the film it’s never really clear whether Walter wants his wife back or his star reporter back; they have great chemistry but it’s always very professional, or as professional as it can be with lines like “Listen to me, you great big bubble-headed baboon!” and “I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you!”

About the only thing that bugs me about this movie is how much it still looks and feels like a play. The action’s pretty static; people run around at times but they generally remain confined to a single room or office. (Major exception: Russell’s flying tackle of an escaping source. I love that scene.) It’s just not very cinematic looking. But the performances are so scintillating that it doesn’t really matter.

Hildy is such a fab character and so fantastically modern; she makes doe-eyed Lois Lane look like a throwback. I love how she strides into a room full of reporters and just starts trading verbal shots. I also love how she can’t keep from loving her work; Walter barely has to do anything before she gets drawn into the big story of the moment, a condemned man seeking reprieve. Her excitement as she chases the story is infectious.

And the dialogue, oh boy. The cast is clearly having a blast with it. “He’s got a lot of charm,” Bruce muses of Walter, and Hildy retorts, “He comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake.”

She also gets my favorite line: “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 in-jokes are fun too. Of Bellamy’s character, Walter says “He looks like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy.” Later he pushes another character back into a hiding place, snapping, “Get back in there, you Mock Turtle” — Grant’s role in the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland.” And Grant’s real name gets checked in another of his lines: “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.”

You know about this movie. There are a lot of good reasons.

Next week: something nice and lowbrow, probably with fake blood! Beyond that I have not yet decided.

— Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Photos: Top, Grant weasels his way between Bellamy and Russell; below, our heroes get some help from Billy Gilbert (as the earnest Joe Pettibone, husband of Mrs. Pettibone) in nailing Clarence Kolb’s evil mayor, right.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in @news, Film, From the Vaults, Hollywood. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to From the Vaults: ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940)

  1. fibber mcgee says:

    Great review! As a vintage Ink-Stained Wretch (not that vintage, I started in the late 1950s) I assure you Walter Burns was NOT trying to get his ex-wife back, but his star reporter. In those days long gone by any newspaperman worth his rye whiskey could find a loose (meaning unattached) lady to keep the home fires burning while he 1. worked, 2. imbibed strong drink with his pals and 3. chased other “skirts.” Roz Russell, who I always thought was underrated, steals the show, you’re right. What a gal. Nothing old time about her atttide and methods. And a hats off to the director, Howard Hawks. Have you seen his “Monkey Business” with Cary Grant and a very young and yummy Marilyn Monroe?


  2. Mary mallory says:

    This is one of my favorite Cary Grants behind NOTORIOUS ( I find it very strange but romantic) and BRINGING UP BABY (another great directing job by Hawks). Russell and Grant have great chemistry and timing together. She was definitely underrated as an actress, always great be it in drama like SISTER KENNY or more comedy like THE WOMEN.


  3. Arye (Leslie) Michael Bender says:

    A perfect film, down to the casting of each crusty character. ‘His Gal Friday’ is always a joy to watch.


  4. AED says:

    Ooh, no, I haven’t seen “Monkey Business” but will have to look into it!
    This is such an inspiring movie for ink-stained wretches. Everyone is so passionate about their work, yelling into those fantastic 1940 telephones. I love the grin on Rosalind’s face when she calls Walter to give him the scoop and concludes “Ain’t it a pip?” Now we just sit around the newsroom blogging all day!


  5. Eve says:

    I was a Girl Reporter, too, and learned to type on an old manual in a newsroom–I still pound the keys so hard I wear off the letters in a month or two.


  6. fibber mcgee says:

    At the old El Lay Examiner it was a big day for the guys in the newsroom when the “professional ladies” in the Case Hotel across the street forgot to draw their blinds. And once in a while somebody like John Carradine would sweep into the newsroom, wearing a cape, climb onto a desk and declaim Shakespeare. Once, Tony Curtis came in person to personally plant a news release. He was plugging his 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success” wherein he plays a flack.


  7. Sasha Wombat says:

    I have seen this movie about a hundred times, and I always find something new, either in the dialogue or the ‘business’ that goes on between Grant and whomever is in the scene with him. I also noticed something that was very much of the period-the several racial comments and pictures. In the courthouse pressroom, there is a ‘sambo’ picture on the wall, and a comment by a newsman regarding a ‘pickininney'(sp?). As I said, things like this were part of the day, and I don’t think it should be ‘whitewashed’ or edited out. Just makes me realize how far we’ve come.
    And I also love the quick pace of the dialogue-I wonder how much was improvised as Grant was very good at it (as in “Philadelphia Story” champagne scene with Jimmy Stewart). This was a very well received Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play “The Front Page” before its first turn as a movie with Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien in the early ’30’s. I personally enjoy watching the staging. Just a great movie. Thanks for sharing this!


  8. tillzen says:

    Howard Hawks and Hal Ashby are our favorite Directors not just for their skill but for their reach. Each of their films are quite different from all their other films. Hero and villain, winner and loser are interchangeable terms in their work.
    Double-bill “The Front Page” and “Only Angels Have Wings” . The dialog AND the humanity are phenomenal!


  9. Halle says:

    Wonderful movie. The dialogue is so clever and Grant and Russell are perfect.


  10. mambo chicken says:

    It seems unthinkable not to mention the contribution of Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur the playwrights and screenwriters of HGF and Notorious and even dialogue on Cary Grant’s Gunga Din and so many other of his movies. They were giants of cinema screenwriting, forgotten little over half a century later.


  11. Melissa says:

    I just got done watching this great classic on


  12. La Zuzu says:

    Thanks for the photos and the quotes! As a relative whippersnapper, I had no idea Ralph Bellamy had been so hot.


  13. Rich says:

    Sorry, Anne, but the performances here weren’t “scintillating”, they were irritating. The actors spend the whole flick delivering too many lines at manic top speed, screaming and yelling, apparently to generate the feeling of excitement for the theater audience. I found it distracting and annoying, like Roger Rabbit, but perhaps breathing some life into an unlikely story. This movie is strictly for Cary Grant fans who feel they must seem absolutely everything he’s done, for better or, in this case, worse…


  14. AED says:

    Rich, I feel exactly that way about “Arsenic and Old Lace”! I’ve only seen it once but I fell asleep about midway through, and every time I woke up Cary Grant was making the same bug-eyed face. (I watched it again the next night and it wasn’t any better.)
    mambo chicken, thanks for the shout-out to the writers. The performers are wonderful but this movie would be nothing without all the great lines: the writers are what make it.


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