His Girl Friday—a 1940 screwball comedy starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, and directed by Howard Hawks—is one of those movies that a lot of modern viewers might not have seen, but it’s listed in the United States National Film Registry for a reason. It’s got to be one the greatest master classes in cinematic dialogue ever.
Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is a slick and manipulative editor for the Morning Post, a prominent New York newspaper at a time when reporters will resort to almost any trickery to scoop each other. His ex-wife and former star reporter, Hildy Johnson, stops by to let him know that she’s moving on. She is marrying Bruce Baldwin, a nice but dull insurance salesman and moving to Albany, where she can settle down to a quiet life as a homemaker. Walter can’t stand the thought of seeing Hildy go and he tries every trick in the book—from framing her fiancée for counterfeiting charges to kidnapping Hildy’s mother—to keep Hildy from leaving town. But what really keeps her around is that Walter ropes her into covering one last big story, the pending execution of Earl Williams, a mousy guy who accidentally shot a policeman to death, and who really should be innocent in the eyes of the law. He escapes shortly before his date with the gallows and Walter and Hildy try t secure a pardon for him, much to the chagrin of the crooked politicians whose fortunes depend on Earl’s execution going ahead as planned. It gets very madcap and somewhere along the way, poor Bruce realizes he can’t compete with all this manic drama, and quietly leaves, with his honor intact, if not his pride.
What really drives this movie is the (often ad-libbed) dialogue, which is legendary for its fast pace, pointed wit, and layered execution. Most of the lines are delivered just as other characters’ lines are ending, so everybody is always talking over everybody else, even if only for a split second. It’s the conversational version of Brian Wilson’s “wall of sound” recording technique, and it produced an incredibly lively and organic kind of conversation that delivers one-liners and backhanded insults so fast you need to see it all a few more times to catch everything.
This movie is an early feminist classic for its treatment of Hildy Johnson. At a time when women were very much expected to shrink into the background, let alone hold a job, let alone stand out in a hard-driving career reserved for men. Hildy is a rare heroine, indeed. She is clearly the smartest and toughest person in the entire show. The only person who can out maneuver her is her ex Walter, and mainly because the two are still clearly in love with each other but couldn’t make enough room in their hectic journalism lives for a proper romance. (Well, maybe Hildy could, but Walter certainly can’t. He’s a proto J. Jonah Jameson except instead of heaping abuse on people, he kills them with charm.) Walter knows he’s not as smart or as quick as Hildy, but he’s far more underhanded than she is, and so the two constantly circle each other while they try to get what they want out of a crazy and complicated situation without having to make any concessions to their sparring partner. But Walter’s saving grace is that he gives Hildy room to maneuver in a man’s world, and can’t bear the thought of her walking out of something where she can stand out as much as she deserves to stand out. How he goes about trying to keep her in the reporting game is hardly noble, but given how many other fellas in 1940 would have demanded she quit this newspaper stuff for good, you have to give Walter a little credit. Just not too much, though; when he and Hildy get back together, he immediately sabotages their new relationship by honeymooning in Albany…to cover a labor strike there.
This movie is terrific fun, and still works perfectly almost 80 years later. So many movies that employ crackerjack dialogue really owe it to this movie, which showed the world how it could be done. But my favorite part, the moment of truth, isn’t amid any of the snappy comebacks or punchy one-liners. Its during a rare moment of gravity when the newsroom at the courthouse—where much of the story’s action takes place—is crashed by a Mollie Malloy, a woman whom the papers wrongly painted as the love interest of Earl Williams. She is so distraught at how they have portrayed her and him, she demands a little humanity from these jackals, all of whom are so hardened by their craft that they continue playing poker while she upbraids them, and even crack wise about Williams’ imminent demise in front of her face. These guys have gone too far this time, and Hildy knows it. She rescues the weeping Molly and escorts her from the room before the press corps eviscerates her any further. The moment Hildy leaves, the guys in the room suddenly understood what they have done, and remain silent until Hildy returns a few moments later, in full matriarchal righteousness. She looks them over and disarms them fully with a few choice words. In a movie full of machinegun chatter, Hildy stops the show with a single shot. That is how good she is. Everybody else in this story uses their quicksilver banter as a way to hide the fact that they’re not gentlemen or even good reporters. They’re just hacks. Hildy uses it to prove that she’s a great reporter, alright, but she’s more than that. Much more.
She’s Hildy Johnson. And don’t you forget it.
Editor’s Note: Universal Pictures failed to maintain the copyright on this one and let it slip into the public domain, which means you can watch the whole thing right here. Enjoy.