Older movies can be a drag. No matter how classic, well-constructed or entertaining, it goes without saying that movies predating the 1950s usually lack the rapid-fire editing, breakneck plotting and visual effects extravaganza required to engage a modern, perpetually distracted audience. It’s often because of this relative lack of energy that I often begin a movie like His Girl Friday (1940) feeling like a snobby socialite volunteering at a soup kitchen for a day: shamefully proud of myself for enduring such an undesirable situation. Even after watching the timeless genius that is Gone with the Wind (1939), Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1943), I still brace myself for a stale two hours whenever I sit down to cross another early black and white movie off my list.
Luckily for me, the Howard Hawkes-directed flick is genuinely enjoyable, full of jokes that aren’t just funny for the time, but funny, period. The screwball comedy stars a young Cary Grant as newspaper editor Walter Burns and the well-coiffed Rosalind Russel as spunky journalist (and Burns’s ex) Hildy Johnson. Hawkes wastes no time in establishing the ex-spouses’ history (Hildy divorced Walter because of his overcommitment to work) and the pair’s amusingly antagonistic relationship. In the first five minutes, Hildy glides confidently into The Morning Press newsroom — bland financé at her heels and a striking Lincoln-style top hat on her head— to break the news of her engagement. Walter is, of course, still in love with Hildy, invoking her successful career in investigative journalism in an effort to make her forget about her plans to settle down and raise a family. The impending execution of a feeble, sympathetic man becomes Burns’ saving grace as Hildy is inevitably swept up in the addictive excitement of getting the scoop.
Despite the faintly sexist title — the phrase “his girl Friday” means “his go-to girl” — Rosalind Russell packs Hildy with feminist punch. Armed with an impressive striped suit ensemble that would make Hillary Clinton jealous, Hildy’s bold mannerisms and sly, deadpan comic delivery communicates the character’s unique moxie. (For example, when Walter asks if she’s dreamt about him during their separation she puffs on her cigarette and retorts, “Mama doesn’t dream about you anymore.”) However, Hildy isn’t all calm, cool reserve, nor is she particularly femme fatale sexy, and she definitely lacks the dignified tragedy reminiscent of Casablanca’s Ilsa Lund. On the contrary, screenwriter Charles Lederer allows Hildy to be strong yet not totally in control, vulnerable yet not a sniveling mess. In other words, he achieved what many modern writers still struggle with: portraying female characters as human.
As Walter desperately tries to delay Hildy’s train to marital bliss, her patience starts to thin to hilarious effect. One scene has her sprinting between phones, simultaneously reassuring her wrongfully-jailed fiancé Bruce (played by Ralph Bellamy) and mercilessly berating the guilty Walter. While her witty banter and audacious attitude more than prove her ability to hang with the men, the film’s other plot line — involving a man sentenced to hang — has our protagonist flexing a more physical feminist muscle. In one scene, she races after an inept sheriff and tackles him, all while wearing heels; Yay for gender equality! Even though Cary Grant is particularly dashing in this movie, Rosalind Russell is the real star, infusing Hildy Johnson with just the right mix of wit and panache to render her an indelible feminist character.
There are definitely reasons why you don’t see His Girl Friday on the same lists as Citizen Kane or Casablanca. The cinematography is underwhelming, the script is foggy in places and there is the unavoidably cringeworthy use of the word “colored”. Yet the film is too smart and funny to be passed over just because of its release date. And, for the record, I’d take Hildy over Ilsa any day.