Welcome to a new weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Throughout the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, many studios looked to Broadway as an inspiration for filming material. While musicals were the main commodity to be transferred to the screen, plays were also prominent. Movies such as Holiday, The Petrified Forest, and Pygmalion brought popular plays to the big screen for the first time. Soon, the studios started to branch out from almost word for word page to screen adaptations. In 1939, Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) came on board to direct an adaptation of the play The Front Page. Little did Hawks know, the film would end up differing substantially from the play.
Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn on the set of Bringing Up Baby (1938)
While auditioning for the two main roles in the movie, Hawks’ secretary read the lines for the role of the reporter, Hildy Johnson. Hawks felt the dialogue sounded better coming out of a woman rather than a man, thus the script was rewritten making Hildy female. The movie was also given a new title to reflect the new shift, His Girl Friday. Most of the original dialogue was left in tact, but the film now allowed for a romantic screwball comedy angle — a genre audiences couldn’t get enough of in the 1940s.
His Girl Friday is known by critics and fans alike as one of the best screwball comedies of all-time. The plot concerns newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). Once married, but now long divorced, Hildy returns to visit Burns announcing that she is engaged to marry nice but incredibly bland insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). [Editor’s Note: It’s ALWAYS Ralph Bellamy] Burns becomes determined to do everything in his power to sabotage her wedding plans. He recruits Hildy to cover one last story, the impending execution of a convicted murderer. From there, hijinks ensue and corruption is uncovered all while Hildy desperately tries to meld her professional and personal ambitions together. The film fits all the classic tropes of a screwball comedy: a woman dominating the relationship between a male character, fast-paced dialogue, farce, and a plot involving courtship and eventual marriage.
Besides simply fitting the classic comedy mold, His Girl Friday made significant advances in the world of filmmaking. The film is noted for its fast, razor-sharp dialogue. Often, characters overlap one another to make conversations sound more authentic. Hawks recalled, “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping.” To obtain this effect, Hawks had the sound mixer on set turn the numerous overhead microphones on and off as required during a scene. During quick dialogue with several characters, this resulted in switching mics on and off up to 35 times in one scene alone. As multi-track sound recording did not yet exist yet, this was considered a huge advancement in sound recording for film. Although tedious, it allowed characters to have more realistic conversations with each other. Cary Grant turns in a stellar performance in the film, but it is Rosalind Russell’s work that deserves particular praise in His Girl Friday. In an era where women were often relegated to playing stereotypical wives or eye candy, it was rare to see a female character treated as an equal to the male lead on screen. Roles such as these paved the way for powerful female leads in the 1950s such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.
His Girl Friday is often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films.
There are a few inside jokes of note in the film for classic cinema fans. In once scene, Grant refers to a man named Archie Leach, which is in fact Cary Grant’s real name. Additionally, at one point Grant’s character refers to Hildy’s fiancee by remarking he looks like “That actor – Ralph Bellamy.” Bellamy actually plays the role of the fiancee. Both lines were ad-libbed by Grant. Furthermore, in the scene where Grant pushes the convicted murderer back into the roll top desk he says, “Get back in there, you Mock Turtle.” Cary Grant played the role of the Mock Turtle in the 1933 film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Lastly, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry in 1993.
His Girl Friday is currently available to stream on Netflix Instant.
What’s your favorite Cary Grant role in his long, remarkable career? Which films would you like to see us cover in a future classic movie column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading!