Top 50 Countdown – #47

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His Girl Friday

Year: 1940

Director: Howard Hawks

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His Girl Friday makes one major change to the play (The Front Page) on which it’s based: Hildy Johnson, the ace reporter who quits the newspaper business to the chagrin of Morning Post managing editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), is turned into a woman (Rosalind Russell). Not surprisingly, this gender reversal, an inspired idea which seems perfectly fitting given that the films of Hawks are full of women who prove their mettle to a group of professional men by exhibiting traditionally masculine characteristics, generates significant differences between the play and the resulting film. For one thing, her reason for quitting necessarily differs from her male counterpart: she plans to settle down and marry an insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin (wonderfully played with a suitably bovine dullness by Ralph Bellamy). Her decision is further complicated by the fact that Walter is not only her editor but also her ex-husband who still has designs on her both professionally and romantically. Thus, with this single stroke of genius Hawks transforms the material into a breathlessly paced battle-of-the-sexes featuring tour-de-force comic performances by Grant and Russell as the combatants-cum-lovers.

Grant is amazingly good as the conniving Burns, especially in the first act when he subtly (and not-so-subtly) derides the bumpkin Baldwin’s bland lifestyle, and persuades the hesitant Hildy to cover a newsworthy story, in a deliciously mischievous attempt to sabotage Hildy and Bruce’s engagement, thereby rescuing her from a life of boring domesticity, convincing her to remain a star reporter, and winning her back romantically. But as the story develops Russell emerges as the focal point of the picture, which becomes less a battle-of-the-sexes between Hildy and Walter than a battle-of-the-sexes between Hildy and herself, for Russell’s Hildy is half woman, half man (or, rather, half “newspaperman”) who’s torn between settling down in her socially allotted role as a happy homemaker or continuing her “manly” work as an investigative reporter. In the end what she really wants is clear, as she settles her ambivalence by choosing an exciting if unpredictable life as an investigative reporter with the unscrupulous but charming Walter over a secure but boring life as housewife to kind but staid insurance salesman Bellamy.

This is one of the rare times when it seems absolutely right that a female character should choose the “cad” over Mr. Nice Guy. Few would argue that Hildy makes the right decision for herself. She proves to be a remarkable woman who thrives in a man’s world. While her all-male competition sits around the pressroom gabbing and gossiping like, well, busybody old ladies, Hildy’s in the field running down (and literally tackling) sources, carrying on multiple fast-talking conversations simultaneously, typing stories that make her professional rivals envious and, with a womanly empathy sorely lacking in her cynical male peers, saving an innocent man from the gallows. She’s an estrogen-fueled whirling dervish who talks, types, writes and wisecracks circles around her male competition, all while retaining her femininity and sexiness even in her “manly” pin-striped suit.

Check out my complete list here.

2 Responses to “Top 50 Countdown – #47”

  1. Hi Mat, I thoroughly enjoy reading your reviews, and generally concur with your taste in film. I was wondering though, why you have His Girl Friday listed at Number 37 on your Top 50 countdown, and fail to include The Shop Around The Corner at all, even though it is ranked higher on your Top 10 list for that year?

    Just being nit-picky…Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Ryan,

    I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to your question. I’m sure if you looked hard enough you’d find other such inconsistencies. I can only say that at the time I made that Top 50 list, which was several years after I’d made my Top Ten lists, I placed His Girl Friday above The Shop Around the Corner. But I did mention in my introduction to the top 50 that many other films could easily have made the cut on another day; The Shop Around the Corner is one of those films.

    That’s the problem with making lists like these. How does one decide between two beloved personal favorites? Which one do I prefer? I can’t say definitively. But when you’re making lists you have to place one above the other. On any given day I could flip-flop HGF and TSATC according to my whim. It’s not a science, obviously.

    Mat