Take 50: His Girl Friday

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 50: His Girl Friday. As always there will be spoilers.

Howard Hawke’s His Girl Friday is a beacon of a certain type of movie from a very specific time period. It is the gold standard of screwball comedy and a quintessential “talkie”. It seems the creators of the film wanted to celebrate a decade of synchronized sound on film by making an effort to cram as many words as possible into the 92 minute runtime. This rapid fire dialogue feels like a gift from the vaudeville tradition, and there are on screen equivalents that persist to this day, most notably in Amy Sherman Paladino productions like Gilmore Girls or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Aaron Sorkin’s body of work. Paladino in particular actively references this film from time to time in her dialogue and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had studied the rhythm and cadence of the exchanges between the leading man and woman of His Girl Friday. Not only does this film lay a groundwork for dialogue that requires laser focus from the audience, but it also creates a mold for all future romantic comedies.

Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russel as Hildy Johnson have a deep well of chemistry between them that bears with it an unusual dose of authenticity. I recently heard Jenna Fischer describe the on screen chemistry between herself and John Krasinski, starring opposite each other in The Office, by saying that she never felt more like Pam than when she was in scenes with Jim. Watching those coworkers fall in love for the first time is a unique cinematic experience because it feels so ordinary — it was hard to believe the actors had not fallen in love with each other.

The same is true of the (possibly original?) workplace canoodlers, Grant and Russell. As soon as they share a frame it’s clear they’re meant to be together, and it’s impossible to imagine whatever hurdles standing between them won’t be felled with ease. Two devices are used to emphasize this point — first, the story is not about the couple falling in love. When they meet, they are reunited after a short marriage and divorce, Hildy arriving to notify Walter that she is quitting, relocating to Albany and marrying another man. The second is that the man she is leaving Walter for is a kind soul, but woefully incompetent in terms of pure satisfaction when standing next to Cary Grant. By casting this story as one of reconciliation and giving the viewers very little reason to root for his alternative the audience can excuse the woeful antics of both lovers and long for their reunion.

And make no mistake, they both behave somewhat abhorrently. Hildy resents the way Walter took advantage of her skills, and lied to her, and couldn’t stop working long enough to have a real honeymoon, and yet she commits the same crimes and worse toward her new fiance. Walter uses people outright, he’s a thief, manipulative, and full of that undeniable Cary Grant charisma. This might be the most magnetic I’ve ever seen Grant, luring in and hypnotizing the audience as he and Russell go blow for blow in a verbal tug of war. He is all man, and his sex appeal was magnified even further by his steadfast conviction that Hildy must not give up her calling to journalism — “you’re a newspaperman!” he insists. This insistence is refreshing, and her addiction to and gift for the art is exhilarating to witness. Jon Hamm as Don Draper evokes this Grantian sensibility, and his affection for Peggy has a similar effect. Hildy is a star, and Walter seems hell bent on convincing her to lean into that skill, for not entirely selfless, but nonetheless, endearing reasons.

By the end of the film it’s clear that the two belong together, and that they will be, in spite of Hildy’s better judgement. There is also a slight wink at the audience that suggests maybe this is a special game they play, and this was just another phase of the old song they’ll continue to sing to each other — fall back in love, fight again, separate, return to each other over and over. This is their dance and they do it well, intoxicated by their passion for each other and the inescapable spell that they can only cast and receive from each other. She is his girl Friday, he needs her to feel he is understood and she needs him to insist that she is a rare talent who should not succumb to the lure of safe commonplace comforts. Side by side they are most themselves, and that is rare chemical equation for cinematic timelessness.

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