Watch the entire movie here.
“…considered by many critics the greatest achievement in sound known to film.” – Colliers, January 16, 1943
Directed by Howard Hawks
Scenario by Charles Lederer
From the Ben Hecht / Charles MacArthur play, “Front Page”
Produced by Howard Hawks and Jed Harris
Photographed by Joseph Walker
Music by Morris W. Stoloff
Edited by Gene Havlick
Cary Grant……………………………………………Walter Burns
Rosalind Russell………………………………….Hildy Johnson
Ralph Bellamy………………………………………Bruce Baldwin
Gene Lockhart…………………………………..Sheriff Hartwell
Helen Mack………………………………………….Mollie Malloy
John Qualen……………………………………………Earl Williams
Alma Kruger…………………………………………….Mrs. Baldwin
Billy Gilbert…………………………………………….Joe Pettibone
Pat West………………………………………………Warden Cooley
Edwin Maxwell……………………………………….Dr. Egelhoffer
Read the Original New York Times Review
…When [Hawks is] being serious, as he generally is, simplicity is everything – plot line, camera angles, editing manner – has been the hallmark of his work, which has been called by critic Andrew Sarris, ‘good, clean, direct, functional cinema; perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.
Richard Shickel, “The Men who Made the Movies”
The … ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.
Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”
Where is the tension in Howard Hawk’s films? When he has good material, he’s capable of better than good direction, as he demonstrates in films like “Twentieth Century,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday;” and in “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” he demonstrates that with help from the actors, he can jazz up ridiculous scripts. But what “interior meaning” can be extrapolated from an enjoyable, harmless, piece of kitsch like “Only Angels Have Wings;” what can the auteur critics see in it beyond the sex and glamour and fantasies of the high school boy’s universe – exactly what the mass audience liked it for? And when Hawk’s material and / or cast is dull and when his heart isn’t in the production – when by the auteur theory he should show his “personality,” the result is something soggy like “The Big Sky.
Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares, Joys and Sarris”
The test case for the auteur theory is provided by the work of Howard Hawks…. [Hawks] has only once received critical acclaim, for his wartime film, “Seargeant York” …. Hawks has worked in almost every genre. He has made westerns (“Rio Bravo”), gangsters (“Scarface”), war films (“Air Force”), thrillers (“The Big Sleep”), science fiction (“The Thing from Another World”), musicals (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”), comedies (“Bringing Up Baby”), even a Biblical epic (“Land of the Pharoahs”)…. All of these films (except perhaps “Land of the Pharoahs,” which he himself is not happy about) exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo….
Hawks achieved this by reducing the genres to two basic types: the adventure drama and the crazy comedy….
For Hawks the highest human emotion is the camaraderie of the exclusive, self-sufficient, all-male group. Hawk’s heroes are cattlemen, marlin-fishermen, racing-drivers, pilots, big-game hunters, habituated to danger and living apart from society, actually cut off from it physically by dense forest, sea, snow or desert. Their aerodromes are fog-bound; the radio has cracked up; the next mail-coach or packet-boat does not leave for a week. The elite group strictly preserves its exclusivity. It is necessary to pass a test of ability and courage to win admittance….
…Man is woman’s ‘prey.’ Women are admitted to the male group only after much disquiet and a long ritual courtship, phased around the offering, lighting and exchanging of cigarettes, during which they prove themselves worthy of entry. Often they perform minor feats of valor. Even though they are never really full members. A typical dialogue sums up their position:
Woman: You love him, don’t you?
Man (embarrassed): Yes, I guess so.
Woman: How can I love him like you?
Man: Just stick around.
The undercurrent of homosexuality in Hawk’s films is never crystallized, though in “The Big Sky,” for example, it runs very close to the surface. And he himself described “A Girl in Every Port” as “really a love story between two men.” For Hawks, men are equals, within the group at least, whereas there is a clear identification between women and the animal world, most explicit in “Bringing Up Baby,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and “Hartari!” Man must strive to maintain his mastery. It is also worth noting that, in Hawks’s adventure dramas and even in most of his comedies, there is no married life. Often the heroes are married or at least intimately committed, to a woman at some time in the distant past but have suffered an unexplained trauma, with the result that they have been suspicious of women ever since….
Hawks sees the all-male community as an ultimate….
Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
…For the auteur critics calling a director virile is the highest praise because … it is some kind of assurance that he is not trying to express himself in an art form, but treats movie-making as a professional job. (“Movie:” Hawks ‘makes the very best adventure films because he is at one with his heroes …. Hawks’s heroes are all professionals doing jobs – scientists, sheriffs, cattlemen, big game hunters: real professionals who know their capabilities….They know exactly what they can do with the available resources, expecting only what they know can be given.’) The auteur critics are so enthralled with their narcissistic male fantasies (“Movie:” ‘Because Hawks’s films and their heroes are so genuinely mature, they don’t need to announce the fact for all to hear.’) that they seem unable to relinquish their schoolboy notions of human experience.
Pauline Kael, “Circle and Squares, Joys and Sarris”
The director is right in the middle of things. At the very least he’s on the sound stage while the director of photography is lighting the set that the art director has designed and, later, while the actors are speaking the lines that the screenwriter wrote. Quite often, he steers all these factors – story, actors, camera – in the right direction. So why not say that it’s his film, that he is the author? Simply because the director is almost always an interpretive artist, not a creative one, and because the Hollywood film is a corporate art, not an individual one. This doesn’t diminish the importance of the director, or the validity of the Hollywood film as an art….It just makes it more difficult for the critic to assign sole authorship to the work – and why should he waste time on a Name Game like this?
… The theory used to be that the solitary, creative artist produced Art, and the corporate, interpretive craftsman produced Entertainment – a prejudice that kept people from examining the Hollywood movie. The auteur theory says, in effect, ‘What you thought was just entertainment is really Art, because it is the work of an individual creator – an auteur. Therefore, the Hollywood movie is worthy to be examined.
…The real joy in movies comes from seeing the fortuitous communion of forces (story, script, direction, acting, lighting, editing, design, scoring) that results in a great Hollywood film. “Frankenstein,” “Scarface,” “Love Me Tonight,” “Camille,” “Holiday,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “His Girl Friday,” “Citizen Kane,” “Penny Serenade,” “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” “Body and Soul,” “Rachel and the Stranger,” “Born Yesterday,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Searchers,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Psycho,” The Manchurian Candidate,” “Charade,” and “Planet of the Apes” are just a few examples of collaborative movie-making at its best. Intelligent appreciation of films like these, and not scholastic disputes over the validity of individual signatures, should be our first critical concern.
More often than not, when a fine film is signed by a mediocre director, the film’s distinctive qualities can be traced to the screenwriter.
Richard Corliss, “The Hollywood Screenwriter”
There is, of course, a critical school holding that the director of a film is the “author” as surely as a writer is the author of a novel. This theory has the virtue of simplicity, banishing as if they did not exist the ambiguities that arise from the fact that though the director may initiate the script for a project and may well participate in the endless round of conferences that attend its creation, his pen rarely touches paper. It also ignores the fact that though he may offer plenty of suggestions and not a few direct orders to actors, cinematographers, editors, and all the other highly creative people in his employ, he cannot do their jobs for them and that much of a movie quality – or lack of it – arises out of these semi-autonomous centers of creative power.
The beginning of an answer to the question about what a director does arises from the fact that, in the nature of things, none of these artists and craftsmen have a total vision of the thing they are working on. As the great Francois Truffaut puts it with simple elegance, ‘The director is the only one to carry the whole film in his head.’ Quite literally – with a suggestion here, a critical reaction there, an encouraging (or discouraging) word somewhere else – he … well … gives direction to his little army as it inches across the virgin territory. ‘By and large, you give the tone to the whole thing, ‘ says [George] Cukor. ‘You give the vitality … if a director sits down, everyone else will sit down.”
Richard Shickel, “The Men Who Made the Movies
The Hilarious Collaboration Entitled “His Girl Friday”
by Claude Mathews
“You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world.”
Earl Williams, “His Girl Friday”
“His Girl Friday’s” “crazy world” begins with the seemingly innocent re-uniting of Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson and uproariously crescendos with the final, absurdist episode in the press room. In between lay an endless stream of gags, making “His Girl Friday” a true masterpiece of comedy. The film centers around Walter Burns conniving to convince his ex-wife Hildy Johnson to re-marry him. The triangle is completed by Bruce Baldwin, Hildy’s new fiancee. Nothing is sacred. As P.J. Dyer pointed out, ‘Hawks regards comedy and melodrama as interdependent and interchangeable …. In “His Girl Friday,” a comedy rechauffe of Milestone’s “The Front Page,” Hawks retains the death cell background and the suicide of the prostitute.” [Peter John Dyer, Focus on Howard Hawks, ed. by Joseph McBride (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), p. 86.] The effect of this, especially in the case of Earl Williams, is to create parallel moods. On the one hand is the serious plight of Earl Williams, contrasted with the facetious connivings of Burns on the other. Williams is sympathetic, yet humorous character. He is a laughable neurotic.
Corliss and Schickel agree with Truffaut that the director’s role is to give direction to the crew of craftspeople responsible for the end result: “The director is the only one to carry the whole film in his head.” The director is the coordinator of a small army responsible for the success of a film: producer, screenwriter, actors, cinematographer, et. al. The two things that Hawks find most important to cinema are what the actors do and say. As Schickel points out, “simplicity is everything.” Hawks’s camera is usually a simple recording instrument, rarely subjective. Hawks never used a flashback. Hawks has said, “I just use the simplest camera in the world.” [From Peter Bogdonavich’s interview with Hawks in his The Cinema of Howard Hawks, as quoted by Henri Langlois in Focus on Howard Hawks, p. 66.] The emphasis naturally falls on the screenplay and the actors.
“His Girl Friday” represents both the strengths and weaknesses of the auteur theory. By being an excellent, representative example of the Hawksian canon, it corresponds to the precepts of the theory. Hawks is usually considered to be the prime example of auteur, for all of his films definitely bear an unmistakable style and form peculiar to the director. However, all artists interject certain personal traits into their work. “Auteur” suggests, however, that the director is the “author” of a film. It is a mixed metaphor, for an author is an independent sole controller of his world, whereas the director is a dependent coordinator of many other factors making up the effort. “Auteur” becomes an over-simplification of the complexity of creating a film. Except in solitary and independent artistic efforts, the director can never have as much control over his art as does an author. An author controls all aspects of the imagination that ends up on the page. The director is too dependent upon others for the success of his film, especially the actors, which explains why director’s will go to all lengths to keep actors happy on the set. Much more so than in the authoring of a novel, the director is dependent upon a world of variables that must be coordinated before a well-crafted film results. The director’s craft is a complicated one, not only involving economics, but the need for collaboration. Here, “auteur” misleads. Comparing “director” and “author” implies that a filmmaker exists as an individual artist controlling all aspects of his art form. This is the major flaw of the theory – it creates confusion about the true role of the director.
The strength of the auteur theory is simple – it legitimized the critical study of what was once considered non-art – the commercially produced film. It seems strange today, when there is such a critical response to most director’s efforts, but there was a time when few people ever discussed who was responsible film. The studio reigned.
The greatest contributor to “His Girl Friday,” besides the director and the author of the play from which it was derived (the Ben Hecht / Charles MacArthur play “The Front Page”) was the screenwriter, Charles Lederer. Lederer’s chief task was to change the antagonistic male relationship in “The Front Page” to the sexual conflict between Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in “His Girl Friday.” Lederer’s role here is comparable to Hecht and MacArthur when they worked with Hawks:
Well, when Hecht and MacArthur and I used to work on a script, we’d sit in a room and work for two hours and then play backgammon for an hour. Then we’d start again and one of us would be one character and one would be another character. We’d read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could. And that is the kind of dialogue we used, and the kind that was fun. We could usually remember what we said, and put it right down and go on working. And sometimes you’re so far in a picture, and you get an idea that you’re going to change a character, so you just go back and change the lines that you’ve written for that character and start all over again. [Howard Hawks, “Do I Get to Play the Drunk This Time? An Encounter with Howard Hawks,” an interview by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, Sight and Sound, 40, No. 2 (Spring 1971), pp. 99 – 100.]
Certainly much the same thing happened with the scripting of “His Girl Friday.” The gags abound in the movie. In one delightful scene, Burns introduces himself to an old man in front of Baldwin, pretending the old man is Baldwin – just to insult Baldwin. Baldwin finally interrupts Burns and tells him of the mistake. When the old man tries to tell Burns that he was wrong all along, he tells the old man, “Keep your nose out of my business.”
In another scene, Burns wonders aloud about Baldwin, “He looks like that movie actor – Ralph Bellamy. In yet another scene, Hildy bellows, “Hello, this is Hildy Burns, get me Walter Johnson!”
The excellent comic performances of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, John Qualen and Billy Gilbert are the most successful aspect of “His Girl Friday.” Grant’s cutesy-pie personality and trickster attitude to get what he wants, acts as the perfect foil to the Rosalind Russell career girl. John Qualen is a quintessential character actor. You laugh just looking at him. Billy Gilbert should have won an award for his short but unforgettable portrayal of the absent minded neurotic who cannot take a bribe without thinking what his wife’s reaction will be.
As for the cinematography, Hawks explains:
There’s a lot of cooperation with a good camera man, and I’ve been fortunate in having good ones. Some of them get very tired of working in normal stuff, they relax and then you pep them up and get them to take chances. I tell them, ‘If you make two good scenes for me, you can make two mediocre ones and one bad one.’ All I’m interested in is the good one. So they go ahead and take chances, and their work shows it. Because people pass up the bad scenes, but you really appreciate the good one. [Ibid., p. 99.]
Hawks professes to using “the simplest camera in the world.” Sure, there’s a tracking shot at the beginning of the film, but the camera hardly moves after the dialogue starts. When Russell and Grant leave the open office to go back to his office, the camera simply tracks, functioning to keep Russell and Grant within the frame to record their dialogue.
Hawks also expresses a great deal of control over the editing:
Oh, [I’ve had] practically complete control. I’ve had a little trouble on a couple of pictures that [the film companies] thought were too long. I made the mistake of making them too long and they made the mistake of trying to shorten them. [Ibid., p. 99.]
Even though he does express a great deal of control, he is still relying on folks to play their critical roles. The director does not play the role that a strict definition of “auteur” suggests. The director is not totally responsible for the finished product. There are always aspects of the finished product that are outside of the director’s control.
A more recent example of the reality of the role of the director and the image depicted by the definition of auteur is illustrated by the relationship between Ingmar Bergman and the folks he collaborates with. Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist bring his own very gifted skills to Bergman’s projects and adds a complete dimension of art to the final works. Bergman also allows for a great deal of improvisation in his films, which begs the question, “Does improvisation by actors make the actors auteurs?” This certainly would begin to weaken the principles of the auteur theory.
The director is a manager, a person who is responsible for coordinating the technical departments of a film into a unified whole to make a product that can be consumed by the viewer as entertainment. While the director certainly places an imprint of a particular style upon the product, the director does not control the complete outcome of the final piece.
Hawks, by his own admission, controls the actors and the dialogue. He depends upon these two parts of the filmmaking process to make the final product consumable. Even with the visually slow Hawksian camera faithfully recording Grant and Russell, “His Girl Friday” is an extraordinarily fast film. This is due to the rapid-fire dialogue. The conventional speed for the film was increased from the normal rate of 90 to a sometimes 240 words per minute. [“Cinema: The New Pictures,” Time, (January 22, 1940), p. 76.] The result is a film that unfolds much faster than the montage editing of Milestone’s original “Front Page.” In fact, the editing in “His Girl Friday” never picks up until a strongly visual incident occurs, such as Earl Williams escape. [Andrew Sarris, Focus on Howard Hawks, p. 48.]
This emphasis upon the actor’s actions and words is significant in understanding what makes “His Girl Friday” work. The camera does not interfere with what is seen or heard, leaving the comic effects of the dialogue to be experienced directly. “Hawks…work[s] within a frame as much as possible, cutting only when a long take or an elaborate track might distract the audience from the issues in the foreground of the action.” [Ibid., p. 64.]
Charles Lederer not only wrote (with Hawks) “His Girl Friday” but earlier contributed to the original film it was based on, Lewis Milestone’s “The Front Page.” Much of the reason for the success of “His Girl Friday” lies in the fact that Lederer was so familiar with a formula that had worked twice before (as a play and a movie). Lederer and Hawks transformed the best aspects of both productions into their own successful product, “His Girl Friday.”
Cary Grant’s hand in this success story is perhaps as integral as either Hawks’s or Lederer’s contributions. Grant’s talent lies in the mannerisms which he projects into the character of Walter Burns. Pauline Kael’s dissection of Grant’s talent is significant here:
He became Cary Grant when he learned to project his feelings of absurdity through his characters and to make a style out of feeling silly. Once he realized that each movement could be stylized for humor, the eyepopping, the cocked head, the forced lunge, and the slightly ungainly stride became as certain as the pen strokes of a master cartoonist. The new element of romantic slapstick in the mid-thirties comedies – the teasing role reversals and shifts of mood – loosened him up and brought him to life. At last, he could do on the screen what he had been trained to do, and a rambunctious, spring side of his nature came out. Less “Continental” and more physical, he became funny and at the same time sexy. He was no longer effete; the booming voice had vitality. [Pauline Kael, “Profiles: The Man From Dream City.” The New Yorker, (July 14, 1975) p. 42.]
Grant obviously loves the comedy of monomaniac egotism: Walter Burns’s callousness and unscrupulousness are expressed in some of the best farce lines ever written in this country, and Grant hits those lines with a smack …. He snorts and whoops. His Walter Burns is a strong-arm performance, defiantly self-centered and funny. [Ibid., p. 56.]
Kael also points out another gag:
As the editor in “His Girl Friday,” when Grant is threatened with prison by the major and the sheriff, he stammers out, “The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.” [Ibid., p. 56.]
Archie Leach is Cary Grant’s real name.
Compared with other verbal comedies such as those made with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, etc., “His Girl Friday” is a much more sophisticated form of comedy. Along with tinges of melodrama and strict attention to plot, “His Girl Friday” offers much more for the viewing. It is as if “His Girl Friday” is a documentary recording of a freakish newspaper event, preserved in the annals of time. With its constant barrage of words, it is a continuous tour-de-force of comic absurdities. It is a true masterpiece of film comedy.
Howard Hawks Filmography
Charles Lederer Filmography
Cary Grant Filmography
Rosalind Russell Filmography
Ralph Bellamy Filmography
Bogdonavich, Peter. The Cinema of Howard Hawks. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962. 38 pp.
McBride, Joseph, ed. Focus on Howard Hawks. New Jersey: Prentice – Hall, 1972. 178 pp.
Wood, Robin. Howard Hawks. New York, Doubleday and Company, 1968. 200 pp.
“Do I Get to Play the Drunk This Time? An Encounter with Howard Hawks.” Sight and Sound 40:2 (Spring, 1971) pp. 97 – 100.
Kochman, Stanley, ed. A Library of Film Criticism: American Film Directors. New York: Frederich Ungas Publishing Company, 1974, pp. 159 – 170.
Cameron, Ian, ed. Movie Reader. New York, Praeger, 1972.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directions and Directors, 1929 – 1968. New York, Dutton, 1968.
Sarris, Andrew. Interviews with Film Directors. New York: Avon Books, 1967.
Alpert, H. “In the Land of the Blue Teal Eye.” Saturday Review 35 (August 16, 1952), p. 28.
Austen, David. “Gunplay and Horses.” Films and Filmmaking. 15:1 (October, 1968), pp. 25 – 27.
Belton, J. “Hawks and Company.” Cinema. 9, p. 19.
Bogdonavich, Peter. “Interview with Howard Hawks.” Movie. 5 (December, 1962), pp. 8 – 18.
Brackett, Leigh. “A Comment on the Hawksian Woman.” Take One. 3:6 (July – August, 1971), pp. 19 – 20.
Brode, Douglas. “Reflections on the Traditions of the Movie Western.” Cineaste. 2:2 (Fall, 1968), pp. 2 – 6.
Crichton, K. “Flying Hawks: Director Howard Hawks Makes His Greatest Movie, Air Force.” Colliers. 111 (January 16, 1943), p. 36.
Davis, P. “Bogart, Hawks and The Big Sleep Revisited – Frequently.” Film Journal. 1:2 (Summer, 1971), p. 3.
Dienstfrey, Harris. “Hitch Your Genre to a Star.” Film Culture. 34 (Fall, 1964), pp. 35 -37.
Discussion of Hawks by various writers / Filmography. Movie 5 (December, 1962), p. 21.
Dyer, Peter John. “Sling the Lamps Low.” Sight and Sound. 31:3 (Summer, 1962), pp. 134 – 139, 155.
Ford, G. “Mostly on Rio Lobo.” Film Heritage. 7:1 (Fall, 1971), p. 1.
Houseman, John. “Today’s Hero: A Review.” Hollywood Quarterly. 2:2 (January, 1947), pp 161 – 163.
“Howard Hawks.” Movie. 5 (December, 1962), p. 7.
Kasindorf, M. “The Hawk.” Newsweek. 77 (February 8, 1971), p. 95.
“Man’s Favorite Director, Howard Hawks.” Cinema. 1:6 (November / December, 1963), pp. 10 – 12, 31 – 32.
“Men Behind Megaphones.” Cue. 4:15 (February 8, 1936), p. 3.
“Movie Discoverer’s Latest Find.” Life. 45 (November 17, 1958), p. 163.
Peary, G. and Groark, S. “Hawks at Warner Brothers: 1932.” Velvet Light Trap. 1 (June, 1971), p. 12.
Perkins, V.F. “Comedies.” Movie. 5 (December, 1962) , pp. 21 – 22.
Rivette, Jacques. “Rivette on Hawks.” Movie. 5 (December, 1962), pp. 19 – 20.
Rivette, Jacques and Truffaut, Francois. “Howard Hawks.” Films in Review. 7:9 (November, 1956) pp. 443 – 452.
Sarris, Andrew. “The World of Howard Hawks.” Films and Filmmaking. 8:10 (July, 1962), pp. 20 – 23, 8:11 (August, 1962), pp. 44 – 48.
Wellman, Jr., W. “Howard Hawks: The Distance Runner.” Action. 5:6 (November / December, 1970), p. 8.
Wise, Naomi. “The Hawksian Woman.” Take One. 3:3 (January / February, 1971), pp. 17 – 19.
“Work of Howard Hawks.” Literary Digest. 121 (February 15, 1936), p. 24.
Wood, Robin. “Who the Hell is Howard Hawks?” Focus. (1967), p. 8.
Deschner, Donald. The Films of Cary Grant. New York: Citadel Press, 1971. 256 pp.
Govini, Albert. Cary Grant. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1971.
Grant, Cary. “What It Means to be a Star.” Films and Filmmaking. 7:10 (July, 1961), pp. 12 – 13, 42.
Kael, Pauline. “Profiles: The Man from Dream City.” The New Yorker, (July 14, 1975), pp. 40 – 68.
Rossman, Robert. “Cary Grant.” Films in Review. 12:10 (December, 1970), pp. 577 – 598.
Ringgold, Gene. “Rosalind Russell.” Films in Review. 21:10 (December, 1970), pp. 585 – 610.
Conrad, Derek. Films and Filmmaking (May, 1959), p 23.