High Sierra: When the bad guy is the good guy

I recently finished reading Stefan Kanfer’s Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. (The title is from something Raymond Chandler said of Bogart.) So of course, I’m back to watching Bogart movies, at least for the time being.

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20 Movies: His Girl Friday (1940)

I’ve always liked Howard Hawks and this movie, His Girl Friday, is one of my favourites from his long list of films. Apart from being a famously funny movie, it’s known for the incredibly rapid fire dialogue between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

His Girl Friday (1940)
directed by Howard Hawks

It occurs to me that the best movies are one of two types. They are visually compelling, like the recent Hero, where there almost seems to be no need for dialogue. The images communicate almost everything.

Or, the movie relies heavily on great dialogue, the kind that is fun to hear and is engaging, and reveals everything about the characters.

A movie like 1995’s Get Shorty is a good example.

An older and better example, from 1940, is His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s correctly considered a classic with its rapid fire dialogue and frenetic pace.

Based on the play The Front Page, director Hawks had his screenwriter Charles Lederer make some changes. The biggest change was to make one of the two main characters, Hildy Johnson, a woman (played by Russell) – the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns (Grant).

This created an added dimension to the dynamic of two newspaper people – one wanting to leave the business (Johnson) and the other trying to get her to stay.

It was no longer just a struggle between editor and reporter; it was a battle of the sexes, which Hawks loved putting on film.

Hildy is not only leaving the newspaper business; she’s engaged to be married the next day to her new beau, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a rather dull insurance guy. He’s the complete opposite of Grant’s flamboyant (and not to be trusted) Walter.

And Walter is determined to get Hildy back – both as his wife and as his reporter. He determines to do this by appealing to the journalist in her. Through guile and deceit, he’s going to try to hook her like a fish and reel her in. Fortunately for him, there is an execution scheduled at the prison of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen) who, Walter casually mentions to Hildy, may be innocent.

Being based on a play, His Girl Friday only has about three sets and, with the exception of the opening which uses a moving camera, most shots are static, the scenes occurring in sets where characters enter and leave like a train station platform.

But given the simplicity of the sets and the static nature of the cameras, it’s really quite amazing how fast everything is and how much energy is generated.

What’s marvellous about watching the give and take between Grant and Russell, apart from the speed, the quick witted lines and great, comic takes (particularly by Grant) is how, as we see them battle, we also see how clearly they are suited for each other and meant to be together.

Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce never has a chance.

65 years later, His Girl Friday still stands up. It’s as fast and funny today as it was then.

And with the world of recent comedies, it’s something of a relief to see characters who are smart and a film that can make us laugh without dropping its pants.

(This review was written around 2002-2003.)

See: 20 Movies – The List