The Asheville Film Society kicks off its “Big Screen Budget Classics” series with the comedy His Girl Friday (1940). The series—which is planned to take place once a month—presents classic films on the actual big screen. If you’ve never seen His Girl Friday, this is definitely one of the greats from the “golden age” of movies—and it’s a film that still holds the record for the fastest dialogue in the history of movies. That crackling, witty banter is delivered by people who know exactly how to do it—especially Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who were never better than they are here. And if you’re familiar with either performer in their prime, you’ll know what a statement that is.
The film is Howard Hawks’ “switcheroo” version of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page. Hawks’ inspiration—supposedly born of reading the first draft of the screenplay aloud with his girlfriend—was to change the character of ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from a man to a woman. (It wasn’t much of a stretch, because the relationship between the two leads was always a kind of romance.) That in turn led to making her boss, managing editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), her ex-husband. This greatly upped the stakes of Walter’s desire to keep his best reporter from quitting and getting married. Charles Lederer’s screenplay seamlessly adds a backstory (about 25 minutes of original material)—good enough to match the original play—to set up the central action and establish the couple’s comedically volatile romance. The results are comedy gold.
The film is a refreshing oddity because it’s a blend of plain screwball comedy, sociopolitical commentary and romantic comedy. But in that last capacity, it’s perhaps unique. It’s the only romantic comedy I can think of that doesn’t feature a single kiss. This is probably because the film moves too fast to pause for such things, but it’s also very much in keeping with Hawks’ usual style of romance as more camaraderie than anything else.
The serious side of the film involves a crooked political machine that’s out to hang a poor, crazy schlub named Earl Williams (John Qualen) in order to win an election. The tension comes from Walter conning Hildy into doing “one last job” for the paper by interviewing Williams and proving that he’s insane. That this also affords him the chance of preventing her from marrying drippy insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy at his Ralph Bellamy-est) in the bargain is a plus in his mind. Then again, there’s a clear sense that Walter also just loves being a cynical manipulating wiseguy.
Fast, funny, cynical and—in its own peculiar way—romantic, His Girl Friday is one of the all-time great movies. It’s one of those movies that just gets better as the years roll by, no matter how many times you see it.
His Girl Friday plays for one show only at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14. Admission is $5 for AFS members, $7 for general public.