You’ve seen this gif a million times before. You’ve probably USED this gif a million times before.
But do you know where it comes from? Have you ever seen the source material in all its glory? His Girl Friday is one of the most classic of classic films. Released in 1940, based on the play The Front Page, and directed by Howard Hawks, who gave us the original Scarface (1932), To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep, among others, His Girl Friday is an unabashed romp of a movie about love and the newspaper business.
Why is it great? Well, to start with, it stars Cary Grant.
(For real, watching him in this film is so much like watching George Clooney that it’s actually a little eerie. Stop being such a copycat, George Clooney! Jeez.)
It also stars Rosalind Russell, who could get it.
And it stars the news business, which is the one true love of both their characters. Grant plays Walter Burns, the editor of the Morning Post, and Russell plays Hildy Johnson, who is both Walter’s ex-wife AND the best “newspaper man” he’s ever known. Hildy shows up at the Post with her new boring fiancé, Bruce, in tow, and makes her way through the newsroom greeting everyone from the typists to the beat reporters with the sort of jovial-yet-sarcastic banter we’re more used to hearing from Ryan Reynolds. She’s here to tell Walter she’s getting married tomorrow. They’ve been divorced for a while, but this is the thing that finally spurs him into action–he’s got to keep her from marrying another man. How to do it? Does he declare his (clearly unabated) love for her?
Nope. He cons her into thinking there’s a story to report.
There’s an election coming up, and the crooked mayor, along with the idiot sheriff, are planning to hang a murderer in order to drum up votes. Walter thinks the poor sap was temporarily insane and doesn’t deserve to die. His side of the story hasn’t been told, and an ace reporter like Hildy could be the one to tell it so well that the governor will have to issue a reprieve. Does Walter actually care about the story? Well… yeah. But he also pretends all his other reporters are out sick and promises Hildy’s insurance-broker fiancé that he’ll buy a policy if Hildy will do the interview. Hildy is his first priority, but he wants the story too.
Hildy falls for it, while also knowing full well it’s a con–because it is a really good story, and that’s a temptation she can’t resist. Back with all her buddies (who write for the competition) in the courthouse press room, Hildy is right at home. She teases them and scoops them and has them taking bets on how long her new marriage will last, while Walter spends the day sending various seedy characters to frame poor Bruce, who ends up in jail three separate times.
It’s mostly Hildy’s movie, and Russell is a joy to watch, managing to be both a whip-smart, confident career woman and someone who yearns to be a housewife and mother. It’s interesting, in a movie that’s more than 80 years old, to see a woman embody such feminism without anyone batting an eye. Sure, Hildy’s the only female reporter in the room, but every man there accepts that she’s the best. They also think it’s funny that she wants to settle down and stop working, because it’s clear that she’d be miserable as anything other than a journalist. The institutional sexism is there, but so is the understanding that the mold can be broken. The men don’t ask Hildy to get them coffee, they don’t sexualize her, they don’t patronize her, and they don’t even mention her gender as an issue at all. It’s not an issue, in fact, and isn’t that refreshing?
The plot is packed–we see the inner workings of the corrupt city administration and the self-congratulatory stupidity of the state psychologist, we get a prison break and follow the manhunt along with hearing about random bystanders injured or involved, we meet the murderer’s “girlfriend” who’s really just someone who gave him a shoulder to cry on once, we meet Bruce’s overbearing mother (who is entirely justified in her reactions to the situation), spend time hiding a criminal in the press room, and see both Walter and Hildy arrested and handcuffed. All this while following the excellent arc of their romance AND their pursuit of the best front page story for the morning… and it happens in a concise, 90-minute movie. Nothing feels rushed, and thanks to the fast pace of the dialogue, nothing drags. It’s hard to imagine such a feat being accomplished today.
Every film has flaws, though, and old movies often reveal the unhappy truths of our past. In this one it’s that serious topics are treated callously, a way to demonstrate the (in this case literal) gallows humor of the jaded journalists–topics including mental illness, gun violence, and racism. In a script so surprisingly modern in many ways, it’s a bracing reminder of how things were, and how much progress has thankfully been made in at least some of those areas. It makes me wonder how our movies will reveal the inherent biases of today’s society when people watch them 80 years from now. Let’s hope the progress is enormous.
Honestly, I wish anyone made films like this anymore. The pacing is great, the humor is still funny, Grant and Russell have amazing chemistry, and even the political jokes feel current. So by all means, keep using that gif. Just maybe watch the movie it came from, too.