"Screwball: Slang, eccentric or whimsically eccentric." --"Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language"
"...funny dialogue often pitched at a relentless pace and polished to a highly sophisticated sheen.... The screwball comedy exhibited an irreverent approach to life-and-death situations, a distinctly American trademark." -- Baseline's "Encyclopedia of Film"
Perhaps an even better definition of screwball comedy would be Howard Hawks's 1940 classic, "His Girl Friday." Based on the hit stage play, "The Front Page" (1928), by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the movie puts Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell into a whirlwind of words in often overlapping dialogue. The story concerns everybody's idea of stereotypical newspaper people and their stereotypical daily lives; indeed, the play itself probably started the stereotypes. "His Girl Friday" was the play's second film adaptation, the first being in 1931, "The Front Page," with Adophe Menjou and Pat O'Brien; then it was made again in 1974 with Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau; and still later it turned up as "Switching Channels" (1988) with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. So, it's been around in various guises through the years, its popularity never seeming to wane.
Originally written with two male leads in mind--a hard-nosed city editor, Walter Burns, and his ace reporter, Hildy Johnson--director Hawks brilliantly changed the gender of the reporter (Russell) and made her the divorced ex-spouse of the editor (Grant). Hawks is said to have gotten the idea while reading the editor's role at a dinner party with a female guest standing in for the reporter. He liked the idea of the gender switch so much he asked screenwriter Charles Lederer to rewrite the script to include the new, squabbling divorced-couple angle. In its present form, the story works equally well as a newspaper farce and as a domestic comedy.
Grant plays Burns, the city editor, in typically flamboyant Grant comedic style. Was there ever so graceful an actor as Grant, barring perhaps Fred Astaire? It's probably a result of Grant's early work breaking into show business as part of an acrobatic troupe. Anyway, he prances, mugs, arches his eyebrows, and does those inimitable double takes and dramatic pauses that came to be his trademark mannerisms. They're not so pronounced here as they would be in a few more years, say in "Arsenic and Old Lace" where they were exaggerated to manic perfection, but they're enough to endear him to us. His Walter Burns is exasperatingly smug, cynical, quick-witted, and hopelessly still in love with his ex-wife, Hildy.
When she returns to the city room to tell him she's engaged to be married again--the next day, in fact--he's got to think fast to get her back. Knowing her love for the newspaper business, he tries to lure her to return by telling her a convicted murderer named Earl Williams (John Qualen), who is about to be hanged the next morning, may actually be innocent. It's too much for Hildy to resist, marriage or no marriage. Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson has too much of the reporter in her not to want to interview the murderer and find out things for herself. Russell's portrayal is just as sharp as Grant's but less flashy. She knows every minute what her ex is up to, matching him quip for quip, but she still can't help herself. Then, when the prisoner makes an escape and winds up practically in her lap, well, what can she do but follow the story to its end?
Hawks appears to have rounded up virtually every character actor in Hollywood for the supporting cast. Ralph Bellamy plays Bruce Baldwin, Hildy's earnest but boring insurance-agent fiancee. He's the exact opposite of Grant's erratic character; Baldwin is so rock-solid and dependable, we can see in a flash who Hildy's going to wind up with. She'd go nuts in a week living with Mr. Perfect. Gene Lockhart is Sheriff Hartwell, a toady of the corrupt Mayor, played by Clarence Kolb. Helen Mack is Mollie Malloy, a local lady of dubious reputation who befriends the accused murderer.
Then there is a bevy of familiar character actors playing the various reporters and bystanders in the plot: Porter Hall as Murphy; Ernest Truex as Roy Bensinger; Cliff Edwards as Endicott; Roscoe Karns as McCue; Frank Jenks as Wilson; Regis Toomey as Sanders; Abner Biberman as Diamond Louie; Frank Orth as Duffy; Alma Kruger as Mrs. Baldwin; and Billy Gilbert as Joe Pettibone. You may not recognize all the names, but if you've ever watched old movies at all, you'll recognize the faces. About the only colorful Hollywood supporting actors Hawks left out were Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason, and Edward Brophy.
The movie remains rather stage-bound throughout, never straying far from two or three locales. The city room of the newspaper office is the first major setting, and it's here that Grant and Russell have one of their best exchanges of sprightly dialogue, followed by the hilarious introduction of the fiancee.
The bulk of the action, though, takes place in the press room of the city jail, overlooking the gallows courtyard where the hanging is shortly to take place. People pop in and out of this room so fast it's like some of that time-lapse photography you see on the Nature Channel. The settings may be static, but the pace is often so frenetic it makes you forget the plot's physical limitations.
The standard-screen, black-and-white image may also be limited, but it's of far better picture quality than any previous copy of this film I've seen. The booklet insert notes that the print "was restored by Sony Pictures Entertainment in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archives from the original 35mm nitrate negative stored at the Library of Congress." Unlike some digital restorations, however, "His Girl Friday" seems merely a good, clean transfer of a good, clean print. There are no age lines, scratches, flecks, or specks to speak of, and no appreciable fading of the picture. On the other hand, the black-and-white contrasts are not strikingly represented, the gradations of shading not particularly intense, and the definition not particularly sharp edged. It's more than adequate to watch, but one does not find oneself overly admiring it, either. I suspect it's as good as it was first made, no more.
Likewise, the monaural sound quality is fully up to the job without ever calling attention to itself. The audio's major virtue is being quiet and allowing the dialogue to be distinctly heard and understood.
Among the bonus items Columbia TriStar include is a full-feature audio commentary by film critic and author Todd McCarthy, and from the few minutes I listened it seemed to be filled with interesting historical tidbits. There are also brief featurettes on Grant, Russell, Hawks, and "The Front Page," each of them lasting about three or four minutes. Vintage advertising is always a kick, and a few talent files are thrown in for those people who need to know more about the stars and director. There are twenty-eight scene selections, a short booklet essay, and several theatrical trailers. English and Spanish are provided as spoken languages, with English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai as subtitles.
"His Girl Friday," with its emphasis on clever dialogue and snappy repartee, has hardly lost a step in over six decades. It's as funny now as when I first saw it on TV as a kid in the fifties. It may not be everyone's favorite comedy, but it will keep you awake for more than a few sittings. You could do worse than yesteryear's Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Today we have Adam Sandler and Pauly Shore.