Simanaitis Says

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IN 1940 HIS GIRL FRIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY perceived as merely a remake of The Front Page, a 1931 (i.e., pre-Code) screwball comedy: “A bold-faced reprint of what was—and still remains—the maddest newspaper comedy of our times,” wrote Frank S. Nugent of His Girl Friday in The New York Times, January 12, 1940.

However, times and perceptions change. These days, The Front Page is recognized as a worthy addition to the Academy Film Archive in 2016, whereas its “bold-faced reprint” earns greater accolades: “Anchored by stellar performances from Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday is possibly the definitive screwball romantic comedy,” says Rotten Tomatoes.

Yes, it’s a sorta remake of the earlier movie. But plenty of rewrites and a bunch of superbly fast-paced ad-libs make His Girl Friday so much more than this. Here are tidbits gleaned from a variety of sources, including the movie’s online YouTube (it’s in the Public Domain), Turner Classic Movie’s recent viewing, and my usual Internet sleuthing. 

Old (1931) Versus New (1940).  Both are screwball newspaper flicks, but the principal characters are different: The Front Page’s editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) and his star reporter Hildebrand Johnson (Pat O’Brien) are replaced by His Girl Friday’s editor Burns (Cary Grant) and his ex-wife/former star reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell). She has printer’s ink in her blood, yet ready to marry insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and settle down (yawn) as a housewife. 

But is Hildy really ready? 

And Who’s Hildy? Director Howard Hawks did more than change Hildebrand’s gender. His choices for casting her were as madcap as the actual flick.

Carol Lombard proved too costly. Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullivan, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, and Jean Arthur turned Hawks down. Finally Roz Russell, having just finished The Women, agreed to play Hildy, not without some reluctance and nuances.

Grant, Russell, and Bellamy in a publicity photo for His Girl Friday from Wikipedia.

By the way, Grant was a shoo-in for editor Burns from the beginning. 

The Plot(s). As detailed in The Front Page and His Girl Friday, there are plot similarities: a falsely accused murderer who escapes but gets reprieved, a crooked mayor and police chief seeing political profit in his execution and working to keep his reprieve secret. In the midst of this (drama in The Front Page, largely for laughs in His Girl Friday), a bunch of mad-cap reporters compete for news breaks at breakneck pace.

Give Me Rewrite! Quick! And Ad Lib! Indeed, breakneck pace defines this flick’s dialogue. Wikipedia observes, “Although Hawks considered the dialogue of The Front Page to be “the finest modern dialogue that had been written,” more than half of it was replaced with what Hawks believed to be better lines.”

Wikipedia notes, “The average word per minute count of the film is 240 while the average American speech is around 140 words per minute. There are nine scenes with at least four words per second and at least two with more than five words per second. Hawks attached verbal tags before and after specific script lines so the actors would be able to interrupt and talk over each other without making the necessary dialogue incomprehensible.”

Hawks is quoted saying, “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping.”

I’m reminded of Robert Altman continuing this style in the 1970 M*A*S*H.

His Girl Friday can be viewed at YouTube.

Ad-libbing. Wikipedia notes, “Hawks encouraged aggressiveness and unexpectedness in the acting…. In her autobiography Life Is a Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant’s, so she hired her own writer to ‘punch up’ her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her personal, paid writer’s work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying ‘What have you got today?’ ”

One of Grant’s ad-libs was remarking that Hildy’s fiancé Baldwin “looks like that fellow in the movies, you know… Ralph Bellamy.” Another is his referring to the last person to cross him: “Archie Leach” (Grant’s real name). Yet another is calling faux murderer Williams a “Mock Turtle,” a post-Code clean-up of “you God damned turtle,” but also a reference to Grant’s role as the Mock Turtle in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland. 

Newsroom Repartee. One-liners abound with the reporters cracking wise in the courthouse press room. My favorite is almost a throwaway: One of them says, “An old lady just called the detective bureau and claimed Williams is hiding under her piazza.” Another scribe says, “Tell her to stand up.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023  


  1. brosgunter
    February 10, 2023

    Hello Dennis,
    I watched His Girl Friday the other night on Turner. Always delightful. Thanks for filling in the script techniques that Mr. Hawks used. The dialogue is amazing.

    Best Regards,
    John Smith

    • simanaitissays
      February 10, 2023

      Thanks, John, for your kind words. Agreed, the movie is a gem.

  2. Mike Scott
    February 10, 2023

    My pappy edited various big city Gannett and Knight-Ridder papers. Grades four through high school in the ’60s, I recall the incessant teletype machines vomiting dispatches without a hitch, that half the office had a bottle of Gelusil on their desk, and a novel in progress in their lower drawer.

    In the early ’50s, when copy chief at the Providence (RI) Journal, a fellow escaped from a mental hospital and raped a woman. Dad wrote the head “Nut bolts and screws.” It of course never ran, but was up on the newsroom bulletin board for a year or two until he left to become asst. city editor of the Detroit Free Press.

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