Cary Grant is in top form as the charmingly despicable Walter Burns, a newspaper man who will do anything for a story and the chance to keep his best journalist and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from leaving the paper. A classic 1940s screwball comedy, His Girl Friday has plenty of sharp-tongued dialogue and a plot full of turns and wacky happenstance up until the very end. While it is a very fun film carried by charming performances by Grant and Russell, their characters often seem to act only out of self-interest, which prevents them from being completely lovable. It lacks the honesty and pathos present in a film like It Happened One Night (1934), a very similar and much better screwball comedy from Hollywood’s golden era.
“Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.” – Hildy
Hildy tells Walter she is leaving the paper and moving to Albany with her new fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), an insurance man who can give her the life Walter never could. Walter proceeds to throw out all the stops to get her to stay and write one more story for the paper — he delays her train, has Bruce draw up an insurance policy for him, and then gets Bruce arrested. The story he has for her is the coverage of the upcoming execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen), which he says only she can write because it “needs a woman’s touch”. She agrees to write one final story before leaving for Albany, but when Williams escapes and the story becomes front page news, Hildy is drawn back into the thrill of her job and cannot resist seeing it out until the end.
Walter tells the paper to take everything off the front page, including the “European War” in order to make room for the escaped convict story (“take Hitler and stick him on the funny page”). Maybe not the best idea to make fun of Hitler looking back in hindsight, but it is an interesting look at how Hollywood cinema addressed the war before December 7, 1941. There is also a political subplot involving the mayor, the sheriff, and the governor wanting different outcomes in the execution of Earl Williams in order to get reelected, which might have been a commentary on the fight for control between Democrats and Republicans and the influence of the newspaper in politics during the time, but it doesn’t hold up and is a quite uninteresting subplot.
It is a classic film that is a lot of fun and briskly paced, coming in right around 90 minutes, but it’s also a bit overrated. The ending leaves much to be desired as it feels abrupt and poorly resolved. While better than most of the many Hollywood comedies of the time that were often quickly churned out in its factory system to make a quick profit, His Girl Friday still feels like it could have ironed out a few kinks and spent a bit more time trying to come up with a more satisfying ending.