This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Witty banter gets a bad rap. No, people don’t talk in real life like they do in Aaron Sorkin films. No, moms and daughters don’t exchange witticisms at lightning speed like Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel did on Gilmore Girls. But when good writing is put in the hands of performers possessed of perfect comedic timing, witty banter can provide delicious escapist fantasy. We have the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s to thank for this style.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to these films for the way they challenged the gender norms of their day. Screwballs usually featured a woman in a man’s world challenging the established roles, putting that man (or men) on his heels. Picture Barbara Stanwyck toying with poor Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, or Claudette Colbert using her wiles to flag a ride after Clark Gable’s mansplained tutorial in hitchhiking fails miserably. These movies inevitably ended in simplified heteronormative romantic relationships between the leads, but this happened only after equality and firm footing were established for both parties. The leveling of gender roles and power in these films flew in the face of societal standards of the day, and must have provided quite a pressure release for women (and men) laboring under mid-century America’s restrictive household codes.
In this writer’s humble opinion, no film better reflects and executes the characteristics of the screwball genre than His Girl Friday (1940). Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant as newspaper editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as reporter Hildy Johnson, the film centers around the scheduled execution of an inmate who killed a cop. The sympathies of the film lie with this inmate, who was not in his right mind at the time of the shooting. Walter Burns is the scrupleless editor of a major newspaper, and Hildy used to be his star reporter. Also, incidentally, she used to be his wife. She left him and is now planning on retiring from the newspaper business to settle down with her soon-to-be new husband. She stops by Walter’s office to give him the news, and he sees a chance to get her back on his writing team to cover the execution story (and, it is implied, back in his bed). She tentatively agrees to write this one last story. Hijinks ensue.
The dialogue in His Girl Friday is devilishly quick, and more than a few Code-bending comments sneak through largely due to the speed of their delivery. People don’t talk like this. Executions aren’t funny. Neither is political corruption, which also plays in the story. None of this matters in the least. The movie is one of the most delightful and hilarious comedy films ever made.
Walter does his best to control Hildy, and there are ways in which he could be said to “win” in his stated goals. But Hildy makes her decisions on her own terms, and the screwball mandate of a strong central female character is fulfilled in spades by Rosalind Russell. In The Front Page, the original play the film was based on, Hildy was a man. The all-star writing team of Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur changed the role to a woman, and made sure she was written to be more than a match for Grant’s charming but wicked Walter Burns. And boy does Russell take care of delivering her lines.
We’ll be screening His Girl Friday on Thursday, June 25, at 7:00 p.m. at part of our Third Floor Film Series. As always, candy, popcorn, and pop will be available for no charge, and I’ll be leading a brief discussion after the film. Makes plans to attend this hilarious film and laugh along with your fellow cinephiles. You won’t regret it.