In His Girl Friday (1940), fast-talking New York City newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) will do anything to keep his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), from leaving the paper. But Hildy, who is also Walter’s ex-wife, has other plans: She’s ready to settle down in Albany with goofy insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), and nothing will convince her to stay—until Burns offers her the scoop of a lifetime. Directed by Howard Hawks, His Girl Friday is at once a newsroom drama, a crime story, a romantic comedy, and one of the most beloved screwball comedies of all time. Here are some things you might not have known about the fast-talking classic.
1. IT’S BASED ON A PLAY.
Director Howard Hawks adapted His Girl Friday from the hit Broadway play The Front Page. First produced in 1928, The Front Page—written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—was an instant hit on Broadway, with The New York Times proclaiming it “loud, rapid, coarse, and unfailing entertainment” (though they also noted, with some distaste, that its characters “utter some of the baldest profanity and most slattern jesting that has ever been heard on the public stage”). But Hawks's adaptation of the film wasn't the first; Lewis Milestone directed a big-screen version, also called The Front Page, in 1931. Billy Wilder put his own spin on it in 1974, with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and CBS even turned it into a television series in 1949. The original play has also been re-staged repeatedly both on and off-Broadway, most recently in October 2016, starring Nathan Lane.
2. HOWARD HUGHES PRODUCED THE FIRST FILM ADAPTATION.
His Girl Friday may be the most famous film adaptation of The Front Page, but it was eccentric aviation magnate Howard Hughes who first brought it to the big screen, in 1931. At the time, Hughes was working as a film producer in Hollywood and had recently directed and produced the costly and controversial Hell’s Angels (1930), a WWI film about combat pilots, on which several stunt pilots lost their lives and on which Hughes himself had been seriously injured while performing an airplane stunt. By contrast, The Front Page was a relatively safe film, since it involved no dangerous stunts and was based on an already-popular play. The film was ultimately nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (for Adolphe Menjou, who played Walter Burns).
3. HAWKS DECIDED TO MAKE HILDY A WOMAN AFTER A DINNER PARTY READING.
In the original play, Hildy and Walter were both male reporters, but Hawks had a sudden stroke of inspiration while discussing the play at a dinner party. In an interview, he recalled:
"We were having dinner one night at the house, six or eight people, and we were talking about dialogue. I said that the finest modern dialogue in the world came from Hecht and MacArthur. After dinner we went in, and I had two copies of their play The Front Page. There was a girl there who was pretty good, and I said, "Read the reporter’s part, and I’ll read the editor’s part." And in the middle of it, I said, "My Lord, it’s better with a girl reading it than the way it was!" See, The Front Page was intended as a love affair between two men. I mean, they loved each other. There’s no doubt about it. And it was a lot easier for me to make a love story with a man and a girl and make some better scenes. It required so little change in dialogue that it was just simple."
4. HAWKS WANTED TO MAKE A "FAST" FILM …
Hawks didn’t just want His Girl Friday to be a fast-paced film, he wanted it to be the fastest film. “Everybody said that the original Front Page was the fastest picture that was ever made,” Hawks recalled in an interview. “I said, ‘I’d like to show them that the first picture was not as fast.’”
5. … SO HE WROTE OVERLAPPING DIALOGUE.
In order to speed up the pace of His Girl Friday, Hawks employed two primary strategies: He wrote overlapping dialogue, then had his actors speak faster than they did in real life. The idea was to write dialogue the way people really speak, so that characters cut off the beginnings and ends of each other’s sentences. In the film, Hildy and Walter are constantly talking over each other, interrupting each other, or cutting each other off. Hawks believed that all that fast dialogue would make the film, as a whole, feel faster paced. “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something," the director explained. "So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary.”
6. THE SCREENPLAY WAS 191 PAGES LONG.
All that overlapping dialogue had a major impact on the length of the screenplay. In most screenplays, one page of dialogue translates to approximately one minute of film. But with all of the overlapping and simultaneous dialogue in His Girl Friday, the film ended up at a fast-paced 92 minutes instead of the lengthy 191 minutes the screenplay seemed to dictate.
7. IT’S FULL OF INSIDE JOKES.
Though he worked off of a script, Hawks encouraged his actors to improvise throughout the film. Twice, Cary Grant managed to sneak Hollywood inside jokes into his dialogue. In one scene, Walter makes a passing reference to a man named Archie Leach, saying, “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.” (Archibald Leach was Cary Grant’s birth name.) In another scene, Grant, describing Hildy’s fiancé Bruce Baldwin, says, “He looks like that actor ... Ralph Bellamy!" Bruce was, in fact, played by Ralph Bellamy.
8. ROSALIND RUSSELL HIRED A WRITER TO HELP HER AD LIB.
While ad libbing came naturally to Grant, who got his start in the more improvisational world of vaudeville, Russell sometimes struggled to come up with jokes on the spot. Not to be outdone by her co-star, Russell paid a writer from her brother’s advertising firm $200 a week to write jokes for her. Though she tried to keep her joke writer a secret, and never told Hawks about it, Grant somehow caught on and was said to have teased Russell each morning before shooting began by asking her, “What have you got today?”
9. RALPH BELLAMY AND CARY GRANT PLAYED SIMILAR ROLES IN THE AWFUL TRUTH.
Just three years before His Girl Friday, Grant and Bellamy appeared in the Leo McCarey-directed screwball comedy The Awful Truth, playing nearly identical roles. In His Girl Friday, Grant plays debonair ex-husband Walter, fighting to steal his ex-wife away from her goofy new fiancé, Bruce (Bellamy); similarly, in The Awful Truth, Grant plays debonair soon-to-be ex-husband Jerry, fighting to steal his wife back from her goofy new fiancé Dan (again, Bellamy) before divorce proceedings are finalized.
10. CARY GRANT DONATED HIS SALARY TO THE WAR RELIEF FUND.
Grant didn’t make a penny off of His Girl Friday. Instead, according to biographer Graham McCann, he donated his salary from both His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story, which were both released in 1940, as well as part of his salary from 1944's Arsenic and Old Lace, to the War Relief Fund.
11. THE STORY OF EARL WILLIAMS WAS BASED ON REAL EVENTS.
While hiding a known murderer in a roll-top desk just to ensure an exclusive newspaper scoop might sound like the kind of far-fetched story only the movies could invent, the plot point actually had its roots in real life. The story of murderer Earl Williams and journalist Hildy Johnson was based, in part, on the real life story of journalist Emile Gavreau of the Hartford Courant, who once hid a murderer in his office then published an exclusive story, featuring the murderer’s firsthand account of his own crimes.