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EMPIRE ESSAY: His Girl Friday Review

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A newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying.

★★★★★

The normal rate of dialogue delivery in a movie has been estimated at 90 words per minute. In His Girl Friday, the exquisite verbal sparring between Gary Grant and Rosalind Russell has been clocked at 240 wpm. To coin a sporting analogy, that's like Patrick Rafter and Andre Agassi playing a rally so fast the crowd can't even see the ball. This isn't merely snappy, it's hypersonic. People can get hurt talking that fast. "He looks like that actor fellah," says Grant at one point, describing his ex-wife's fiance. "Ralph Bellamy!" The cast is three pages down the line before you remember that Ralph Bellamy plays Grant's ex-wife's fiance.

The movie is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Broadway hit The Front Page, first filmed by Lewis Milestone in 1931 and later, with a surprising dearth of charm, by Billy Wilder in 1974. It opens in the newsroom of The Chicago Morning Post where Hildy Johnson, star reporter and ex-wife of editor-in-chief Walter Burns (Grant), has dropped by to deliver a message. Burns is involved in a frenetic telephone conversation. He, we learn, in a matter seconds, is a man who is used to getting his own way. Right now he is not getting it. The Post has been campaigning for the reprieve of convicted murderer Earl Williams and it's obvious that the Governor is refusing to play ball. Williams is due to hang the following day.

Enter Hildy with more bad news. Tomorrow she's getting married to mild mannered insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy) and is giving up the newspaper business for good. On the spot Burns launches into a campaign of breathtaking off-the-cuff audacity to get the woman he loves back into his life and back on the company payroll. In this scene and the one that follows it (the famous restaurant scene) Grant is unstoppable, a whirlwind conglomeration of every great role he ever played. It's hard to imagine an actress other than Russell who would not have been blown clear off the screen.

Hildy has left Bruce stranded on the wrong side of the newsroom's No Admittance rail telling him she'll be "back in ten minutes." But as soon as she crosses that boundary we know she's back where she belongs. And from the opening burst of rapid-fire repartee with Burns, it's abundantly clear that she will never get on the train with poor plodding Bruce. She puts up a good fight though, proving herself the only worthy adversary in Burns' orbit. But it's all foreplay. Walter deploys every ounce of steamroller charm at his disposal, manipulating the situation with the lightning fast cunning of a born shyster. Baiting the hook with the Williams case (he knows deep down she's got ink in her veins) and running rings round the hapless Bruce he gradually reels Hildy in.

Hawks was a great admirer of Hecht and MacArthur's play (Hecht collaborated with Hawks many times), and of Milestone's film. It was Hawks, not writer Charles Lederer who came up with the idea of making Hildy Johnson a woman. In the original the character is a man. He left the backbone of the plot intact (Walter Burns' scheme to keep his reporter on the team, while orchestrating the release of a wrongly accused murderer), but with his unfailing eye for character, Hawks put a dazzlingly fresh shine on the old chestnut. It is the knockdown drag-out romance that sprinkles His Girl Friday with magic.

Grant and Russell dominate proceedings to such an extent, however, it appears as if Hawks could hardly be bothered with anything else. Not renowned for throwing the camera around at the best of times, here he nails it to the studio floor and leaves it running. The sets are overtly stagey too. The newsroom, which should be a tumult of cynical bustle, awash with boot-nosed hacks chomping stogies and barking copy out of the unoccupied corners of their mouths, is determinedly flat and sparsely populated. But by the same token, Hawks' legendarily unobtrusive direction here achieves its apotheosis. Everything in the movie is in thrall to Grant and Russell. The cuts are crisp and decisive and the static camera faithfully documents every spellbinding syllable.

Hawks has been credited with inventing the overlapping dialogue that accentuates the film's dizzying pace. He purloined it from a 1932 Frank Capra movie, American Madness. His spin was to add ancillary words to the beginning and end of sentences so that even though it sounds as if Grant and Russell are jabbering away simultaneously, the gags register on an almost subliminal level.
Ultimately, though, it was Hawks' willingness to sit back and let his lead actors'genius for comic timing carry the day that imbues His Girl Friday with its inexhaustible energy. Sixty years on it still makes When Harry Met Sally look like Waiting For Godot. In mime.

Howard Hawke's finest moment.