His Girl Friday (1940) – 80th Anniversary Re:View

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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Had Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” come out today, it would not be considered a comedy film. The film is too much along the lines of a romantic crime drama to be considered a comedy film. The goofiness and spasmodic humor of comedies in the modern era is not present in “His Girl Friday”. Hawks’ film makes these modern comedy films look more like stand up specials, rather than actual stories.

“His Girl Friday” is about the race against time to save a convicted man from capital punishment. However, the beginning of the film also establishes the film as a romantic drama. Walter Burns is a hard-working newsprint editor. His ex-wife and former journalist Hildy Johnson comes his office and tells him that she is getting remarried. He is in denial. At the same time, he is also trying to convince her to write a piece defending the convicted man Earl Williams. As Earl’s case develops, so does the relationship between Walter and Hildegard.

The film mashes together many different genres in a healthy postmodern mix. Moving at breakneck speed, it blasts past thriller territory and become a screwball comedy. The humor extracted from the film is not mindless one-liners or pop culture references. Rather, the humor is secondary and comes from within the context of the drama of the scene. Hawks consistently asks himself “Walter is struggling to keep his marriage together while managing this case. How can I get a joke out of this?”

Every scene is incredibly economical and effective, with the humor coming from the general confusion of the scene. Hawks had to reshoot many scenes because so many characters were required to constantly interrupt each other. The camera also pans around with this chaos, recreating the movement of a human head in such a confusing environment, As scenes get more messy and discombobulated, humor is invented in an ingenious way.

Through all this, “His Girl Friday” also functions as an effective crime thriller film. Every scene is rising in intensity and disorientation, but the delivery of the dialogue strikes a rhythm similar to Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network”. The film respects its audiences intelligence, and doesn’t waste time explaining things more than once. Every line of dialogue adds to the story.

“His Girl Friday” also articulates timeless themes of how journalism and media favors sensation over accuracy. In a scene when Walter is reading Hildy’s article, key information critical to the report is written in the second paragraph. He asks her where it is in the report. She says the second paragraph. He responds with “who reads the second paragraph?”. In many ways, this is even more relevant to today than ever, as modern media is designed for clicks, rather than in depth reading.

“His Girl Friday” is often considered a classic screwball comedy masterpiece. However, upon further review of the film, not only is this correct, but it is also a great thriller, drama, romance, murder mystery, and newsprint film. The film has its own unique tone and delivery, having created accuracy at striking many different genres.

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