Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of Spotlight, we throw a spotlight on some of our favorite films about journalism.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Some of the best movies about journalism punch up the workaday reporting process into ticking-clock deadline thrillers. His Girl Friday moves and talks so fast that it zooms past thriller into screwball comedy, despite its central story involving the race to save a convicted man from the gallows. The film was adapted from the newspaper play The Front Page (also subject of a 1931 film adaptation with the same name), with a notable and legacy-cementing change: The role of Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter who wants to get out of the journalism game, was gender-swapped and eventually assigned to Rosalind Russell. The play’s Hildy is also a reporter whose editor schemes to keep her from leaving the beat, but the gender change turned His Girl Friday into a turbo-charged romantic comedy.
The movie opens with Hildy marching into the offices of the Morning Post to inform her ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that he’s about to become her ex-editor, too. She plans to decamp for the domestic horrors of Albany with her milquetoast fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, perfectly cast as a man who looks just like Ralph Bellamy), and Walter has to act fast to lure her back into the fold. He cajoles and bribes her into covering the story of the convict about to be hanged the next morning, and while Hildy and poor Bruce are subject to plenty of rascally Cary Grant-style manipulations, the movie is clear about Hildy’s reporting bona fides; she’s seduced by the lightning-paced world of last-minute scoops more than her equally fast and furious banter with Walter.
That overlapping rat-a-tat banter, with the actors striking each word like a key on a typewriter, drives their relationship, but His Girl Friday actually keeps Hildy and Walter apart for a large chunk of its midsection. For some romantic comedies, this might be fatal; here, it’s crucial to the movie’s equality, providing ample opportunity for Russell (who supposedly hired her own punch-up writer to make sure Grant didn’t get all the best lines) to shine on her own. This includes a breathtaking moment where she conducts two urgent phone conversations at once. She may be nominally torn between two men, but neither of those men actually share the screen with her as she juggles them. Hildy sometimes gets angry at Walter’s manipulations, but Russell never appears stymied by them.
This unflappable, unflagging energy makes His Girl Friday one of the snappiest and most purely enjoyable rom-coms ever made. It’s also a swell screwball tribute to the journalism profession, depicted as a job noble and exciting enough to get a woman in 1940 to choose her career over domestic bliss.
Availability: His Girl Friday fell into the public domain about 30 years after its release, which means there are plenty of DVD copies floating around, some of them subpar. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.