Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.
Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Nothing at the beginning of Howard Hawks’ glorious screwball comedy His Girl Friday—not even the coat worn by star Rosalind Russell, a sharp confection of mitred stripes as meticulous as an airtight lede—prepares you for what’s coming, and for how much work you’ll have to do to keep pace. But in His Girl Friday, the work is fun. Cary Grant is charmingly manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns, and he’s just about to lose his star reporter, who also happens to be his former wife, Russell’s Hildy Johnson. (The movie’s source material is Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, one of the greatest American plays, retooled by Hawks as a romantic comedy.) Walter wants Hildy back, both as a wife and as an employee, but he’s about to lose her forever to a dutiful but boring suitor played by Ralph Bellamy (who made these roles an art form). So he assigns her an enticing but morally complex story he knows only she can pull off. She rises to the bait, and the two end up living happily ever after—after a fashion. His Girl Friday is crazily blissful to watch, and groundbreaking for the way Hawks orchestrated so many rapid-fire lines. The movie’s dialogue overlaps, boomerangs, skitters between characters like billiard balls—you can almost visualize it as it clacks, clatters and careers through the air. Hawks—who made comedies, gangster films, westerns, and more in a career that spanned more than 40 years—was one of the defining filmmakers of his century, and in this era in particular, he set the bar high. There are few comedies, of any period, more exhilarating than this one.

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