Glasgow Comedy Festival

Ryan McNab: HIS GIRL FRIDAY & Screwball Comedies

The notion of a ‘screwball’ is derived from baseball and was coined around 1934; a screwball was thrown fast and with a twist, in order to confuse the batter. 


During the climate of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Hollywood began to see itself as responsible for helping to shape the national morale. Rather than scaling down productions, the films produced during this decade increasingly saw more sophisticated sets, costumes, and more glamorous stars.  


One of the most dynamic and exciting things to come out of this period in cinema history was the subgenre of the screwball comedy. Characterised by its traits of rapid dialogue coupled with giddy and unpredictable protagonists, the screwball comedy is today remembered for its high-energy lunacy and scripts overflowing with superbly crafted wordplay. Frequently, its plots were structured around inversion. For example, in My Man Godfrey and Easy Living, the upper classes become fodder to be laughed at; whilst Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire see their meek and professorial protagonists embrace fun through the lead of their zany and streetwise female companions.  


One of the most striking features of the screwball comedy is its foregrounding of comically antagonistic relationships. As distinct from the romantic comedy and the sex comedy that would emerge in the 1950s with such films as Pillow Talk and The Seven Year Itch, the screwball comedy portrayed love as a battleground in which a propensity for insults and aggression is seen as a necessity to sustain romantic attachment. This kind of clashing within romance became shorthand for writers and directors to suggest a kind of passionate sexuality whose depiction on-screen was disallowed by the censorship board. Certainly, this energy of hostility and frustration is no more obviously visible than in Howard Hawks’ 1940 journalism send-up, His Girl Friday.


Starring a veteran of the screwball comedy, Cary Grant plays manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns, recently divorced from his former star reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). Having reached breaking point with the world of dingy pressrooms and franticly-tight deadlines, Hildy has decided to pack it all in and move to small town Albany with new fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). It’s from here that the plot unfolds, with Walter doing his utmost to prevent his former-wife from leaving him, and journalism, for good. Unlike a lot of screwballs, the film has a surprisingly dark undertone, with its plot pivoting around the potential execution of an innocent man. Whilst continuing in much of the tonality and style of previous screwballs, its clear that Hawks’ film belongs to a new decade; with WW2 looming, there is a certain cynicism to His Girl Friday that isn’t evident in a lot of the genre’s earlier films.


Based on the hit Broadway play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Hawks’ film made a major revision to its source material by switching the gender of one of its two central characters. Legend has it that Hawks was inspired to rewrite the part of Hildy Johnson for an actress when he had his secretary read lines with an actor auditioning for the part of Walter Burns. Hawks liked the sound of the play’s fast paced, witty rebuttals coming from a female and so switched Hildy into being a female character and added to the plot the central crux of main characters’ marriage and divorce. Subsequent versions have been made with the roles as originally intended for two male actors, and yet they haven’t quite been able to achieve the same energy and intellect as when portrayed by Rosalind Russell.  


Despite now being recognized as delivering one of the most perfectly comically astute performances in cinema history, Russell wasn’t Hawks’ first choice for the role. It was only after having been offered to and rejected by the long-list of Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, and Claudette Colbert, that Russell was even considered. Once the part was eventually hers, it was apparent to her that she was only there by default, and she and Hawks enjoyed a frosty relationship on set. 


One of the most distinctive and groundbreaking aspects of the film was the way in which characters frequently cut across each other in the delivery of their dialogue. This process of overlapping speech in film was virtually unknown, the trend being for each actor to wait until the previous line was completed. Hawks encouraged Grant and Russell to improvise on set, and much of the films frenetic pace is in part brought about through their adlibbing. Having realized that much of the script’s zingers and best lines went to Grant’s character, Russell hired an advertising executive to help pad out her character’s dialogue with some meaty one-liners and putdowns. It was only Grant who caught on to Russell’s preplanned ‘improvisations’ and began to greet her on set each day with the line “What have you got today?” Thankfully, Russell’s foresight meant that she was able to create a character that not only dominates the film, but also works as a brilliantly sharp and dynamic image of a proto-feminist career woman.


The role of women in society is one of the film’s most pressing concerns, with much of Hildy’s internal divisions and anxieties about her future deriving from her belief that she needs to be more of a ‘woman’ by becoming a housewife and raising a family. Throughout the course of the day however, it becomes clear to Hildy that her place in the world is not a domestic one, and that life, as she puts it, ‘as a newspaperman’ is ultimately her true path. True, His Girl Friday is an example of a comedy of remarriage, but it is distinct in its assertion that for Hildy Johnson, love and a career don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  


Come down to the Govanhill Baths this Saturday afternoon (12th March)  to see His Girl Friday screened alongside the Marx Brothers’ fantastically zany Duck Soup, and witness for yourself this hilarious and infectious screwball comedy.  



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