The film stars Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson and features Ralph Bellamy as Bruce Baldwin.
The film was #19 on American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Due to a failure to renew the copyright registration, the film entered the public domain in the United States in 1968, but it remains copyrighted in France. The 1928 play it is based on remains under copyright in the United States until 2024.
Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is a hard-boiled editor for The Morning Post who learns his ex-wife and former star reporter, Hildegard "Hildy" Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is about to marry bland insurance man Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and settle down to a quiet life as a wife and mother in Albany, New York. Walter determines to sabotage these plans, enticing the reluctant Hildy to cover one last story, the upcoming execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen).
Walter does everything he can to keep Hildy from leaving, including setting Bruce up so he gets arrested over and over again on trumped-up charges. He even kidnaps Hildy's stern mother-in-law-to-be (Alma Kruger). When Williams escapes from the bumbling sheriff (Gene Lockhart) and practically falls into Hildy's lap, the lure of a big scoop proves too much for her. She is so consumed with writing the story that she hardly notices as Bruce realizes his cause is hopeless and returns to Albany.
The crooked mayor (Clarence Kolb) and sheriff need the publicity from the execution to keep their jobs in an upcoming election, so when a messenger (Billy Gilbert) brings them a reprieve from the governor, they try to bribe the man to go away and return later, when it will be too late. Walter and Hildy find out in time to save Williams from the gallows and they use the information to blackmail the mayor and sheriff into dropping Walter's arrest for kidnapping.
Afterward, Walter offers to remarry Hildy, promising to take her on the honeymoon they never had in Niagara Falls, but then Walter learns that there is a newsworthy strike in Albany, which is on the way to Niagara Falls by train.
His Girl Friday was originally intended to be a straightforward adaptation of The Front Page, with both the editor and reporter being male. But during auditions, a woman, Howard Hawks's secretary, read reporter Hildy Johnson's lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female and the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns. Most of the original dialogue and all of the characters' names were left the same, with the exception of Hildy's fiancé, Bruce Baldwin.
Hawks had great difficulty casting this film. While the choice of Cary Grant was almost instantaneous, the casting of Hildy was a more extended process. At first, Hawks wanted Carole Lombard, whom he had directed in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century, but the cost of hiring Lombard in her new status as a freelancer proved to be far too expensive, and Columbia could not afford her. Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne were offered the role, but turned it down, Dunne because she felt the part was too small and needed to be expanded. Jean Arthur was offered the part, and was suspended by the studio when she refused to take it. Joan Crawford was reportedly also considered.
Hawks then turned to Rosalind Russell. During filming, Russell noticed that Hawks treated her like an also-ran, so she confronted him: "You don't want me, do you? Well, you're stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it."
The film had the working title of The Bigger They Are, and was in production from September 27 to November 21, 1939.
In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her writer's work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, "What have you got today?"
The film is noted for its rapid-fire repartee, using overlapping dialogue to make conversations sound more realistic, with one character speaking before another finishes. Although overlapping dialog is specified and cued in the 1928 play script by Hecht and MacArthur, Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich:
I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping.
To get the effect he wanted, as multi-track sound recording was not yet available at the time, Hawks had the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead microphones on and off as required for the scene, as many as 35 times.
Grant's character describes Bellamy's character by saying "He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know...Ralph Bellamy!" According to Bellamy, the remark was ad libbed by Grant. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn thought it was too cheeky and ordered it removed, but Hawks insisted that it stay. Grant makes several other "inside" remarks in the film. When his character is arrested for a kidnapping, he describes the horrendous fate suffered by the last person who crossed him: Archie Leach (Grant's birth name). Another line that people think is an inside remark is when Earl Williams attempts to get out of the rolltop desk he's been hiding in, Grant says, "Get back in there, you Mock Turtle." The line is a "cleaned-up" version of a line from the stage version of The Front Page ("Get back in there, you God damned turtle!") and Grant also played "The Mock Turtle" in the 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, this line is the same in the 1931 movie of "The Front Page."
His Girl Friday premiered in New York City on January 11, 1940, and went into general American release a week later.
Contemporary reviews from critics were positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote, "Except to add that we've seen 'The Front Page' under its own name and others so often before we've grown a little tired of it, we don't mind conceding 'His Girl Friday' is a bold-faced reprint of what was once—and still remains—the maddest newspaper comedy of our times." Variety wrote, "The trappings are different—even to the extent of making reporter Hildy Johnson a femme—but it is still 'Front Page' and Columbia need not regret it. Charles Leder (sic) has done an excellent screenwriting job on it and producer director Howard Hawks has made a film that can stand alone almost anywhere and grab healthy grosses." Harrison's Reports wrote, "Even though the story and its development will be familiar to those who saw the first version of 'The Front Page,' they will be entertained just the same, for the action is so exciting that it holds one in tense suspense throughout." Film Daily wrote, "Given a snappy pace, a top flight cast, good production and able direction, film has all the necessary qualities for first-rate entertainment for any type of audience." John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that after years of "feeble, wispy, sad imitations" of The Front Page, he found this authentic adaptation of the original to be "as fresh and undated and bright a film as you could want."
In 1993, the Library of Congress selected His Girl Friday for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The film also ranked 19th on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs, a 2000 list of the funniest American comedies.
Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction (1994), has named His Girl Friday as one of his favorite movies.
1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #19
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Romantic Comedy Film
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
Prior to His Girl Friday the play The Front Page had been adapted for the screen once before, in the 1931 Howard Hughes-produced film also called The Front Page with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien in the starring roles. In this first film adaptation of the Broadway play of the same title (written by former Chicago newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), Hildy Johnson was male.
His Girl Friday was dramatized as a radio play on the September 30, 1940 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray and Jack Carson. It was dramatized again on The Screen Guild Theater (March 30, 1941) with Grant and Russell reprising their film roles.
His Girl Friday and the original Hecht and MacArthur play were later adapted into another stage play, His Girl Friday, by playwright John Guare. This was presented at the National Theatre, London, from May to November 2003, with Alex Jennings as Burns and Zoë Wanamaker as Hildy.
The 1974 film The Front Page was based on the His Girl Friday model, with Walter Matthau as Walter Burns, Jack Lemmon as Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson and Susan Sarandon as Hildy's fiancée Peggy Grant.
The 1988 film Switching Channels was loosely based on His Girl Friday, with Burt Reynolds in the Walter Burns role, Kathleen Turner in the Hildy Johnson role, and Christopher Reeve in the role of Bruce.