It gets better every time I see it.
So, when I watched “His Girl Friday” again over the holidays, I was yet again just bowled over with how awesome it is. Cary Grant’s best performance. Rosalind Russell’s, too. Loved what Ralph Bellamy contributed. Everyone was great, including a wonderful small role played by Billy Gilbert.
Congrats to Howard Hawkes. He was going for the fastest dialogue in any screwball comedy — in any movie, I suppose — and he got it done. The amazing thing is, every word of it worked. His goal was to be faster than the film upon which this one was based, “The Front Page.” He said he did it, and staged joint showings to prove it. A bigger thing he did was make the movie much, much more memorable. I’m not even sure whether I’ve ever seen the 1931 version, but it would have had to be a lot better than the 1974 remake (I can only take so much Walter Matthau) to even get into the same ballpark as “Friday.”
Seriously, how could it possibly have been anywhere near as wonderful with Hildy as a man? Turning him into Rosalind Russell and making her Walter’s ex-wife just added so many levels, it was exponentially better. Makes me not even want to go back and watch the original — so much would be missing.
Now, the personal bit. No, you probably won’t love it as much as I do. But if you don’t love it to some extent, your capacity for appreciating comedy is practically nonexistent.
I love it because I identify with it. Years ago there was a bit of pain — let’s say, guilt — associated with that identification. That’s because so much of the comedy derives from way editor Walter Burns manipulates everyone in his universe in order to get the story. And I wasn’t quite like that, was I, despite the shock of self-recognition? Did I lie to reporters to get them to pursue a story? No. Did I have a couple of crooks — male and female — hanging out in my office to go out and steal wallets or plant counterfeit money on innocents or to entrap them in sexual charges? No. Did I hide escaped killers? No. Or plot to toss out the city government in the coming election? No, at least not from the newsroom (you might make a weak argument that I may have attempted such effects from the editorial board).
But this was caricature, and the inventive — I mean, awful — things Walter did were exaggerated expressions of my never-ending drive to see to it that my reporters got out there and got the story. (Once, in the early 90s, an assistant managing editor called me a “news hound.” I said the newsroom was full of news hounds. She said no, it wasn’t. I was a good bit more obsessed. I think she was trying to manipulate me with flattery. You know how those editors are. You have to watch them.)
And sometimes I felt kind of bad about that. But as the years have passed, most of that has worn away, and I can see the humor in it without kicking myself quite as much.
Maybe that’s why it’s funnier every time I see it. And as awful as the journalists come across (and not just Walter and Hildy, but every occupant of the press room down at the cop shop — note their treatment of poor Mollie), I love the spirit of the enterprise still. So my favorite moment remains the one when Hildy has just torn up the great story Walter had manipulated her into getting and writing — having realized what Walter had done to make her do it — and essentially tells him to go to hell over the phone, and marches out of the press room self-righteously… just before gunfire erupts all over the place because the killer has escaped. So Hildy comes rushing back into the press room, grabs the phone and tells Walter:
Walter?… Hildy. Earl Williams just
escaped from the County Jail. Yep…
yep… yep… don’t worry! I’m on
And hangs up and runs right out to get the scoop! She wastes no time. She starts by chasing the sheriff down the street and physically tackling him.
Oh, scoff all you want to. It was awesome.
Anyway, as I watched, I wondered why this had never made my Top Five All-Time Best Movies list. Oh, it made a Top Ten once, but why hadn’t it broken into the Top Five? Well, it’s complicated. Which of these (from 2006) would I bump?
I decided to do justice by putting it at the top of a subset list, so here are my Top Ten Comedies of All Time:
- His Girl Friday — Yay, it’s at the top of the list! And deserves it.
- Young Frankenstein — Some would choose “Blazing Saddles.” I would not. Have you seen that one in the last few decades? It doesn’t hold up. This does.
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — I was looking at the AFI list of the supposed top 100 funniest movies in American cinema, and at No. 79 they had “The Freshman,” from 1925. Which I’ve never seen, but I did see “The Freshman” from 1990, and it was awesome. I mean, come on, Brando playing a guy who just happens to look like the Godfather? Still, it was not star Matthew Broderick’s best. Ferris was. And it didn’t even make this stupid list. Which is lame.
- This Is Spinal Tap — You can talk mockumentaries all day, but this is the granddaddy of them all, and the best ever. Because it goes to 11.
- Office Space — In a category by itself.
- My Man Godfrey — Another screwball comedy, but I think there’s room for this one and Friday both. It’s certainly different enough.
- Love and Death — Say what you will about Woody Allen (and there’s a good bit of creepy stuff to say), but I’ll paraphrase the fan from “Stardust Memories:” I really liked his early, funny ones. And the best of all was “Love and Death.” That’s what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky really needed — a few laughs.
- The Graduate — Yeah, this one is on my Top Five best ever. But it’s the only one of those to make this list. Yet I’m not sure it should be here. Was it really a comedy exactly? It’s the most category-defying of the truly great films.
- Groundhog Day — I had to get a Bill Murray in here, and I chose this one.
- The Paper — Initially, I had American Graffiti here. Or maybe Trading Places, which so brilliantly combined two Mark Twain stories, and two of his best. But I decided to end up where I started — with a film about newspapering that I could really identify with. Funny thing is, some serious journalists hated this film for some of the same factors that might cause someone to reject “Friday” — they were afraid it made us scribes look bad. But again, it was brutally dead-on caricature. Sure, we were more serious and principled that this. But I really, really identified with the Michael Keaton character, who at least had this going for him: He wasn’t as bad as Walter Burns, not by a long shot. Not as funny either, though…