In this new series of articles, our writers are watching classic films for the first time. Here, Sophie catches up on 1940’s His Girl Friday.

His Girl Friday begins with the phrase “once upon a time”; but the film is too sharply witty, its subjects too twentieth century, to be a fairytale. Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is Hildy Johnson’s (Rosalind Russell) editor at The Morning Post but also, inconveniently, her ex-husband. Walter wants Hildy to return not just to the newspaper but to their marriage; a wish complicated by Hildy’s fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

Movies don’t end up in the Library of Congress Film Registry by accident. Russell and Grant sparkle as the warring ex-lovers, firing off breakneck-paced dialogue and exuding chemistry that’s not so much sizzling as full-blown aflame. In the intervening years the gender politics have aged – there’s a possessiveness in Grant’s performance that rubs uncomfortably against 2020 – but it’s far from a guilty pleasure to root for them. Walter’s wild attempts to re-seduce Hildy start feeling like the desperation of a man who doesn’t know how to say “I love you”.

But as romance giveth, it also taketh away. Walter dangles the impending execution of Earl Williams under Hildy’s nose to stop her heading to Albany with milquetoast Bruce, and the film twists in a different direction from there, separating its leads – to its detriment. Neither Hildy nor Walter are as fun when they’re not with each other (a statement Walter would approve of). Worse, the white Williams is framed as a victim despite being convicted of shooting a black police officer. It’s a legacy that spikes the film’s sweetness with a bitter taste.

His Girl Friday shines in its strengths and falls down in its weaknesses. Unquestionably enjoyable, it’s nevertheless hard not to imagine what Grant and Russell could have done with more time on screen together. If you want to see Cary Grant wooing his ex-wife, try The Philadelphia Story.


Available to watch on: Amazon Prime


CAST: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy

DIRECTOR: Howard Hawks

WRITERS: Charles Lederer (screenplay), Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (stageplay, The Front Page)

SYNOPSIS: A newspaper editor tries to convince his best reporter – and ex-wife – to cover a breaking story instead of getting married to another man.