His Girl Friday: Intertextuality, Remakes, Witty Lines

As most readers know, “Girl Friday” is an assistant who carries out a variety of chores, a name deriving from “Friday,” Robinson Crusoe’s native male dogs body in Daniel Defoe’s famous novel.

The film had the working title of The Bigger They Are and was in production from 27 September to 21 November 1939.

His Girl Friday was originally supposed to be a straight adaptation of The Front Page, with both the editor and reporter being men. But during auditions, Hawks’ female secretary read reporter Hildy Johnson’s lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded, 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.

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 she was too expensive, and Columbia could not afford her. Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, and Irene Dunne, all of whom excelled in screwball comedy, were offered the role, but turned it down.

Irene Dunne (who appeared with Cary Grant in the sublime 1937 screwball comedy “The Awful Truth”) because the part was too small. Jean Arthur, who made a splash in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was offered the part, and was suspended by the studio when she refused to take it.

Hawks then turned to Rosalind Russell, who received great reviews for her work in George Cukor’s hit comedy, “The Women.” 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.”

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?”

Inside Jokes

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 real name).

When Earl Williams attempts to get out of the desk he’s been hiding in, Grant says, “Get back in there, you Mock Turtle.” The line is a 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.  This line is the same in the 1931 movie “The Front Page.”

Remakes in Various Mediums

Hawks 1940 film was a remake of The Front Page, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

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 on March 30, 1941, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell reprising their film roles.

His Girl Friday was later adapted into another stage play, His Girl Friday, by playwright John Guare,  presented at the National Theatre, London, with Alex Jennings as Burns and Zoë Wanamaker as Hildy.

Switching Channels, in 1988, 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.

Ron Howard’s The Paper, in 1994, also draws heavily on the same material.