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From the Vaults: 'His Girl Friday' (1940)

June 22, 2010 |  7:18 am

Friday3 I once read an excellent book about single life that included this recipe for depression: "Go out and rent a movie with Cary Grant in it, come back and put the kettle on." This advice has never failed me. You cannot go wrong with Cary Grant; his movies are invariably cheering (although "Arsenic and Old Lace" can be headache-inducing). Even in a weepy thriller like "Notorious," it's just nice to see him, you know?

The best thing about "His Girl Friday" is what a great ensemble he's got. Ralph Bellamy is hilarious and Billy Gilbert always absolutely slays me in his small part as Joe Pettibone, but the movie really belongs to the magnificent, suit-wearing, bon-mot-slinging Rosalind Russell. Usually with Cary Grant movies you want to be Cary Grant, but here you really want to be Rosalind.

Does the plot need rehashing? Grant plays Walter Burns, editor of the Morning Post newspaper, and Russell is his ex-wife and ex-star-reporter Hildy Johnson. She drops by to tell Walter she's marrying boring insurance man Bruce (Bellamy); she's tired of the exhausting, unpredictable newspaper business and she's got no regrets about divorcing Walter: "Instead of two weeks in Atlantic City with my bridegroom, I spent two weeks in a coal mine!" she snarls. Distraught but externally unflappable, Walter starts pulling strings to get her back in the newsroom.

FridayThe movie's based on a play, "The Front Page," in which Hildy Johnson is a man -- and, obviously, there's no  love story angle (well, Hildy wants to get married, but to a woman). In the film it's never really clear whether Walter wants his wife back or his star reporter back; they have great chemistry but it's always very professional, or as professional as it can be with lines like "Listen to me, you great big bubble-headed baboon!" and "I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you!"

About the only thing that bugs me about this movie is how much it still looks and feels like a play. The action's pretty static; people run around at times but they generally remain confined to a single room or office. (Major exception: Russell's flying tackle of an escaping source. I love that scene.) It's just not very cinematic looking. But the performances are so scintillating that it doesn't really matter.

Hildy is such a fab character and so fantastically modern; she makes doe-eyed Lois Lane look like a throwback. I love how she strides into a room full of reporters and just starts trading verbal shots. I also love how she can't keep from loving her work; Walter barely has to do anything before she gets drawn into the big story of the moment, a condemned man seeking reprieve. Her excitement as she chases the story is infectious.

And the dialogue, oh boy. The cast is clearly having a blast with it. "He's got a lot of charm," Bruce muses of Walter, and Hildy retorts, "He comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake."

She also gets my favorite line: "A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: 'Hildy, don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.' Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it."

The in-jokes are fun too. Of Bellamy's character, Walter says "He looks like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy." Later he pushes another character back into a hiding place, snapping, "Get back in there, you Mock Turtle" -- Grant's role in the 1933 "Alice in Wonderland." And Grant's real name gets checked in another of his lines: "Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat."

You know about this movie. There are a lot of good reasons.

Next week: something nice and lowbrow, probably with fake blood! Beyond that I have not yet decided.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Photos: Top, Grant weasels his way between Bellamy and Russell; below, our heroes get some help from Billy Gilbert (as the earnest Joe Pettibone, husband of Mrs. Pettibone) in nailing Clarence Kolb's evil mayor, right.