What made the dialogue of “His Girl Friday” so revolutionary in 1940?
Typical screenwriting conventions dictate that about one page of dialogue translates to about one minute of screen time. His Girl Friday (1940), which clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes, had a 191-page script. It’s appropriate that a film about journalists should be so heavy on dialogue. There’s so much to hear that you can’t catch every line on a single viewing of the piece. But there’s a rhythm and a pacing that becomes almost musical in its presentation. Indeed, it’s a film for those who love words, about those who make a living off them.
The film’s plot is not the reason it’s a classic piece of cinema. Its core narrative about reporters trying to save a man from going to the gallows becomes somewhat unimportant, vastly overshadowed by the delightfully quick banter and razor-sharp dialogue between its characters. It’s fast and perfect, with verbal patterns performed beautifully by actors who understand timing and delivery. Cary Grant was an established comedic actor and famous for ad-libbing. Having working with Hawks on his previous several pictures, Grant was the easy choice for His Girl Friday.
Above all, what makes the film’s dialogue so revolutionary is the overlapping nature of its delivery. Deep Focus Review writes, “In an interview with Peter Bogdonovich, Hawks explained, ‘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 dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary.’”
That means a huge amount of that 191 pages of dialogue was written specifically not to be heard. The film’s characters are a gang of haughty, determined, dedicated reporters who all live to put their own spin on the next big story. Rarely are there less than two people on screen at a time, often three or four times that, and the way the film is written allows their dialogue to fill the air in a naturalistic way. Let’s face it, these aren’t the type of people who wait their turn to voice their thoughts.
An aspect of this approach to dialogue that went unnoticed by audiences at the time but required a pristine level of control and communication on-set deals with the absence of multi-track recorders, which weren’t yet invented in 1940. The film’s sound mixers had to follow the actors around with several microphones, switching them on and off as dialogue was exchanged. The level of choreography between the actors, director, and sound department would have been incredible and not something any of them would have had much practice doing to that level of constancy—especially when the actors decided to ad-lib, as Cary Grant so famously loved to do.
Deep Focus continues, “Though Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn balked at much of the improvisation, Hawks encouraged it on the set, creating healthy competition between Grant, who was versed in fast-talking improv from earlier comedies, and Russell, who was so intent to keep up with her co-star that she hired a personal writer to give her dialogue some edge. Each morning Grant welcomed Russell to the set, asking ‘What have you got today?’ That rivalry is felt onscreen throughout the constant banter of the two leads.”
The Guardian furthers that sentiment, saying, “The ensuing chaos is genuinely hilarious, although you’ll have to watch it numerous times to absorb every gag. With great verbal athleticism, the film earns its reputation as one of the fastest-talking comedies ever made.”
Hawks made all types of films, some with rapid-fire dialogue and others with a slow pace. His legendary skill came in being able to sustain the tone throughout the picture, whichever avenue he was taking. His Girl Friday’s dialogue carries a fast and staccato delivery that mimics the tapping of its characters’ fingers on their typewriters, drumming out a rhythm that creates a beautiful story. Hearing every word isn’t important; what matters is becoming absorbed in the atmosphere of the picture. His Girl Friday’s reporters lived and died by their ability to capture the hottest scoop, and that heightened sense of urgency lives in the film’s script.