If you’re not familiar with His Girl Friday, you need to correct that immediately. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the movie is a wonderful example of the kind of comedic filmmaking that was relatively commonplace in the first half of the 20th century. The story follows Hildy Johnson (Russell), a fast-talking, no-nonsense newspaper woman who’s about to retire and become a wife to the bland, dependable Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). That doesn’t sit well with her ex-husband and former editor Walter Burns (Grant), who convinces her to cover the story of a man who was convicted of murder on shaky evidence and is about to be executed.
Criterion is releasing a new edition, which they’ve marked in part with a retrospective post on their blog chronicling the history of the movie. That talks quite a bit about how it’s built up a reputation for its rapid dialogue and innovative pacing. But what’s surprising, looking at the marketing now, is how much all of that was put in the background for the campaign.
First off the poster doesn’t really sell this as a comedy. The artwork is beautiful, as is usual with posters from this era. But it’s presented almost like a dimestore noir novel, with Grant looking down from the background on a voluptuous image of Russell, who’s shown with red cheeks and in flowing yellow gown. “She learned about men from him!” we’re told at the top. All of that makes the movie look like a romance story about a glamorous woman and a suave ladies man, not a dialogue-based comedy about a couple of hard-nosed newspaper reporters.
The trailer is pretty interesting in retrospect since, at least in its first half, it more or less ignores the movie’s strongest asset: The dialogue. It starts off with the promise that it features a tender love story between Grant and Russell, only to offer a bit of misdirection with her describing him in a less than ideal way. Then it’s back to the slapstick-esque music with shots of the cast going on and on with the action. There’s a brief break to show Hildy being held at gunpoint by XXX as he escapes. More music, then a confrontation in the newsroom that shows the triangular relationship between the characters.
Again, it’s surprising the lack of dialogue that’s on display here considering that’s the movie’s defining feature. In a trailer that runs 2:44, maybe two minutes of that is just music over random footage from the movie. There’s little to no sense of the story or anything else that makes the movie what it is. It plays up the presence of Grant and Russell, but never hits on the key selling points of the banter and chemistry between the two. This may have played well at the time but it’s so not what anyone would expect based on the actual movie that it’s a little jarring.
It’s kind of remarkable how the movie was inaccurately sold. This is one of the shining, golden examples of comedy at the height of the studio era and it was sold as, based on the trailer, a “companion film” to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.