If you miss Cary Grant as much as I do——and I mean not only the movie star, the actor, the man, but also the kind of civilized style and ebullient, urbane and witty persona the name calls to mind——then here are two good opportunities (out of many more) to see the original article. Both were made by Grant’s favorite director (they did five pictures together), the legendary “gray fox of Hollywood,” Howard Hawks.
The major attraction, and one of the fastest, most irreverent and enduringly fresh of screwball romantic comedies, is the 1940 classic, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (available on DVD). This was the third Hawks-Grant picture in two years (preceded by screwball classic Bringing Up Baby and aviation classic Only Angels Have Wings). The picture was based on one of the certifiable masterworks of the American stage, Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s newspaper tour de force of sardonic comedy, The Front Page (filmed twice under that title, each one far inferior to this incarnation).
But here Hawks altered the play in one huge and fortuitous change he thought of–accomplished with the aid of Hecht and his protégé, the brilliant screenwriter Charles Lederer: the two main characters were switched from a male reporter-male editor battle of wits to a female reporter-male editor battle of the sexes–the two having once been married. Famously, Hawks had been reading some scenes with a girlfriend to demonstrate that the play had some of the best modern dialog, and after awhile exclaimed, “Hey, it’s even better with a woman and a man than two men!” Charlie Lederer later came up with the premise that solved the notion: that the two had been married and divorced.
Grant never again played a character with quite this kind of larcenous panache or sense of irrepressible mischief. It is a remarkably daring performance, sometimes broad and even outrageous, but accomplished with amazing equilibrium and wit. In four short years—1937-1940—Cary dazzled breathtakingly in five very different kinds of roles, all somehow fitting into his dashing persona: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, George Cukor’s Holiday, and Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday. I can’t think of another actor with a run as rich and exciting. (Some would include George Stevens’ Gunga Din, first prepared by Hawks with Hecht and MacArthur, and shot during this same period, but I don’t feel that it reaches the same level of perfection as the other five.)
Rosalind Russell gives her finest and probably most defining performance as Grant’s ex-wife, about to leave the Chicago newspaper world and settle down with an insurance man in Albany. Of course, he is played by that ultimate square second lead, Ralph Bellamy (doing a variation on his role opposite Grant in Leo McCarey’s perfect screwball of three years before, The Awful Truth). In fact, there’s a very funny direct reference to Bellamy by name in the picture–as there is to Grant’s real name, Archie Leach. But Roz Russell brings off her difficult part with perfection, a real Hawks woman, who can give out as well as take it; a consummate professional journalist and entirely believable as the best writer of the bunch.
The famously long screenplay——at 180 pages (the average being under 120)——plays in an incredibly swift 92 minutes; in fact, it’s probably a trifle too fast for the small screen and can wear you out if you’re not fresh and ready for the race.
The final Hawks-Grant collaboration (after 1949’s hilarious though lesser-known red-tape classic I Was A Male War Bride), came three years later with the scientist-youth potion comedy, 1952’s Monkey Business, and was for my money unfortunately the weakest of the five. But the French New Wave counted it among their favorites nevertheless, and certainly it has more good things in it than most comic pictures. Especially memorable are the sequences featuring Grant with Marilyn Monroe in her first really successful comedy performance as aging professor Charles Coburn’s ultra-nubile secretary.
The trouble is that these scenes with Grant and Monroe are so much fun and have so much electricity that co-star Ginger Rogers’ stuff pales in comparison. Still, the movie has marvelous Grant-as-absent-minded-professor sequences; he has accidentally (or rather, a lab monkey of his, has) invented a youth potion to disastrous results. Underneath everything, believe it or not, is a sober celebration of maturity in marital relationships.