His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940) is adapted from a stage play (Front Page), and it shows. The film is set in two locations, a newsroom at the local newspaper and a press room at the courthouse, with a brief scene in a restaurant. I have to say, despite this film’s great reputation, that I didn’t much care for it. The plot has to do with a recently divorced newspaper couple, played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. She is engaged to be married to a dimly lit insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy), and Grant wants to find a way to stop the wedding. He convinces her to cover the pending execution of a man convicted of killing a black man, and through various hijinks, most of them on a slapstick level, Grant lures Russell away from the fiancé and the wedding.
The primary device here is fast-paced, scattershot dialogue. Characters talk at one another, two or three conversations take place at one time, and the volume level is high. No one simply talks. There’s yelling and self-conscious wittiness. The humor is corny and falls flat. The plot moves along at such a fast pace that you can miss the holes and the illogicalities and the bad jokes. The condemned man spends a good bit of the play hiding in a roll-top desk in the courthouse newsroom while people talk about and look for him. The woman who loves and is trying to protect him leaps out a window and is severely injured—no one cares.
This film is a contrivance. No one is supposed to believe it represents anything real. Instead it’s an excuse for Grant and Russell to strut their stuff, and to try to be funny. The outcome is obvious almost from the first moment. The film is dated, and a number of racist jokes or references help make this clear.
It’s a classic because everyone thinks it a classic.