Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) teems with witty quips, perfect responses, and enough cigarette smoke to blot out the sun. Consider the film’s second scene where we are introduced to retired reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and her former boss and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This meeting not only sets up the characters and their prior conflict, but through a momentary breakdown in the motor-mouth dialogue, we also get a glimpse at how the film will resolve itself.
Taking place in Walter’s office, this introductory scene plays out like a boxing match with Walter trying to gauge the interest of his former wife. With the first punch, Walter rises from his chair with a sentimental appeal to Hildy saying, “I’d know you any time, any place, anywhere.” Hildy, in trademark piece of Howard Hawks direction, rebuffs Walter’s advance by mimicking his words as they come out of his mouth. Hildy’s quick thinking renders Walter momentarily silent and gives her the edge in round one.
When Walter can’t persuade Hildy with sentimentality, he takes a cynical view of the situation. Through his dialogue and Hays Code-friendly hand gesture, he paints divorce as a meaningless charade compared to their personal and sexual history. Hildy repels this attack with more venom than the first by reeling him in saying, “I suppose you’re right in a way Walter. I am fond of you you know” and right when he bites she hits him with, “I often wish you weren’t such a stinker.” Hildy seems to have an answer to each of her ex-husband’s ploys.
Following Walter’s declaration of pride for skipping their honeymoon to cover a mine collapse, Hildy’s voice trails off as she is out of words for the first time in the exchange. A wry smile creeps across Walter’s face and Hildy takes a more aggressive stance in the the conversation revealing her retirement from journalism. But, when her voice trailed off, she revealed her weak spot. Her inability to trade blows when the mine collapse is brought up tells Walter that Hildy still loves the thrill and spontaneity of getting the latest scoop. Even though Walter still does not yet know that Hildy is also engaged leaving for Albany in four hours to begin her new life, he has figured out the angle he must play to try and convince Hildy to come back.
This short scene is a masterclass in set-up. The rapid-fire exchange establishes Hildy as a strong-willed woman with lingering feelings for her ex-husband and Walter as a trickster who can spin any situation in his favor. The rare moment of silence in their interplay reveals Hildy’s emotional soft-spot for Walter which he pursues in the film. During a screening of His Girl Friday, or any subsequent rewatch, look for times when Hildy’s voice trails off because this often signals a turning point in her story.