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Shortly after completing Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant reteamed with director Howard Hawks for the third time to make His Girl Friday, an inventive remake of a successful play.
The end product was not only well-received but a box office smash. Take a step behind-the-scenes of the hilarious screwball comedy below.
1. A dinner party started it all.
Hawks thought the The Front Page had the funniest dialogue, so after a dinner party, he set out to prove it. Hawks read for one male lead, and a woman read for the other. It was then inspiration hit – why not have a woman lead? When Columbia Pictures’ president Harry Cohn heard about a Front Page remake, he suggested Cary Grant and Walter Winchell. But Hawks convinced him that his idea was the way to go, and thus, the character Hildebrand became Hildegard.
2. Russell was a last minute find.
Hawks wanted the best fit for the female lead, especially since the change was crucial to this version. Jean Arthur was originally announced, but Hawks changed his mind after working with her on Only Angels Have Wings. Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, and Claudette Colbert all turned down the part. Rosalind Russell was cast after word got around about her impressive work in George Cukor’s The Women.
3. Russell and Hawks had a bumpy start.
And it started because Hawks commented for a newspaper article that he had gone to every important actress for the part, but had been turned down. This wasn’t a big confidence boost for Russell, who wasn’t hired by the director. Hawk’s "hands-off" directing approach didn’t help much either, at first, as Russell turned to Cary Grant for reassurance that she was doing well. However, once she got the hang of Hawks, she felt free to improvise and show-off her comedic talent. "It's a good director who sees what an actor can do, studies his cast, learns about them personally, knows how to get the best out of them,” she said of Hawks.
4. They talked fast!
The average speaking rate for actors at the time was 150 words per minute. His Girl Friday clocks in at approximately 100 words faster. Hawks also had the actors overlap their dialogue to make it seem even faster. To accomplish this, unnecessary words were used at the beginning and end of dialogue, so actors could overlap without missing the important bits in the middle. "We went wild, overlapped our dialogue, waited for no man. And Hawks got a big kick out of it,” Russell said.
5. Russell hired a ghostwriter.
Russell was worried that she couldn’t match the ad-libbing talent of Grant, especially since he already had many funny lines to begin with. Her brother in law suggested a copywriter at his advertising agency, and the mystery writer was paid $200 a week to punch up her lines – and even a few of Cary’s. Hawk’s directorial style made it so that she could slip the lines in without needing approval, and anything he liked, he kept in the final film.
6. Bellamy had Grant to thank for the part.
According to Ralph Bellamy, Grant suggested him for the part of Russell’s fiancé. Grant and Bellamy had previously worked together on The Awful Truth. The real surprise came though when Cary Grant gave this shout-out in the film: "He looks like that fellow in the movies. You know, Ralph Bellamy!"
7. Grant and Russell got close during filming.
In fact, Grant introduced Russell to her husband, Frederick Brisson. They were married while Grant made Arsenic and Old Lace in October 1941. Russell sent this message to Grant afterward: “Dearest Cary, Now look what you’ve done! You black-eyed cupid! For the remainder of my life, I’ll hold you responsible… But seriously, Cary, you will never know the great joy you have helped bring us both and how much we shall always love you for it.”