It was Howard Hawks' brilliant idea that the character of Hildy Johnson—originally a man in the original stage play and 1931 film The Front Page upon which His Girl Friday is based—should be turned into a woman. This touch would cement the film's status as a wildly popular screwball comedy of the mid 20th century. A genre that owed much of its identity to film noir, another genre that was close to Hawks' heart, screwball comedies were defined by the heterosexual relationship between its two stars, their struggle for power, madcap farcical antics, a witty script, and a dose of suspense. On all counts, His Girl Friday delivers, and much of this is owed to Hawks' skillful directorial touch. Greatly influenced by the censorship of the post-war Hays Code, screwball comedies sought to expose social and political realities in slyly clever, comedic, and titillating ways. One film critic, Andrew Sarris, once called the screwball comedy "a sex comedy without the sex."
By the time he directed His Girl Friday, Hawks had already established himself as a formidable, versatile, and intelligent director, who could weave stories that were entertaining and also packed with illuminating social commentary. Having successfully directed both silent films and "talkies," Hawks cut his teeth with gangster films, war films, and film noir like The Dawn Patrol and Scarface. Before making His Girl Friday, he had made 2 iconic screwball comedies, Twentieth Century starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and Bringing Up Baby starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. His Girl Friday was adapted almost word-for-word from The Front Page, with some notable reworking and ad-libbing by the stars Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant as well as the notable gender change of Hildy Johnson. The casting process for Hildy was arduous, with many of Hawks' first choices declining the offer. While Rosalind Russell was hardly Hawks' first choice, she proved to be perfect for the role and defined a new kind of woman in film. Russell's Hildy is a prime example of what is known by film critics as a "Hawksian woman," epitomized otherwise by the husky-voiced Lauren Bacall; Hildy is tough, smart, unsentimental, and gives the male lead a run for his money.
Hoping to replicate the fast-paced and chaotic patterns of realistic speech, Hawks sought to find innovative ways of engineering the sound in the film to make dialogue overlap. In an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks said, "I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping." He had sound men follow his actors around with portable microphones, and the sound was mixed to reflect the cacophonous quality of urgent everyday speech. As noted in an article on the website for the Criterion Collection, "Their motormouth velocity is rendered all the more delirious by the use of overlapping speech, which allows the film to cover an unusually hefty, 191-page script in a fleet ninety-two-minute running time."