Development and writing
While producing Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Howard Hawks tried to pitch a remake of The Front Page to Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Cary Grant was almost immediately cast in the film, but Cohn initially intended Grant to play the reporter, with radio commentator Walter Winchell as the editor. Hawks's production that became His Girl Friday was originally intended to be a straightforward adaptation of The Front Page, with both the editor and reporter being male.[b] But during auditions, a woman, Howard Hawks's secretary, read reporter Hildy Johnson's lines. Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female and the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns played by Cary Grant. Cohn purchased the rights for The Front Page in January 1939.
Although Hawks considered the dialogue of The Front Page to be "the finest modern dialogue that had been written", more than half of it was replaced with what Hawks believed to be better dialogue. Some of the original dialogue and all of the characters' names were left the same, with the exception of Hildy's fiancé, Bruce Baldwin. Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures approved Hawks' idea for the film project. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who had written the original play were unavailable for screenwriting. Consequently, Hawks considered Gene Fowler as the screenwriter, but he declined the job because he disliked the changes to the screenplay Hawks intended to make. Hawks instead recruited Charles Lederer who had worked on the adaptation for The Front Page to work on the screenplay. Though he was not credited, Hecht did assist Lederer in the adaptation. Additions were made in the beginning of the screenplay by Lederer to give the characters a convincing backstory so it was decided that Hildy and Walter would be divorced with Hildy's intentions of remarriage serving as Walter's motivation to win her back.
During writing, Hawks was in Palm Springs directing Only Angels Have Wings, yet stayed in close contact with Lederer and Hecht. Hecht helped Lederer with some organizational revisions and Lederer finished the script on May 22. After two more drafts completed by July, Hawks called Morrie Ryskind to revise the dialogue and make it more interesting. Ryskind revised the script throughout the summer and finished by the end of September, before filming began. More than half of the original dialogue was rewritten. The film lacks one of the well-known final lines of the play, "the son-of-a-bitch stole my watch!", because films of the time were more censored than Pre-code Hollywood films and Hawks felt that the line was too overused. Ryskind developed a new ending in which Walter and Hildy start fighting immediately after saying "I do" in the wedding they hold in the newsroom with one of the characters stating, "I think it's gonnna turn out all right this time." However, after revealing the ending to a few writers at Columbia one evening, Ryskind was surprised to hear that his ending was filmed on another set a few days later. Forced to create another ending, Ryskind ended up thanking the anonymous Columbia writer, because he felt that his ending and ones of his final lines, "I wonder if Bruce can put us up," were better than what he had written originally. After reviewing the screenplay, the Hays Office saw no issues with the film, besides a few derogatory comments towards newsmen and some illegal behavior of the characters. During some rewrites for censors, Hawks focused on finding a lead actress for his film.
Hawks had difficulty casting His Girl Friday. While the choice of Cary Grant was almost instantaneous, the casting of Hildy was a more extended process. At first, Hawks wanted Carole Lombard, whom he had directed in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934), but the cost of hiring Lombard in her new status as a freelancer proved to be far too expensive, and Columbia could not afford her. Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullivan, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne were offered the role, but turned it down. Dunne rejected the role because she felt the part was too small and needed to be expanded. Jean Arthur was offered the part, and was suspended by the studio when she refused to take it. Joan Crawford was reportedly also considered. Hawks then turned to Rosalind Russell who had just finished MGM's The Women (1939). Russell was upset when she discovered from a New York Times article that Cohn was "stuck" with her after attempting to cast many other actresses. Before Russell's first meeting with Hawks, to show her apathy, she took a swim and entered his office with wet hair, causing him to do a "triple take". Russell confronted him about this casting issue; he dismissed her quickly and asked her to go to wardrobe.
After makeup, wardrobe, and photography tests, filming began on September 27. The film had the working title of The Bigger They Are. In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role did not have as many good lines as Grant's, so she hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue. With Hawks encouraging ad-libbing on the set, Russell was able to slip her personal, paid writer's work into the movie. Only Grant was wise to this tactic and greeted her each morning saying, "What have you got today?" Her ghostwriter gave her some of the lines for the restaurant scene, which is unique to His Girl Friday. It was one of the most complicated scenes to film, because of the rapidity of the dialogue, none of the actors actually eat during the scene despite the fact that there is food in the scene. Hawks shot this scene with one camera a week and a half into production and it took four days to film instead of the intended two. The film was shot with some improvisation of lines and actions, with Hawks giving the actors freedom to experiment as he did with his comedies more than his dramas. The film is noted for its rapid-fire repartee, using overlapping dialogue to make conversations sound more realistic, with one character speaking before another finishes. Although overlapping dialog is specified and cued in the 1928 play script by Hecht and MacArthur, Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich:
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.
To get the effect he wanted, as multi-track sound recording was not yet available at the time, Hawks had the sound mixer on the set turn the various overhead microphones on and off as required for the scene, as many as 35 times. Reportedly, the film was sped up because of a challenge Hawks took upon himself to break the record for the fastest dialogue on screen, at the time held by The Front Page. Hawks arranged a showing for newsmen of the two films next to each other to prove how fast his dialogue was. Filming was difficult for the cinematographers because the improvisation made it difficult to know what the characters were going to do. Rosalind Russell was also difficult to film because of her lack of a sharp jawline required makeup artists to paint and blend a dark line under her jawline while shining a light on her face to simulate a more youthful appearance.
Hawks encouraged aggressiveness and unexpectedness in the acting, a few times breaking the fourth wall in the film. At one point, Grant broke character because of something unscripted that Russell did and looked directly at the camera saying, "Is she going to do that?". Hawks decided to leave this scene in the picture. Owing to the numerous ensemble scenes, many retakes were necessary. Having learned from Bringing Up Baby (1938), Hawks added some straight supporting characters in order to balance out the leading characters. Arthur Rosson worked for three days on second unit footage at Columbia Ranch. Filming was completed on November 21, seven days past schedule. Unusual for the time period, the film contains no music besides the music that leads to the final fade out of the film.
Ad-libs by Grant
Grant's character describes Bellamy's character by saying "He looks like that fellow in the movies, you know ... Ralph Bellamy!" According to Bellamy, the remark was ad libbed by Grant. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn thought it was too cheeky and ordered it removed, but Hawks insisted that it stay. Grant makes several other "inside" remarks in the film. When his character is arrested for a kidnapping, he describes the horrendous fate suffered by the last person who crossed him: Archie Leach (Grant's birth name). Another line that people think is an inside remark is when Earl Williams attempts to get out of the rolltop desk he's been hiding in, Grant says, "Get back in there, you Mock Turtle." The line is a "cleaned-up" version of a line from the stage version of The Front Page ("Get back in there, you God damned turtle!") and Grant also played "The Mock Turtle" in the 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland.