Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: if you have been paying very close attention you might have stumbled across the obscure little tidbit that the new Ghostbusters remake has four women in the leading roles, whereas the 1984 original had four men. Whatever is true of this particular case, history demonstrates that the concept of gender-swapping lead roles can pay off handsomely.

The story goes that Howard Hawks was hosting a party full of Hollywood sorts, and the talk turned to dialogue - how do you make it snappy, how does it flow, and so on, and so forth. He pulled out a copy of The Front Page, the acidic 1928 newspaper comedy stage play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, to read it for his guests - he took the role of flim-flam man/newspaper editor Walter Burns, and a female guest read the role of Walter's best ex-reporter, the knowing, mistrustful "Hildy" Johnson. Hawks realised on the spot that having a woman read Hildy added an entirely new dimension to the material, and threw himself directly into the task of acquiring the film rights from Howard Hughes - who'd produced The Front Page for the movies in 1931 - but transforming it through mostly minor shifts to the original screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer into an acerbic screwball comedy about the same flim-flam editor Walter Burns, and his same best ex-reporter, the knowing, mistrustful "Hildy" Johnson, who has a uniquely appropriate reason for mistrusting Walter - she used to be married to him.

There's no way on God's earth that a story that perfect can actually be true, but it doesn't matter. However it got that way, on 11 January, 1940, Columbia Pictures premiered Hawks's His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant as Walter and Rosalind Russell as Hildy, and the entire subsequent history of cinema is better off for it. I think it's risky to throw around terms like "the best film comedy of the sound era", but I do know that any serious attempt to pinpoint what movie might earn that title needs to spend a real long time contemplating this one. It's certainly one of the most important - this is nothing less than the movie that proved once and for all that overlapping dialogue could be a powerful tool in the filmmaker's belt, 12 years after the beginning of the sound era in Hollywood. Perhaps that sounds like a little thing.

But remember that when they first started recording sound on set, they were terrified of having pops and hisses.

They were terrified as well of poor clarity.

Because, if you're going to go to the trouble of having talking pictures, you want to make sure that the talking is clear.

Otherwise, the audience might lose something important.

So the actors always delivered their lines as neat, self-contained objects.

They did not blur together at all.

It's part of the glorious artifice of 1930s Hollywood, but it could be very staged and artificial.

By the end of the 1930s, this was starting to change, as comedy was starting to pick up speed, and screwball characters got more manic and loud. But the sanctity of the individual line was preserved even here.

Still, nothing prepared audiences for the bomb dropped in January 1940, when Hawks forced the Columbia sound department to help him record the sounds of multiple people talking all at once - a lot of those people off-camera, too - delivering dialogue that Hawks and Lederer (who co-wrote this remake) had carefully crafted so that you didn't need to hear all of it to get the gist. What's important is the sense of the thing; what's important is the sound of the thing, really. It's important that people are talking, less what they're saying, so that the movie's soundscape is one of constant activity, in which half a dozen people are pursuing half a dozen different goals, and doing it damn quick so they can move on to the next half-dozen. In the short term, this means the first and only of the great Depression-era newspaper comedies that captures, thanks to its blitzkrieg of dialogue, the "damn tthe torpedoes!" speed of a news organization operating at full tilt, which also makes it the most breathless, daring, keep up or die trying of all screwball comedies, the only film I have seen other than 1941's The Lady Eve that's so constantly funny at such a machine-gun pace that I actually get tired out from watching it. In the long term, this means we get Nashville. So it's a win either way.

None of this matters when you're watching the film, of course. Hawks's demented tornado of words is not here to impress us with the magic tricks that a sufficiently driven sound department was capable of (incidentally, the fact that His Girl Friday was not among the eleven - fucking eleven! - films to receive a Best Sound Mixing Oscar nomination in 1940 is maddening. The fact that it received no other Oscar nominations besides is a moral crime). Really, the only reason it's there is for that old-fashioned Hollywood obsession, building up terrific characters. There has to be a lot of fast-moving dialogue coming from every direction, because without it, how could Grant's Walter impress us as the primus inter pares of fast-talking hucksters, the maestro whose ability to tear through big meaty paragraphs with the speed of a lightning strike is the model to which all the other buzzing, cynical newspapermen aspire? And without all of that, how could we be so intoxicated by the sheer vitality of that world, the acidic wit and miserable sarcasm that come at such a pace that you could rest assured that if you need to stop paying attention for a few seconds, you'll be able to drop right back into the flow and be immediately swept away again? And without that intoxication, how could we understand how madly in love with the life Hildy is, no matter how many times she angrily insists otherwise?

That's the plot, really - not "how will Walter snatch Hildy back from her boring new fiancรฉ, a tedious insurance salesman inevitably played by professional boring other man Ralph Bellamy" (whose casting is the inspiration for a Grant ad-lib that is among the most extraordinary bits of meta-humor in cinema history, and before meta-humor was even a thing that people really talked about in polite company). Definitely not "how will Walter and Hilty cover the political treacherous story of how the mayor of a deeply corrupt city succeed in illegally executing an insane man in order to cynically sweep up some votes", which is more a hook that Hecht and MacArthur included because not talking about profound, widespread political corruption was anathema to the Chicago-based playwrights (the stage version of The Front Page, if I recall correctly, is explicitly set in Chicago; the first movie is DEFINITELY NOT set in Chicago *wink*, and His Girl Friday is not set in New York, since New York is otherwise referenced in dialogue, but it's on the same train line as Albany).

Nosir, the plot is "how will a great newspaperman come to her damn senses and realise that there's no life she could live that would suit her as well as this one?", and even the patching-up-the-marriage subplot is only an echo of that. Or maybe they echo each other. What His Girl Friday is doing, really, is to eroticise being in the news business: Walter and Hildy don't get off on berating each other and bickering at 100 miles a minute, exactly, but they do get off on the fast-paced world of constant stress where that bickering is a natural byproduct. That's one of the things that turning Hildy into a woman gains for the material: in principle, I suppose a gay Front Page could be staged, but I think it would be very hard to stage it well. And you'd lose the other thing that His Girl Friday wins by the sex change: the very real jolt that the material gets by virtue of having Hildy as the only woman in a boys' club, but also coming across as the most cocksure boy of them all (achieved in part by casting Russell, an exceptionally masculine leading lady by classical Hollywood standards). For long stretches, the film makes no comment at all on Hildy's gender: the other reporters in the crime building pressroom talk to her like one of the guys and an icon to them all, she and everybody else refers to herself without pausing or blinking as "a newspaperman", and her sole outfit (the film takes place over one long afternoon and night) is severely deglamorised by costume designer Robert Kalloch - it's a beaut, one of the great costumes of the whole era, with its savage "touch me and I will stab you in the face" diagonal stripes and the streamlined vertical lines, letting Russell slice through rooms like a shark. That is to say, it is a woman's outfit that is by no stretch of the imagination "feminine".

All of this emphasis on occluding Hildy's gender pays off in the moments when it hits us hard, like a swift punch to the balls. When she, alone among the reporters, passes a kind word to the dismal prostitute Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), the moment gains enormous power not just because Hildy is nice to the downtrodden, but because we can see for just a few beats, before she gets her defenses back up, how much the reporter is personally offended as a woman. When Walter lets it slip that he has goopy, romantic feelings for her that go beyond his admiration for her unmatched skills as a writer, it adds a stunning level of warmth to both characters, who would otherwise run the risk of being too caustic to ever really like - they're our assholes, but they're still assholes. The way the film allows the heat and love of their dead marriage peek through the cracks in both Russell and Grant's performances is key to modulating the film's cynicism. By no means is His Girl Friday a warm and fuzzy romp with nice people that we'd like to know in reality, but it has a humane edge absent from the straight filmed versions of The Front Page (beyond several TV versions that I've never seen, it received a third feature adaptation in 1974, about which the nicest thing I can say is that it's the best of director Billy Wilder's bad films), and this makes it an infinitely more satisfying experience.

Setting all of that aside, ultimately His Girl Friday is great because it starts with extraordinarily good material - there's hardly a single line of dialogue that isn't a gem of a laugh line - and executes it flawlessly. Grant and Russell are beyond superb; Russell has the more complex part and she does more with it, more than she ever did with anything in her career (every time I watch her in anything, I'm always at least slightly disappointed, which I think is entirely my fault for seeing her in this first). The moments she allows us to see Hildy's righteous hatred of Walter jockeying for prominence with her memory of how much they were in love - basically every scene she and Grant share together - are exemplary, all carried out in her stiffened body language and nervous eye movement. Her long, slow reaction to the jailbreak that sets her back on the road to rejoining the newspaper is mesmerising, as we can watch almost each individual thought cross her mind as she weighs the costs of diving back in against the orgasmic pleasure it will give her. Grant has the relatively easy job of just hurling dialogue, though I cannot imagine anyone doing it better; he can make something as straightforward as shaking Bellamy's hand into a giddy, gleeful moment.

It's also an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, which happens so rarely with comedies that I'm always pleased by it. Hawks, it needs hardly be said, was one of the all-time great film directors, and beyond his miraculous handling of his cast - not even the tiniest role could be overlooked in getting every person to the same overclocked register, or the whole edifice would be broken - it's beautiful how elegantly he uses the form of the film to give jokes the best chance to land hard, and the characters all the room they need to really impress us. The very first shot is a silky tracking shot that glides to the left through the hectic newsroom to pick up Hildy and her reedy fiancรฉ Bruce entering the door, immediately shifting back to the left with them; between the constant sound of activity in the background and the impressive flexibility of Joseph Walker's camera, we have all that we need to get ready: things are going to be loud and move fast, the film promises, so be ready to keep up. Later on, similar little shifts in camera position give punch to jokes - Hildy jumps between two conversations, and the camera weaves back and forth with her - or sometimes there's just a burst of staccato editing to make a similar point. The whole movie seems to quiver with the same energy driving the mad dialogue and the breathless acting, and it all builds up the feeling of a racing pulse, like the movie itself is about the have the adrenaline overdose that it's characters seem perpetually in danger of experiencing. It is a relentless film, maybe the single most unyielding comedy I have ever seen, and this heightens everything about it: the jokes are funnier, the romance is sweeter, the satire is nastier. It's one of the most aggressive comedies of all time, and it earns that aggression by also being one of the most perfect.