Weekend Movie Club: “His Girl Friday” (1940)
I have to admit, I was really torn between reviewing this movie and Holiday (1938), because I love them both so much, but I think this one dovetails nicely with our current election situation, because it’s all about the press being venal, self-serving, and short-sighted, and only stumbling on the truth by a convenient coincidence. His Girl Friday (1940) is a deeply, deeply cynical movie at its heart, and that truth is only slightly concealed by the charms of its stars.
Since I was apparently too subtle in mentioning that The Haunting was adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel of (almost) the same name, I will say right up front that His Girl Friday is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, a classic play that, like Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House, I’ve never read. There are a couple of different stories about exactly what made director Howard Hawks realize that The Front Page‘s bromance between reporter Hildy Johnson and editor Walter Burns could be made into a straight-up hetero romance rather than a story filled with repressed homosexual love, but it makes perfect sense that Hawks would be that guy. Of the “Golden Age” Hollywood directors like John Ford or Frank Capra, Hawks always had the most consistently strong women and always seemed to be the most comfortable with women who could hold their own with and be accepted by the male characters while still being sexy romantic leads. Even when he made a musical starring Marilyn Monroe, in Hawks’ hands it became the story of a strong friendship between two women, not just a story about gold-digging showgirls.
One thing before we start: director Hawks specifically wanted to replicate the fast-moving, fast-talking action of the stage play, so if you have any kind of hearing issues, you may want to turn the closed-captioning on so you don’t miss any vital plot points. The technology of the time required that a series of concealed microphones — up to 35 for a single scene — be turned on and off at precise times, a task made even more difficult by the fact that Hawks encouraged his leads to improvise their dialogue. Though it must have given the sound men conniptions to try and keep up, the effect makes the film still seem fresh and modern 76 years later, and of course the fashion for snappy overlapping dialogue continues to this day.
The film begins with Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) breezing into the newsroom of the Morning Post to let her editor and recent ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) know that she’s about to get remarried. It takes her a while to get the message across, though, since Walter assumes that she has returned to him both romantically and professionally — when she asks for a chair to sit down, Walter immediately makes room for her to sit in his lap instead with a jocular, “There’s been a lamp burning in the window for you, honey.” He is genuinely shocked that she doesn’t fall back into his arms despite his unrelenting campaign to win her back during the long process of their divorce, which in those days often necessitated a several months-long stay in Nevada (usually Reno) to establish residency since at the time it was one of the few states to have no-fault divorce law.
He’s even more shocked to hear that she’s not just remarrying, she’s leaving professional life altogether to become a housewife in Albany with insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, who frequently played second banana roles). Hildy says wistfully that Bruce treats her “like a woman,” leading Walter to retort, “How did I treat you, like a water buffalo?”
Everything you need to know about these characters for the rest of the film is set up in this initial sequence: Walter still loves Hildy, while Hildy feels that Walter doesn’t really love her because he doesn’t respect her, as symbolized by the fact that he never performs little courtesies for her like holding the door open or carrying her luggage. In Hawks’s world, however, Walter is actually paying Hildy the highest of compliments by treating her as his intellectual and moral equal, but it takes to the end of the movie before Hildy will be able to see that.
This equality between Walter and Hildy is the core of their romance. One gets the distinct sense that Walter loves Hildy because she’s the one person he can never manage to con, though that never stops him from trying to do it. Walter gets his way in everything, except when Hildy decides to thwart him. Throughout the movie, Hildy stays several steps ahead of Walter, and every time he sees that she has bested him, he only loves her more and becomes more determined to win her. We the viewers can understand Hildy’s ambivalence towards Walter, because the man is exhausting — no matter what, there’s always an angle he wants to play in order to get his way — but once he turns that relentlessness on Hildy, it’s hard for her to resist getting caught up in his schemes.
Walter’s next scheme is set up in this same sequence — cop killer Earl Williams is scheduled to be hanged the next morning, unless there’s a reprieve by the governor, who’s gone on a fishing trip. Walter immediately sees this as an opportunity to not only win Hildy back as his wife, but to get a terrific scoop for his paper written by his star reporter. Walter pretends that his second-best reporter’s wife has just given birth, so he’s not available and is Hildy sure she can’t cover the story? Hildy is able to hold out until Walter forces an introduction to Bruce who, after a charm offensive by Walter, thinks Hildy should write the story to save Earl Williams’ life. Hildy finally agrees only on the condition that Walter first purchase a life insurance policy from Bruce … with a certified check. At first, Hildy’s protectiveness of Bruce and his money seems like smothering overprotectiveness, but we quickly see that the hapless Bruce is no match for Walter. Before the film is over, Bruce will be arrested not just once, but three separate times thanks to Walter’s scheming against him, usually with the connivance of Walter’s underworld pal Louie (Abner Biberman).
The Earl Williams story takes up most of the rest of the plot, and it’s lifted directly from The Front Page (which is listed in the credits as the source material). Hawks put a tongue-in-cheek “apology” to the press at the beginning of the film because the gaggle of reporters in the film are a pretty reprehensible bunch. When we first see them, they’re playing a game of cards while the sheriff’s men repeatedly test Earl’s gallows outside their window with a loud thump. They slant their stories based on each other’s coverage — when one reporter calls a story in to his conservative newspaper, Murphy (Porter Hall) eavesdrops and mischievously puts a more liberal spin on the same facts for Murphy’s own paper. They cynically discuss the fact that Williams has to hang, because the policeman he killed was “colored,” and the mayor and sheriff need to keep the 200,000 “colored” voters in the city happy before the following week’s election. (Since it’s 1940, I guess we at least know we’re in a Northern US city given that Black voters are so casually discussed as being a major factor in the election.)
Worst of all, they’ve ruined the life of Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), who was Earl’s one character witness at his trial. Most sources I’ve seen refer to Mollie as a prostitute, but in this film, Mollie’s accusation seems to be that they implied in their stories that she’s a prostitute and wrecked her reputation, making her a social outcast. I’m not sure if this was a change demanded by the censors, but for me it works better than if Mollie actually is a hooker, because it reinforces the fact that reporters are willing to lie about anyone and anything if it makes for a better story. When the male reporters mock and demean Mollie’s pain, Hildy puts a protective arm around her and escorts her from the room.
Hildy bribes a guard to get in to interview Earl Williams, a meek former accountant who shot the police officer accidentally. She skillfully leads Earl to say that he was delusional at the time of the killing in the hope that her story will influence the governor to give Williams another reprieve. She writes the story up, only to tear it into pieces when she has to bail Bruce out of jail after Walter connives with Louie to get Bruce arrested. Bruce’s wallet is also mysteriously missing, but fortunately he had listened to Hildy’s “old newspaper superstition” and stored Walter’s certified check in his hatband.
But just as Hildy is giving her farewell speech to the press room, shots ring out — Earl Williams has escaped, and the reporters run off in all directions to try and get a scoop. Hildy literally tackles the jail warden in the street to find out how Earl escaped, and then has to give him $450 of her wedding money as a bribe. Walter promises to pay her back, and sends Louie over to the press room with $450 in counterfeit bills.
Right when we’re getting to despise the gossipy, lazy, backbiting reporters, the sheriff and mayor do something even more despicable: a messenger shows up from the governor’s office with a reprieve for Earl and the mayor promptly offers the messenger a cushy government job if he’ll just pretend that he never brought the reprieve. Since the messenger is played by the always daffy Billy Gilbert, he seems to agree and wanders away.
So we now stand in a world where the politicians are willing to execute a man so they can win their election the following week while the reporters are distracted by chasing down the more exciting stories about shootouts and innocent bystanders. Yeah, this is all sounding a little familiar, yes? So much for the “good old days” of intrepid, truth-telling reporters.
And then the story gets really dark — Mollie helps Hildy hide the fugitive Earl but panics when the other reporters surround her and hound her to tell them where Earl is, so she flings herself from the third-story window. The reporters all watch in shock and horror as Mollie falls to the ground and then … run out the door to cover the story just as Mollie knew they would.
The respite gives Hildy and Walter enough time to write Hildy’s blockbuster exclusive about the Morning Post capturing the fugitive. When Bruce comes in to try and take Hildy away from it all, she tells him to go away because, “I’m not a suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaperman!”
Given the rest of the events of the story, it’s a moment that’s simultaneously triumphant and a little horrifying. On the one hand, it’s a deeply feminist moment of Hildy claiming her profession and her need to remain a reporter. On the other, it’s very clear that her chosen profession is a deeply corrupt one, and she can only be further corrupted by staying in it. She’s presented as being less cynical than the other reporters, less heartless, but that may just be a factor of her age. What will she be like when she’s been doing this as long as the other reporters have?
But like most screwball comedies, questions like that have to be swept under the rug in order to get to the happy ending. For me, the ending actually does work as a romantic ending, not just because it’s Cary Grant (though also it’s Cary Grant), but also because we now know that Hildy and Walter really are soulmates, even when Hildy is wistful that she won’t have a real honeymoon the second time around, either. The lingering question in my mind after this viewing, though, was Will either of them even have a soul in another ten years?