His Girl Friday
US (1940) Dir. Howard Hawks
“Oh, they ain’t human!”
“I know, they’re newspapermen!”
Kids today would call that a “sick burn” although it does demonstrate how our perception of the media hasn’t really changed in almost 80 years. His Girl Friday is in fact a remake of a 1931 film The Front Page, itself adapted from the 1928 play of the same title by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the shifty editor for The Morning Post, is about to get a scoop he’d rather not hear – his top reporter and ex-wife Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Rosalind Russell) has returned to the office after four months away to announce she is leaving journalism to marry insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Being the controlling type he is, Walter doesn’t Hildy to leave and tries to throw a spanner in the works.
Luckily for Walter, a news story suddenly breaks concerning the imminent execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a timid bookkeeper accused of shooting a black policeman. With the belief Williams is innocent, Walter persuades Hildy to make this her final story for the paper in return for him taking out a policy with Bruce so he gets a nice commission to start their married life. But fate has other plans.
Howard Hawks was a versatile director whose works covered crime thrillers, dramas, science fiction, westerns, and screwball comedies, the latter providing Hawks with some of his best-known titles, including His Girl Friday. In many ways, Hawks was ahead of his time in how he portrayed women in his films, bringing them to the foreground as strong, independent personalities to rival the men and not play second fiddle to them.
For this film, Hawks made a crucial change to the basic story by making Hildy female, quite the departure from what audiences had known hitherto, yet this is not just a hook for the sake of change; it gives the rationale behind Walter’s malfeasance greater depth in losing his ace reporter and the lengths he goes to keeper her when usually a pay rise would suffice.
It is established from the onset that Bruce is too much of a nice guy for a firebrand like Hildy, making their union seem odd, but meeting ex-husband Walter puts this into perspective. A smart mouthed, haughty, order-barking alpha male, Walter is arguably the one time Cary Grant is unlikeable on screen, and whilst his myopic passion might have suited Hildy before, it is Walter’s inability to switch off from scoring that one big scoop against his competitors that ruined their marriage.
With this being a story that has been told numerous times under various different guises since, the outcome is hardly a shock to anyone but Hawks deftly keeps us guessing until the very last second as to whether this convention will be played out or not. But, working against it is Bruce being wronged by all of this when his only crime is falling in love. He might be bland compared to Walter’s charisma but not offensively so that we champion Hildy going back to Walter.
Staying with Hawks’ predilection for strong women, Hildy is called upon to bail Bruce out of jail and other scrapes deliberately created by Walter, but this role reversal doesn’t emasculate Bruce as much as it makes Walter so loathsome Hildy would be well shot of him. Conversely, Hildy is also “one of the boys” at the courthouse pressroom where Williams is detained, giving her a sort of gravitas as a female reporter in an otherwise male dominated milieu.
But this twisted romance is only part of the story, the Williams’ saga offering a unique insight into simpler times for journalists. Each reporter at the press room has their own phone connected to their paper’s office to pass on the latest updates and make requests for money transfers and the like, creating a very busy and noisy environment in the race to get the scoop to print first.
The quote that opens this review comes from an exchange between Hildy and Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) a young woman who knows Williams is innocent but the other reporters won’t hear her pleas, they just want the gossip. Mollie is the voice of the disgusted, trying to prick the thick skin of the press to reach a dormant conscience only to be a tragic victim in this sordid tale.
When a blunder by bumbling Sheriff Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) allows Williams to escape with a gun, the tone darkens considerably and we temporarily forget this is meant to be a comedy. Along with police incompetence and corruption being exposed, the pillorying of the press’ reputation reaches levels of scathing opprobrium – the reporters themselves becoming rabid and physically distorted like the facts in their accounts of the story.
No-one embodies this more than Walter does when he arrives at the scene. He calls the office demanding the front page is cleared for the latest development in the Williams story; apparently Hitler’s latest atrocity in Europe is not important nor are the millions of lives lost as a result. It’s hard to tell if this barb is aimed at journalism or Hitler himself, either way it’s a direct hit.
It is said Hawks wanted to outdo the speedy delivery of the dialogue from the 1931 film and it shows in the machine gun precision of the busy verbiage by his star cast. As mentioned earlier, Cary Grant is almost irredeemable as Walter but the chemistry with Rosalind Russell is there, making Hildy a spitfire of a woman with bigger balls than the most of the men, including nice guy Bruce who was simply in over his head with her.
A revered classic it might be, I enjoyed His Girl Friday but it didn’t move me as other films in this genre or of similar status have. Competent enough filmmaking with a compelling if undercooked story, perhaps its value will be revealed in a rewatch.