His Girl Friday (1940)

Directed by Howard Hawks

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There’s a moment in His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ fast-talking screwball comedy, in which Cary Grant looks like he’s about to break.  It’s a scene in which two reporters working together are delighted to confront the mayor with evidence of his own political corruption.  They are proud of themselves, to be sure, but it’s a wonderfully-scripted scene in which the mayor flounders as he tries to defend himself.  The moment is funny and slick, with all the carefully choreographed dialogue bouncing between characters, but beyond that it just looks like Grant is having the time of his life.

It’s a moment of humanity you don’t often see in films of this era.  No matter if they are funny or dramatic or heartwarming, you get the feeling that everything in a film like His Girl Friday is intended to be perfect.  The camera movements, the blocking, the lighting, etc.  It’s all meant to be carefully rehearsed and meticulously staged.  The characters of His Girl Friday are electrifying and stimulating in their own way, reporters who make journalism feel like a compulsion, but when Grant seems to struggle to contain his smile it finally felt like the actors were having as much fun as I hoped they were having.

This is a screwball, zany comedy after all.  It’s entertaining and broadly funny, and there’s that part of me that wants the people behind it to enjoy it as much as I imagine I would.  It’s that same part of me that, as a child, was distraught to learn that my favorite band was breaking up, that a favorite athlete was taking steroids or that Mitch Hedberg had died a few years before I even figured out who he was.

The story of His Girl Friday takes place over the course of a single frenzied day and night.  Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) learns that his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is set to marry an insurance man and leave the newspaper industry far behind.  He is more disturbed to hear that she’s quitting the business than that she’s going to be married the following day, to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), the boring antithesis to Walter’s attractive insanity.  This creates a love triangle that is as much about a way of life as it is about the individuals involved.

Undeterred by Baldwin, Walter hatches a plan to get Hildy to write him one last story, sure that the lure of the job will be too much for her to leave behind for good.  She heads down to the press room at the local Criminal Courts Building, overlooking the gallows where Earl Williams is to be hanged the following morning.  There she joins a small group of other bored reporters, sitting by playing cards or trying to look up the skirts of women who pass by the stairway just outside the window.  They are like firefighters without a fire to put out or soldiers wasting away in the trenches between battles.  When there is no action the reporters begin to question why it is they bother with this line of work, but when Earl Williams escapes from prison it gives them the adrenaline rush they’ve been looking for.

Williams is believed to be a Communist revolutionary who killed a black police officer.  The mayor wants him executed the following morning, knowing it’ll help him secure the black vote in his upcoming bid for re-election.  In reality Williams is no Communist revolutionary, just a melancholy man who shot the police officer by accident.  When the mayor receives a message from the Governor to give Williams a reprieve, he ignores the letter and instead of shooting the messenger, gives him a higher salary to look the other way.

Much of film takes place in the press room as characters filter out to get the latest updates on the Williams story and inevitably back in to phone their reports to their respective editors.  The commotion is all outside, but for the newspapermen it follows them back inside the press room.

Hildy is thrilled when she gets an exclusive scoop on the Williams case.  She spent $450 of her soon-to-be husband’s money on it and asks a delighted Walter to pay her back for the story.  Walter does, but he sends his hatchet man out to give Hildy $450 in counterfeit money.  It’s just the latest in a series of tricks Walter pulls to sabotage Baldwin and which gets Baldwin thrown in a jail three separate times over the course of the night.

In the end Hildy’s excitement for her job is too much to abandon.  She alienates Baldwin and his mother who even shows up, and she falls right back into Walter’s arms.  As much as they may love each other it’s really just the thrill of the story that brings them to life.

The characters speak quickly in His Girl Friday, very quickly.  The normal rate of spoken dialogue in a movie might be around 90 words a minute, but here it’s been measured at 240 words a minute.

It’s wall-to-wall dialogue, most often with three or more characters in a scene.  Characters speak over each other (extremely rare for the time, when actors were instructed not to step on each other’s lines), and the performers often improvise a line here or there.  One of the best is when Grant refers to Baldwin, the character played by Ralph Bellamy, by saying “He looks like that fellow in the movies.. you know, Ralph Bellamy!”

Other improvised lines include when one reporter calls another “Stairway Sam” due to his leering up the skirts of women who pass by just outside the window.  It’s a subtle moment which normally wouldn’t get passed the censors but did here, possibly just because of how brief it is.

The characters speak unbelievably quickly, and it’s often hard to keep up with them.  Even the cameraman apparently had trouble following what was going on, so for the most part the film was shot in wide angles, framing multiple characters at once (though that wasn’t uncommon at the time).  In a given shot there might be seven characters framed up, and the emphasis always seems to be on the verbal exchange more than who’s speaking.  It’s about the way people talk, the speed with which they communicate and oftentimes the struggle for two sane people to communicate clearly.

Early in the story Grant fumbles his way through an introduction to Bruce Baldwin, at one point shaking Baldwin’s umbrella instead of his hand, and later on this kind of physical comedy will return when the Governor’s messenger reaches for a letter that had already been taken from his pocket.  The characters’ physical flailing book ends their verbal assaults on each other.

The story mostly satirizes the newspaper industry, but it also touches on political corruption, the manipulation of public sentiment and a woman’s place within society.  In the play off which this film is based, Hildy is a man, but when Howard Hawks conducted test reads during auditions, with his female secretary reading Hildy’s lines, he decided to rewrite the role as a female character.  Though most of the story remain unchanged, there is the underlying subtext of a woman choosing between career and family in an either/or scenario.

For Hildy she has to give one thing up for the other.  Her options are to stay in the city, riding the high of chasing the story, or move upstate to Albany and settle down with an insurance agent.  The other characters, namely Walter, scoff at the notion of living in Albany, but for them there is no need to make such a choice.

None of the male characters in this story have any qualms about what they’re doing beyond the initial musings that maybe journalism isn’t the career for them (until we’re reminded that it is).  This is their job, and even more importantly, their life.  If they had a tough decision to make once upon a time, it was long ago.  What they take for granted is something very immediate to Hildy.

She could settle down with Walter, and in the end she does, but there probably isn’t much settling down in such a proposition.  Their shared affection is a shared love of the journalism high.  They fall for each other once again after they are nearly sent to jail for hiding Williams (all in the name of the story), and this comes after we are told they fell for each other the first time while on a week-long hideout following a previous near-imprisonment.  Hildy and Walter live on the edge, and in that life there will probably be no family to raise, something Hildy says she hopes for one day.

So for Hildy the urge to follow the story is somewhat detrimental.  It gets in the way of the rest of her life, so it necessitates a choice to be made.  For Walter and the other men it gets in the way of nothing.

That being said, this is a happy film with a happy ending.  We’re made to feel that Hildy and Walter are meant for each other, and it certainly feels that way.  The film’s culmination, with Grant’s bubbly smile, is earned and earnest.  It feels right for the story, and we cheer for the romantic leads’ inevitable union.

Hildy and Walter, it seems, may not have to choose between one way of life or another because they’ve found something else entirely.  The other newsman all seem disenchanted when they’re not frantically racing for the story, but Hildy and Walter have a strange sort of swagger to themselves.  It’s like they’re riding the same high as the other reporters, but for them it never runs out.

Up Next: House of Games (1987), Andre the Giant (2018), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)

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