His Girl Friday (1940)
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
Walter: What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a school of journalism. I took a doll-faced hick.
Hildy: Well, you wouldn’t take me if I hadn’t been doll-faced…
Walter: Listen. I made a great reporter out of you, HildyWe’re a team. That’s what we are. You need me and I need you, and the paper needs both of us.
Hildy: Listen Walter, the paper’s gonna have to get along without me. So are you. It just didn’t work out, Walter.
Walter: Well, it would have worked out if you’d been satisfied with just being editor and reporter – but not you! You had to marry me and spoil everything.
Reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) walks into the Chicago Morning Post’s office after a sabbatical to tell her boss and recently divorced husband that she will not be returning to work, ever. She has found a man who “treats her like a woman” and is planning to settle down and live “like a real human being.” Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the paper’s editor, is on top of a hot story about a criminal’s execution and won’t let his top “newspaperman” go easily. He’s used to getting his own way and embarks on an elaborate scheme to keep Hildy at the paper, and in his life.
Howard Hawks, the director, is increasingly being recognized as a master film maker. As a utilitarian director, he subordinates his personal style to the needs of the material. Thus, he was able to excel in almost every popular genre of his day including comedy (Bringing up Baby), military (Air Force), westerns (Red River), and gangster films (Scarface). Furthermore, this master storyteller usually played an important role in writing the scripts for his movies.
His Girl Friday is based on the hit Broadway play, The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. This material has been made into several films including a 1974 version starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but His Girl Friday is the most successful. Instead of a strict adaptation of the already popular play, Hawks took “artistic license.” After supposedly hearing a woman read the part of Hildy, he changed the character of Hildebrand Johnson, a male newspaperman, into a woman (also changing the character name to Hildegaard so she could still go by “Hildy”). Increasing the stakes, he gave Hildy and Walter Burns, the manic newspaper editor, a romantic history in the form of a failed marriage. These changes led screenwriter Charles Lederer to the invention of new emotionally charged scenes infused with the frenetic spirit of the Hecht/MacArthur play.
The film features fast, overlapping, and witty dialogue spewing out of emotionally tough characters. There is hardly a moment to breathe under the barrage of words and action. Hawks necessarily uses long takes that allow the actors to work their magic on screen. The pacing is frenetic, but there is an almost musical rhythm to the dialogue and comic timing that shows the touch of a great director.
Cary Grant, as Walter Burns, the editor of the Post, shows off his genius for timing and characterization. Like Hawks, Grant is often considered a lesser actor because “he always plays the same character.” Nevertheless, Grant is a great actor. There are no false moments, even in this larger-than-life characterization. Look for the moment where he refers to Archie Leach–a reference to his real name, Archibald Leach.
The history of the female lead is interesting. The “new and improved” role of Hildy was turned down by several well-known actresses of the day. When it finally came to Rosalind Russell, she was skeptical, but agreed. To her credit, as well as Hawks’, she is perfect. She matches Grant’s rapid-fire delivery, toughness, and masculine aggressiveness without losing her femininity.
Hildy’s determination to leave Walter and the newspaper business is a quest to live “like a real human being.” What does she really mean? To the reporters, people are simply means to a good scoop. As the film expresses, people are “production for use”; or people’s existence is just fodder for a good story. And the story doesn’t even need to be accurate, so long as it sells newspapers. Hecht and MacArthur, newspapermen themselves, knew this world well and most of the dialogue in the press room, comes straight from their play.
Walter Burns is the worst offender of the “production for use” idea. He justifies framing innocent people with forgery, solicitation of prostitutes, and pick pocketing and is even willing to kidnap someone and harbor a fugitive to meet his own ends. He is not alone in his corruption, though. The mayor and sheriff both use the criminal’s execution for political gain even to the extent that they pretend a reprieve from the Governor was never delivered. Even the more innocent looking members of the story seem to be guilty of “production for use” in the people department. Hildy, we find by the film’s end, doesn’t truly love Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). She simply sees him as a means to a normal lifestyle.
Is there no silver lining to this chain of inhumanity? A slight one. After all of Walter’s manipulation, Hildy realizes that he truly loves her. They are meant to be together because they are perfect for each other. Walter expresses his affection for people by keeping them with him, even if it may be against their will. While this misguided approach to personal relations is egocentric, Hildy realizes that it is his way of not letting her go without a fight. Perhaps the more reasonable approach would be to buy her flowers, but if things were reasonable, His Girl Friday wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.