#849 His Girl Friday
1940 // USA // Howard Hawks
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Watching, and “listening” to, Howard Hawks’ fast paced, hilariously acted, snappily written screwball comedy His Girl Friday is an exhilarating experience, perhaps even close to excruciating if English is not your native language. It’s quite an audacious challenge to catch up with every phases and words while simultaneously articulate each twists and turns in the plot. Acclaimed for its rapid fired conversation and overlapping dialogues, the film warrants multiple viewings in order to fully grasped the brilliance of Hawks’ direction, the grandeur of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s delightful performance, and the ingenuity of Charles Lederer’s adapted screenplay from the original play The Front Page it based on.
The 1928 stage play The Front Page by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had a long lasting significance in American culture, as shown by its numerous adaptations in radio and silven screen. The 1931’s film The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone (renowned for the Academy Award winning film All Quiet on the Western Front) with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien as the two leads, is the first screen transformation, and a commercial successful too. The versatile director Billy Wilder directed the 1974 version which starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. But what makes Hawks’ version stand out among the competitors is the gender switch of the leading character, from Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson to Rosalind Russell’s Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson.
The gender conflict, sexual tension, marital problem under farcical situations, to name a few, are exemplary motifs of screwball comedies. Hawks had made two highly acclaimed screwball comedies beforehand, Twentieth Century (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), both features “Hawksian woman” (Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn respectively) as the leading lady, a character archetype of tough-talking highly independent woman. “Hawksian woman” is often regarded as the prototype of the feminist cinema who could stand on her own against, maybe even prevail over, the male-dominated society. Rosalind’s Hildy attains the status of an ace reporter among her male colleagues in the war zone of a press room, even her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who happens to be her ex-husband, couldn’t afford to lose her.
The opening tracking shot displays how competent and comfortable she is in the office of Chicago’s Morning Post, a busy working world of journalism. She is born to be a journalist, as shown later in her purposive prompting interview with the soon-to-be-hung murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen), as well as the sincere praise from her male colleagues on her superb reporting skills exhibited in her typewritten interview. Yet the main determination of Hildy throughout the film is to abandon her career, hence her ex-husband, in order to be a housewife with her dull and not-so-bright fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), “a traitor of journalism” as Walter scorned. The feminine illustration of Rosalind’s character, together with her dazzling performance, provides a modernistic in-depth insight on woman in working field. The duality between domestic (opted for Bruce, catch up the train to Albany with him and get marry the next day) or career (back to Walter and her journalistic role, write the report on Earl Williams’ case) maybe an oversimplified induction, the rapid fired dialogues and lighting speed pacing may impede our logical thinking and hinder us from asking any third option Hildy could pick. From the moment Hildy steps into Walter’s office, we know they will, and have to, be together at the end, since it’s a screwball comedy after all.
Hawks had used Cary Grant to be the male leads three films in a row, the first being Bringing Up Baby, then the aero-action-drama Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and now His Girl Friday. The comedic tone of Grant’s exaggerated, almost pantomime gesture is imbued with a charming effect, even though Grant’s character Walter is arguably an immoral, exploitative, disdainful guy. He, even though as an editor in chief, employs the hoodlum Louie (Abner Biberman) as his subordinate to do his dirty tricks, included stealing, kidnapping and counterfeiting, in an attempt to manoeuvre Hildy away from marrying Bruce. But we, just as Hildy did, could not help but admire Walter’s hideous but smart double crossing technique, his competent smirk and arrogance. On the other hand, Bruce’s generosity and politeness could not overcome his naiveness, he’s like a pawn destined to be eaten by the carnivore, while both Walter and Hildy are carnivorous.
The unethical means and methods by the journalists, “the dark ages of the newspaper game – when a reporter getting that story justified anything short of murder” as the opening title card explained, is the key theme of both the play and the film. The reporters made up scoop for the sensational purpose, exaggerating fact or obstructing the truth. Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), the nice girl (a prostitute?) who happened to shelter and befriend Earl Williams the night before he killed the cop, accused the group of journalists of telling lies (“I never said I loved Earl Williams and was willing to marry him on the gallows”). The existence of inhuman and unscrupulous journalists, “the gentlemen of the press” as Hildy puts it, is not only present in “the dark ages” but a continuous fact. It’s also a recurring theme in Hollywood films, from the classic Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), to Dan Gilroy’s contemporary neo-noir Nightcrawler (2014), there’s always darkness in the industry.
As the reporters await the hanging of Earl Williams, thus the new scoop of the story and the backroom politics, nobody really cares the outcome of Earl. After two reprieves, the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) and Sheriff Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) make use of the death sentence to gain votes from the African-Americans (Earl shot a black cop) for the election three days after the hanging, but things turn to chaos when Earl escaped the night before the execution. The urgency of the situation, the cruelty of the politicians, the tragic suicide of Molley, all generate a darkness that, at times, disproportionate the overall comedic tone. The imbalance makes us question our justification to laugh at others’ suffering. This feeling diminished gradually upon repeated viewing though, and laughter turns to appreciation. How Hawks intertwined the two opposing elements could hardly be considered flawless, yet the pace is able to carry our emotion through all the drawbacks.
His Girl Friday probably has the most number of dialogues in a 90-minute film, thus a short duration of silence becomes much more prominent. After Malloy scolded the journalists in the press room and left with Hildy, the room turned into complete silence, there’s no sarcastic comment, no card playing conversation, even no phone ringing. While the silence lasts for a few seconds only, but it certainly felt like eternity. I consider this moment the time of self-reflection, as well as the vertex of a masterpiece.