1940's cinema, 1940's comedy, 1940's film, 1940's movies, cary grant, classic cinema, classic movies, comedy, comedy films, female journalists, female reporters, film, film review, films about journalism, his girl friday, journalism, movie review, movies, rosalind russell, screwball comedy
His Girl Friday, a 1940 American film directed by Howard Hawks, is a screwy yet highly entertaining film. As far as snappy dialogue goes, it can’t be beat, and for modern viewers the period slang is equally amusing. A story about a wise-cracking woman journalist who ostensibly must decide between two extremes, His Girl Friday reminds one of the relative liberality of the 1930’s and 1940’s, at least as compared to portrayals of women in the media in the 1950’s. Rosalind Russell’s character, Hildy, commands respect in her position as one of the top reporters in the town, and holds her own with her ex-husband Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, who is also the editor of one of the local papers and her former boss. When Hildly returns with her new fiance, a rather bland insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin, hijinks ensue, as Burns tries to tempt his ex-wife back into the reportage business with the covering of juicy murder case’s verdict.
Comically speaking, running gags include Walter mocking the hapless Bruce Baldwin, Hildy making fun of the the other reporters, and constant sparks between the two main characters. For instance, take this, one of Hildy’s many rants directed at Walter (this one over the telephone):
“Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain’t gonna be any interview and there ain’t gonna be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong! [tears up her story] Do you hear that? That’s the story I just wrote. Yes, yes, I know we had a bargain. I just said I’d write it. I didn’t say I wouldn’t tear it up. It’s all in little pieces now, Walter, and I hope to do the same for you some day!”
Overlapping dialogue adds to the manic pacing of the film, and gives it a distinctive feel. Given the movie’s screwball tone, the drama of the film feels a little cursory at times, but still somehow manages to grapple with questions of the death penalty, insanity pleas, Communists in the park, government corruption, and politicians who are solely interested in their own reelection, even at the cost of literal human life. It’s all very familiar (perhaps not the literal Communists in the park), and Hildy’s compassionate but balanced approach to understanding the many agents at play exemplifies the ideals of journalism. It’s also a profession that’s under attack in the film by corrupt politicians interested only in their own advancement, a theme that seems particularly relevant today.
Despite its strong depiction of a woman operating in an almost exclusively male world, the film’s predictable ending knocks its “plucky” heroine down a peg, as she bursts into tears when she believes Burns is truly over her, and happy to send her off with her new cloddish fiance. Upon learning that the fiance has again been arrested at his instigation, she is, of course, overjoyed. You see, she secretly loved Burns. It’s funny, to be sure, but this all-too predictable ending also implies that what women truly want is for men to ignore their professed intentions and desires at every turn, instead deceiving and manipulating them. This film, like many others, suggests that this is the path to successfully winning (or winning back, in this case) a woman’s heart. Thus Hildy, despite her impressive quick-wittedness and independence, is robbed of a great deal of her agency in the film’s conclusion, hardly surprising for the time but still disappointing. On the surface, Hildy rejects the “normal life” of family and children expected of most women, choosing instead to continue with the rough and tumble trade of journalism, an undeniably radical step. It’s telling, however, that it’s one or the other; both a stable family and a successful career seem unattainable, particularly for a woman. The ending is also one of false closure. Burns has changed not a bit and still displays all of the traits at the film’s conclusion which Hildy clearly despised at its beginning. His machinations have all worked out as he planned without too much effort or any character growth. If he was played by anyone less handsome and charming than Cary Grant, we probably wouldn’t be so amused. Nevertheless, the film up to this point doesn’t lack for laughs (as a contemporary reviewer might have put it), and succeeds in raising some serious questions in a delightfully, but not flippantly, light-hearted tone.
“His Girl Friday” is also shot and set during an interesting moment in history; the “war in Europe” comes up in the background several times, but is dismissed by multiple characters as not worthy of reportage compared to local drama. It is clear that at this moment, both mainstream filmmakers and everyday American audiences had more pressing things on their mind, such as the dangers of Communist ideology deranging ordinary citizens, and of local corruption. Burns even advises one of his editors to “stick Hitler on the funny pages;” the local capital punishment case seems much more important than some crazy German dictator. Such casual asides like this provide an interesting window into the character of the times.
A surprisingly multilayered farce of a movie, His Girl Friday is downright hilarious for most of its runtime, while also employing of the time-old tropes of male/female relations, tropes which instill some rather twisted notions of acceptable behavior, however amusingly they might play out on screen. I’d certainly recommend watching it, but with a critical eye. To me, at least, genre films like this are still highly enjoyable, even if sometimes their ultimate implications feel a little dated. Snappy dialogue, witty gags, and spirited debate never go out of style, and this 78 year old film proves just that.
Some other interesting analyses of this film to check out: