Film Review: His Girl Friday (1940)


Today journalists are hailed as heroes, at least if the mainstream in Western countries is concerned, very much due to their role of keepers of official truths without which Western civilisation is supposed to collapse. In the old days, however, journalism was treated with much less reverence and became subject of biting satire, just like everything else. One example can be found in The Front Page, popular 1928 comedy play by Peter Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which would be adapted for screen four times. Second of those adaptation, 1940 film His Girl Friday directed by Howard Hawks, is considered to be one of the finest screwball comedies of Classic Hollywood era.

The plot begins when Hildegarde “Hildy” Johnson (played by Rosalind Russell), top reporter of Morning Post newspaper, comes to the office to tell her current boss and former husband Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant) that she would quit her job. She intends to travel to Miami where she would marry bland insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (played by Ralph Bellamy) and start new, presumably more quiet, life as wife and mother. This coincides with developing sensational news story about Earl Williams (played by John Qualen), a man who is about to be hanged for the murder of black policeman. Morning Post has championed Williams’ case, portraying him as victim of the miscarriage of justice and describing killing as an unfortunate accident. Walter talks Hildy into covering the story before she departs for Albany, while at the same time using street criminal Louie (played by Abner Bieberman) to help him prevent Bruce from departing and thus keeping Hildy in the city. When she arrives to Criminal Court building, Hildy’s journalistic instincts reappear and she begins conducting interviews and writing articles. Situation becomes even more exciting when Williams manages to escape due to incompetence of Sheriff Hartwell (played by Gene Lockhart).

His Girl Friday is considered to be one of the funniest films of its time. Yet, beneath the humour there is a film which is quite dark. It gives rather bleak depiction of pre-WW2 urban America, with seemingly comical newspaper headlines dictated by cynical reporters telling how the police is ultra-violent and incompetent; politicians pander to ethnic and racial bias or a simply corrupt; shadow of Great Depression still looms large and unemployment plays major part in Williams’ path to the death row. And, of course, journalism doesn’t fare any better; newspaper thrive on sensational and catastrophic events which are enhanced through manipulation or “creative” interpretations. Nominal protagonist, who represents journalism, actually goes even further and commits actual crimes that include theft, counterfeit money, kidnapping, aiding dangerous criminal fugitive and framing innocent man for crimes he didn’t commit. Walter Burns does all that and in most other films he would have been a villain, but here he is the protagonist. It takes a lot of Cary Grant’s charm and talent to make that character sympathetic. Same can be said for character of Hildy, who starts by trying to do the “right thing” as good and “proper” wife, but ultimately reveals herself under the influence of same shark-like instincts as her former husband. Rosalind Russell, a talented actress who wasn’t among the biggest names of Classic Hollywood, plays such character excellently and has fine chemistry with Grant; unsurprisingly, that proved to be her best known role. Apart from Bruce, who is supposed to be “normal” character, all others are either cynical or corrupt. The only exception and the closest thing to moral anchor of this film is character of Mollie Malloy (played by Helen Mack), character of young woman who had helped Williams out of pure kindness only to be described as his girlfriend. She protests her treatment to the reporters, which is followed by rebellious but tragically pointless act which represents the darkest moment in the film.

Yet, His Girl Friday is best remembered as comedy, and a comedy well done. A lot of credit should go to director Howard Hawks, one of Classic Hollywood grand masters, known for his genre versatility and also for directing Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, another screwball comedy classic. Hawks was aided well by scriptwriter Charles Lederer. Script changed a lot of the dialogues from the original play, making it sound quite rapid and dynamic in the film. Hawks used some innovative techniques while shooting, allowing various characters to talk over each other in a way which is both realistic and comprehensive to audience. But the greatest alteration from the play was the decision to change character of Hildy from male to female. This allowed not only element of love triangle to the film, but also gave His Girl Friday proto-feminist dimension, making it into one of the first films to feature female character in profession then considered inherently male. Film is also known for production that was unusual for Classic Hollywood, which included cast members improvising dialogue instead of strictly following script. There were also internal jokes (like mention of Cary Grant’s real name in the film), as well as strange “meta” moment when character of Bruce being described as someone “looking like Ralph Bellamy”, actual actor playing him. Some of today’s viewers might be troubled by the lack of music, black-and-white photography and film giving away its theatrical origin with most of the plot taking place in the same location. Despite that His Girl Friday is an entertaining film that proves that even comedy classics made almost a century ago can be funny today.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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