His Girl Friday (1940)

“I’m through with the newspaper business.”

His Girl Friday is both an absolute sprint of a screwball comedy and a harsh rebuke of the misguided, manipulated integrity of journalistic behavior. It’s also a romance, but not in the modern conventional way, and it’s visually of the same ilk as a stage play, in more ways than one. The script itself lacks closure, and its middle gets a little lost in the swirl of headlines, yet it’s only because the film is so deeply invested in the hard-boiled behavior of newspapermen. Scoops a plenty come and go around the newsroom, and His Girl Friday is a classic example of how writers – both in real life and in film – warp stories to fit their own preferred narrative through line. Here is a comedy which makes you laugh and allows you time, albeit briefly, to properly think about its actions.

Hildy Johnson’s (Rosalind Russell, superb in such a challenging role) time at the “The Morning Post” is up. Once a budding reporter with a talent for tying together line after line of the written word, Hildy is dead-set on freeing herself from the lion’s den of journalism, ready to make house in Albany with Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), an insurance salesman who’s a kind, thoughtful, and quite the safe gamble. Bruce is incredibly insouciant, blind to the bad in men, and Hildy takes a liking to his innocence. She’s recently divorced from Walter Burns (Cary Grant), the paper’s editor and a reptilian con artist, lying habitually while keeping his own interest at the forefront of his mind, slightly less when it comes to Hildy, though. They share an acrimonious relationship – bordering on the addictive, for a person and this particular line of profession – that ends nearly the same as it begins. His Girl Friday has a journalistic edge in this regard; the two leads write the same story from start to finish, just with different adjectives and adverbs.

The beginning of the film is important, and it speaks to the honest intentions of the main characters. Hildy drags Bruce along so she can wave her new engagement ring in her ex-husband’s face. Walter pulls every trick from his hat in order to delay her departure. They still want each other but they’re too damn stubborn to admit it or to fold before their loving opponent’s mind games. To cool things down, the story invests time in Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man accused of first-degree murder after shooting an African-American cop. I wanted to love His Girl Friday because it’s so funny and surprisingly insightful, but this middle chapter lost me completely, delving into the Fourth Estate’s influence over local politics while spinning countless wheels of yarns without a touch of Rumpelstiltskin gold. The film is never better than when Grant and Russell spar on-screen, which makes his lengthy and abrupt departure all the more frustrating. For a movie obsessed with front page headlines, it sure does spend a great deal of time back in the opinions section.

Like the very profession of journalism, His Girl Friday allows its heavy, convoluted chattiness to inflict pure exhaustion. With some inspired shots edited and cut together at the clip of a semi-automatic and dialogue spoken at the pace of an experienced auctioneer, Howard Hawks’ film wears us out without becoming tiresome. And while the script ties too many strings on its fingers as reminders, so much so that many remain knotted, Hawks’ picture presents a prescient – albeit deeply flawed – depiction of feminism and toxic masculinity in the workplace. One woman, so frustrated by the chauvinistic pigs’ lies and deceit, jumps out of a window to her hopeful demise. They see it only as a new story development. Meanwhile, Hildy redacts her path towards the comfort of the housewife lifestyle with a white-picket fence before that becomes a permanent part of her life’s publication. Expertly crafted and a tad underwritten for my liking, His Girl Friday explores the relationship between man and woman, politics and the press, and between the public and the private sectors so well that it’s rather amazing this picture still holds up both dramatically and comically almost 80 years later.

“You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world.”

Rating: 4 out of 5


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