Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Howard Hawks’ production of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) is a slap happy mixture of 1930s screwball comedy and a Warner Brothers social conscience film from the same decade. It also looks forward to the social realist dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931) utilizing one of the screenwriters of that film, Charles Lederer. Both films were based on the play “The Front Page” by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. HIS GIRL FRIDAY underwent some gender bending, changing the main character of “Hildy Johnson” into a beautiful woman, and transforming the film – in a roundabout way – into a different sort of love story than the one originally envisioned.

In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a morally corrupt newspaper editor, wants his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to come back to work for his paper. Burns – for the purpose of selling papers – has taken up the cause of Earl Williams (John Qualen) who is about to be executed for the murder of a cop. He may or may not be innocent by reason of insanity. Hildy was Burns’ best writer, and he is convinced her writing skills will get Williams the reprieve he desperately needs. And Burns desperately needs the reprieve – you guessed it – to sell more papers.

The gender bending of HIS GIRL FRIDAY goes beyond the switcheroo with the main character. Walter Burns constantly refers to Hildy in masculine terms. When trying to convince her to come back to work for him, he implores “You’re a newspaperman!” Since Burns claims he was drunk when he proposed marriage, he scolds her for accepting with “If you’d have been a gentlemen you’d have forgotten all about it!” Hildy is engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) because he treats her “like a woman” and says sappy things such as “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” She eats it up. Though Burns gives her the “one of the guys” treatment most of the time, he is not above occasionally treating her like a child, inviting her to sit on his knee after delivering this loo loo: “Theres’s a lamp burning in a window for you, right here.” Refusing, she responds with “I jumped out that window a long time ago.”

Though she seems to desire the delicate female treatment, a hint of her inner fire is displayed in lines such as the above (which also prefigures a suicide leap by a secondary character) and also in her wardrobe. Throughout the film she wears bold striped designs while her ex-husband is seen in conservative grey suits. And her husband to be is a buttoned down guy as well – an insurance salesman who is looked down upon by her ex. In fact Bruce is viewed by Burns as so milquetoast that the editor grabs the handle of the insurance man’s umbrella, shaking it instead of his hand, on their first meeting. The umbrella, like the goloshes he wears, signify to Burns (and us) that Bruce is a bit of a sissy, who doesn’t fully exist without the conveniences of modern life. And he may be right about the whimp factor. When the three principles go to dinner, Bruce (who is not paying attention) accidentally sits in Burns’ lap! And Bruce is mixed up in other ways: When defending his profession, he ridiculously states “We don’t help people much when they’re alive – but when they’re dead – that’s what counts!” Even stranger, Bruce plans to take his mother on the couple’s honeymoon and he and Hildy intend to live with Mother after the nuptials.

The cynicism about the insurance industry is mild compared to what the filmmakers unleash on the newspaper business. Before and after taking the job (Burns buys a hefty life insurance policy in order to persuade her) Hildy makes clear her distaste for her profession. When her fellow reporters fabricate salacious stories about Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) and Earl Williams (she brought flowers to his cell after being touched by his plight) Molly bursts into tears, shouting “They’re not even human!” Hildy responds with “I know, they’re newspaper men!” Perhaps Hildy’s disgust at being treated like a man stems from the fact that all the reporters she has encountered throughout her career happen to be men. As the Earl Williams story progresses she is more and more seduced by her old life and career and becomes much more like the man Burns has always admired. After Earl’s escape from the police station, with cops and everyone else in hot pursuit, she chases down the Warden (Pat West) and literally tackles him in the street to get the story. This is perhaps the funniest scene in the film and the one most evocative of 1930s screwball comedies, including Hawks’ own BRINGING UP BABY. On a darker order, gallows are being built outside the press room. The “Gentlemen of the press” as Hildy sarcastically calls them, are doing their best to see Williams hang. The symbolism is obvious.

And then there are the politicians…and the Doctors who analyze Williams for the state…and everyone else in the bureaucracy. They all come in for cynical dissection. The politicians manipulate Williams’ fate for their own political purposes, with the Governor (whom we never see) being a fan of “red menace” conspiracy theories and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) issuing a “shoot to kill” order against Williams to further his reelection bid. The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart) announces excitedly “I have the tickets for the hanging here boys!” as he enters the press room, as though the state sponsored murder were a stage show. The Sheriff and Psychiatrist (Edwin Maxwell) discuss banalities in front of Earl Williams, ignoring him completely. When the poor man objects, the shrink offers a half-hearted apology:”I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Williams. I forgot you were there.”

There are countless witty touches and inside jokes scattered throughout the film. Feigning heartbreak (though he truly loves Hildy) Burns dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief saying “Maybe she’ll think of me after I’m gone”, then gently taps Bruce on the shoulder to make sure he will not miss this piece of finely tuned choreography. Near the end of the film Burns refers to a nefarious character named “Archie Leach”, which is Cary Grant’s real name.

Despite these light touches HIS GIRL FRIDAY remains a most cynical piece of film history. It is to newspaper professions what Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) is to the movie business. This is perhaps the reason Wilder himself chose to do yet a third version of the film in 1974, under the play’s original title. A fourth version – by the way – called SWITCHING CHANNELS was made in 1988 updating the story to the television era and using the gender make up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play THE FRONT PAGE by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Photography by Joseph Walker. Music by Sydney Cutner. Edited by Gene Havlik. WITH: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Abner Biberman, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Alma Kruger, Edwin Maxwell.

Advertisements

July 10, 2013 - Posted by | 1940s cinema, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: