The tone of Howard Hawks’ 1940 comedy His Girl Friday – now available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray – is difficult to pin down, and that may be its greatest strength. It’s presented like a comedy, and has some of the wittiest cinematic banter to come out of 1940s Hollywood (which was, of course, a golden time for banter), but it’s also a dark tale of workplace oppression, execution, and violence. It goes well beyond the pale of “dark comedy” into something that can be read as downright cynical. Watching the film again for the purposes of this review revealed that His Girl Friday may have to be considered less as a comedy, and more like a film noir.
His Girl Friday was adapted by Charles Lederer from a 1928 hit play called The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The Front Page had previously been adapted into a 1931 film, but it was Howard Hawks who look the lead character and gender-flipped him, so that he could be played by the amazing Rosalind Russell. This decision turned The Front Page from a simple workplace drama into a treatise on gender equality that is still considered a feminist object to this very day. The Front Page was adapted several other times for film, TV, and radio, but His Girl Friday (and the less-than-notable 1988 comedy Switching Channels) were the only ones to engage in this gender-flip, making it one of the most-cited feminist objects of its time.
But, gender politics aside for the time being, His Girl Friday is simply an infectious, energetic drama. The world of journalists as presented in the film is presented as a hard-scrabble, bustling, unending litany of out-scooping, truth-seeking, and ego-clashing. This is a world that moves quickly. People have to talk quickly and think quickly. The camera, as such, moves quickly. Fades move into other moving fades. There is constant activity. Even a cynical modern viewer couldn’t help but be swept up in the staggering electricity on display.
The world of His Girl Friday is also a world that has been drained of its optimism in myriad little ways. When a bunch of male reporters gather around to cool off and play cards, their conversation reveals they know how stories are going pan out. These assumptions are likely well-honed, although they are often incorrect; Russell scoops them.
The scooping, by the way, is actually part of a romantic comedy plot. Cary Grant plays Walter Burns, a reporter who was recently dumped by Hildy Johnson (Russell). They are divorced, which is a word not often heard in films of the 1940s. Walter’ wants Hildy to stay in town so that they may rekindle their romance, even though she has clearly moved on. He tempts her with a story of an upcoming execution, and her professionalism keeps her in town; if she can break this story, she’d be willing to stick around until it’s seen out.
Russell’s character Hildy Johnson is striking in how gloriously talented she is. Hildy, while being manipulated by Walter, is never seen as a dupe or a sap. Indeed, it’s Walter who comes across as desperate and pathetic. Hildy is the most capable person in any room she enters, and it’s Walter who has to earn her respect, and not the other way around. Grant is a charmer of course – one of cinema’s finest – but he was cleverly taken from center stage here. He’s the duplicitous character who, through his actions, admits that Hildy is much, much better than he in just about every regard. The title, while treating Hildy like a sidekick, is actually ironic.
But, at the same time, Grant is doing her a favor. He knows that her new life in Albany – as a housewife – wouldn’t suit her. She’s too smart and too talented to leave. Grant is a feminist character, then, in that he presents a woman with a choice of life, rather than succumbing to what most other women were doing. Russell appears to be ambivalent about her decision. The roles of women in the 1940s were not being openly discussed in mainstream film, and here was a studio product that said, out loud, that women should be allowed to choose whatever career they want. His Girl Friday is more feminist than it even gets credit for.
But about those tonal problems: Were this film a lighthearted rekindling-the-romance story, then it would work fine, and if it were a hard-hitting dissection of the way the news has become too sensationalized, it would also work fine. But His Girl Friday walks the line between ebullient and resigned. The romantic plot is too upbeat for the rest of the movie, and the execution plot is downright dangerous. Indeed, there will be a shot of a shadowy gallows and a lot of gunfire by the film’s end. By the time everything wraps up, one would think Hildy and Walter would be too depressed to talk about rekindling their romance.
This tonal clash has bothered me for many years, and I was ready to write off His Girl Friday as something I simply misunderstood. A revisitiation, however, provided me with a chance to live in this film’s hard-nosed milieu. As I stated above, its energy simply prevails. And its darkness, while not necessarily appropriate to its stated purpose, does feel daring. Plus, Hildy is such a brilliant cinematic creation, and Russell portrays her so impeccably, that it’s hard not to fall in love.
Top Image: Columbia Pitcures
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The New Beverly ‘Blog, and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.