Bright Lights Film Journal

The Crazy World of His Girl Friday (1940)

Publicity shot. Columbia Pictures/Photofest

His Girl Friday’s headlong pace feels like that of modern life, and its rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue calls to mind our modern media babble, with innumerable people around the globe and across a wide variety of media talking, yelling, arguing – competing desperately to get a word in, to be listened to, heard, understood.

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How to classify this rich, bizarre concoction of a movie? Calling His Girl Friday screwball comedy – one of the funniest ever made – would be right but would also be to ignore everything else that makes it such a multilayered delight: its vein of dark humor, mordant spoofing of journalism and journalists, interrogation of the value of language and intimations of madness. And there is its prescience: here, after all, is a movie that was released in 1940 and into a society and media environment we would have trouble imagining today but that points the way toward the news and entertainment cacophony of the twenty-first century.

In some ways, His Girl Friday is very much of its time and easy to categorize. Its clearest genre allegiances are to the overlapping cinematic realms of screwball and the comedy of remarriage, putting it in the company of classics such as The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941).

His Girl Friday also has strong claims to dark comedy. The fact that Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), fiancé of former and future Morning Post reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), sells life insurance comes in for mockery not only by Hildy’s former and future editor and husband, Walter Burns (Cary Grant) – “It’s adventurous! It’s romantic!” – but even by Bruce himself, even if he doesn’t realize it as he explains that “I’m in the one business that helps people. Of course, we don’t help you much while you’re alive, but afterward – that’s what counts.” (Bruce and Hildy met in, of all places, Bermuda. What the hell was Bruce doing there? Attending an insurance convention? It’s almost as hard to imagine him relaxing on a beach as it is to imagine him having sex with Hildy or, perhaps, anyone else.)

Most of the dark humor, though, centers on convicted killer Earl Williams (John Qualen) and his supposedly impending execution by hanging. Only prostitute Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) takes Earl seriously as a person. Otherwise (except during the quiet, sober jailhouse interview), he’s dehumanized, especially by the journalists. Sometimes he’s a punch line, as when the Morning Post’s city editor, Duffy (Frank Orth), complains that “tomorrow Earl Williams dies and makes a sucker out of us,” as if Earl wanted to be hanged for that reason and as if his life did not matter except as a news story. The reporters in the press room of the criminal courts building, meanwhile, treat Earl as the butt of literal gallows humor, telling Mollie that “they’re fixing up a pain in the neck for your boyfriend.”

For Walter, Earl matters only as copy, and even for Hildy, Earl is mostly an annoyance – the only thing standing between her and the life she thinks she wants. Being a great reporter, she listens to him carefully during her interview, but there is no indication that she cares about him as a person. And when Earl is neither a punch line nor grist for the media, he’s a non-entity. The psychiatrist supposed to be evaluating him forgets that Earl, seated a few feet away, is even in the room. Not long after that, Earl is hidden in a rolltop desk, literally becoming part of the furniture and thus invisible.

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But while His Girl Friday’s comedic bona fides are beyond question, calling it a newspaper movie presents problems. In a technical sense, it is – many of the characters work at a newspaper. Consider, however, some of its precedents and antecedents in that category – Five Star Final (1931), Citizen Kane (1941), Ace in the Hole (1951), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), All the President’s Men (1976), The Paper (1994), State of Play (2009), and Spotlight (2015). All concern newspapers, reporters, columnists, or editors using their power for good or ill. By that standard, His Girl Friday is closer to a send-up of a newspaper movie or an anti-newspaper movie, putting journalists at the center of the story while denying their importance or influence and questioning the very idea that a newspaper, or even the printed word, can do anything to help or hurt anyone.

Hildy, at Walter’s request, delays her marriage plans to write one more story to, as she thinks, save Earl’s life. Little do Hildy, Walter, or Earl know, however, that Earl has gotten a reprieve from the governor, meaning that all of Walter and Hildy’s machinations to save Earl are as pointless as they are hilarious. Nor do the press-room reporters do anything for Earl. Except when his escape prods them into action, they seem to spend most of their time playing cards, cracking wise, and trying so blatantly to look up women’s dresses that it’s amazing the censors allowed it.

But in His Girl Friday, journalists are worse than merely lazy, feckless, and creepy. The movie explicitly and implicitly asks what it means to be a journalist, and the answers are not encouraging. Hildy bristles, for instance, at Walter’s insistence that she’s a journalist: “Now what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines?” And journalists not only engage in disreputable tasks but are also themselves, in a fundamental way, disreputable and don’t even aspire to anything else: “You wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a halfway normal life,” Hildy tells Walter. A “normal” life, the movie implies, is the kind that Bruce leads and that journalists don’t. And for Bruce’s mother (Alma Kruger), the press-room reporters go well beyond disreputable: “They all look like murderers to me.”

More basic issues of identity are also at play, including gender destabilization. Walter calls Hildy a “newspaperman” and laments that she didn’t treat his marriage proposal as a “gentleman” would have. Hildy accuses Walter of treating her like an “errand boy” and later chides the press-room reporters for being a “bunch of old ladies.” (Her reference to them as “gentlemen of the press” after their mistreatment of Mollie is so thick with sarcasm as to call into question whether they’re men at all, never mind gentlemen.) His Girl Friday even implies that journalists may not be human, or at least not fully. Hildy refers to herself as a “news-getting machine,” and Bruce speaks of Hildy’s marriage to him as her chance to be “like a human being,” implying that she hasn’t been one so far. When Mollie speculates that the press-room reporters “ain’t human,” Hildy agrees: “They’re newspapermen.”

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For a so-called newspaper movie, His Girl Friday takes not only a dim view of journalists but also a skeptical one of language, especially written words. That skepticism hardly makes it laconic, though. On the contrary: His Girl Friday is crammed with dialogue, and spoken words are used in a variety of ways – to signal quick wit, cajole, control, dominate, bully, and, finally, reconcile.

Walter has an especially well-developed verbal arsenal at his disposal. In his first few scenes, he all but prevents Duffy from speaking and later uses spoken words to temporarily impose new identities on Duffy – as part of a scheme to keep Hildy from leaving – and on a random newsroom employee to play a joke on Hildy and Bruce.

But the movie’s verbal centerpiece is the battle of the sexes, words and wits between Hildy and Walter, with Walter trying to get Hildy to return to him as both wife and reporter and Hildy alternately resisting and agreeing, telling Walter off and cooperating with him. By the last scenes, however, fast talk becomes a way for Hildy and Walter to bond again and rediscover what they liked about their marriage.

Even for them, however, as for other actors, communication is often highly problematic. His Girl Friday may be awash in spoken words, but – suppressed, ignored, or barely audible – they are only intermittently effective. Actors talk over one another, struggling to make themselves heard and get others to listen as sentences become tangled and words and meanings disappear.

Walter, for example, sometimes won’t let Hildy get a word in edgewise, reducing her to frustrated yelling: “Are you going to listen to me?!” And when he doesn’t: “Will you be quiet just long enough for me to tell you what I came up here to say?” During the jailhouse interview, Hildy, whatever her motives, gives her full attention to Earl – probably the first time since his arrest that anyone has really listened to him yet also one of the last, apart from his short conversation with Mollie. Otherwise, Earl’s words matter to anyone else only when he has a gun in his hand.

Earl and Hildy

Mollie fares even worse. She pours her heart out to the press-room reporters, only to be met with indifference and mockery. Later, when they want her to tell them where Earl is hiding, she reproaches them for not having listened to her earlier and finally jumps out a window.

Mollie and the newspapermen

Nor does Bruce ever have a real chance in the war of words. When Hildy asks him to repeat “Even ten minutes is too long to be away from you,” purely for the pleasure of hearing it again, Bruce does so, showing how easily Hildy can control him through language. Bruce, unlike Walter, is not a good partner for her in any sense and certainly not a worthy verbal sparring adversary. For much of the movie, his words and wits are too slow, and when he does try to catch up – asserting himself and talking fast while confronting Hildy and Walter – it’s too little, too late. Despite being Hildy’s fiancé, he is only a witness to her and Walter’s battle of the sexes and finally collateral damage in their war of words.

Bruce, Walter, and Hildy

Written words – whether written by journalists or anyone else – are even more problematic in His Girl Friday than spoken ones. Some are transient, such as the message that Walter had an airplane write in an attempt to delay the divorce – a message that no doubt soon vanished without a trace and didn’t help him anyway. Newspaper stories are transient too: they don’t vanish into the sky, but they are quickly forgotten by most people. And in His Girl Friday, even newspaper stories are often presented as spoken words, making them still more ephemeral. Thus, all we ever learn of Hildy’s first story about Earl is the part of it that’s read aloud by another reporter. Later, Hildy herself reads aloud a portion of her second story about Earl, which soon after becomes moot when the reprieve surfaces. Nor do we ever see the press-room reporters writing – only dictating over phones. (The prominence of phones throughout the movie – in the newsroom, the press room and even the restaurant – also reinforces the prevalence of speech, as opposed to writing.)

At other points in the movie, writing is attacked or negated. Mollie objects bitterly to how the press-room reporters have portrayed her in their articles, and Hildy tears up her first story about Earl. Walter spends the movie trying to cancel, and finally succeeds in canceling, his divorce from Hildy – again, a written document, albeit one that never appears in the movie.

The movie’s most important written words are the ones that spare Earl’s life, but they come in the form of a reprieve, not Hildy’s article. And even those words are suppressed until the last scene. The mayor (Clarence Kolb), for political reasons, verbally dominates the governor’s messenger, Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert), trying to bribe him to put off delivering the reprieve, and orders Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) to have Earl shot after Earl escapes – both attempts, nearly successful, to counteract written words with spoken ones.

Hartwell, Joe, and the mayor

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And it’s Earl who offers perhaps the most incisive verdict on the movie: “You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world.” But which world does he mean – the world of the movie or human society in general? Maybe both. Not only Earl but also Mollie and the Baldwins stand both inside and outside the diegesis: though characters themselves, they judge other characters not by the standards of the “crazy world” of the movie, which needs to tell a funny, engaging story, but by the outside world’s standards of basic decency and middle-class respectability. Little wonder, then, that they’re appalled by what they see, hear, and experience. They’re a reality check, a reminder that what we are seeing onscreen is a kind of insanity – or would be if translated into the real world, whereas, within the diegesis, it makes sense. Hildy thus must choose not only whether to leave Walter and the paper forever but whether to leave the “crazy world” of His Girl Friday for the “normal” world of reality. She finally embraces the insanity, including the pace, madcap antics, and even gender instability – “I’m not a suburban bridge player – I’m a newspaperman” – and it’s hard to blame her. It’s not just that she’s far better suited to Walter and to journalism but that His Girl Friday’s fantasy is so much more exciting and interesting than life insurance, lullabies, cod-liver oil, and a home in Albany with Bruce and his mother.

The reality of 1940 was also crazy, with conflicts far more serious than any depicted onscreen. And despite the movie’s insularity – it was based on a play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928), and was shot entirely on sets – it shows a keen awareness of the non-diegetic world, especially the events and issues of the day. There are mentions of Hollywood; New York and LaGuardia; and Washington, FDR, the Brain Trust, and the Democratic Party. Race is referred to as well: Earl has to die because he killed a “colored policeman” and the “colored vote” matters greatly. Nor is the situation abroad ignored: Hitler, the Polish Corridor, and the war in Europe all appear in the dialogue, as do communism, Moscow, the Red Army, and a supposed “Red uprising” and “Red menace.” Press-room reporter Endicott (Cliff Edwards) asks the mayor about a rumor that he’s on “Stalin’s payroll.” In the movie, such matters of life and death are marginalized in favor of comedy and romance – a reversal of priorities that, no matter how well it works cinematically, constitutes its own form of craziness.

Both the world of the movie and the outside world, then, are insane – each in a different sense yet both increasingly complex, incomprehensible, and careening out of control. They are worlds that neither the written nor the spoken word can explain or keep up with. And they are not unlike what we are experiencing today. His Girl Friday’s headlong pace feels like that of modern life, and its rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue calls to mind our modern media babble, with innumerable people around the globe and across a wide variety of media talking, yelling, arguing – competing desperately to get a word in, to be listened to, heard, understood.

His Girl Friday’s drubbing of journalists also resonates strongly with the low regard in which the general public now holds the media. And though there’s no indication that the Morning Post is in danger of closing, the fact that it’s essentially irrelevant to the plot correlates well with the crisis of relevance that print newspapers in the U.S. are now confronting.

There is, finally, a feature that the movie shares with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, also released in 1940: the light, ironic, comedic treatment of topics that, from most perspectives, are deeply unfunny. In the case of His Girl Friday, they include World War II, a slain police officer, and a man about to be executed. It’s one of the movie’s greatest strengths and a major source of its charm, but it also speaks to us today, when no topic – presidential politics, violence, crime, terrorism, war – is too serious to be turned into entertainment.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with simply enjoying His Girl Friday as the terrific farce that it is, and enjoying it over and over, as it is rewardingly and almost endlessly rewatchable. But there is also pleasure in teasing out its strangeness and in marveling how a movie that was so much of its time could also be timeless. The future of newspapers is uncertain, and while journalism itself isn’t going anywhere, it, too, will almost certainly continue evolving, leading to new forms and new platforms. There will probably be further insanity as well, but, as His Girl Friday shows, that need not be an obstacle to fun and laughs.

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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.