What a lovely day for a banter match. His Girl Friday, screwball comedy, and the news biz.

“It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game – when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justifies anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in the picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today. Ready? Well, once upon a time ___ ___”

This is the opening title slate for His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In Howard Hawks‘ well-crafted slap-happy comedy, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) is faced with the re-appearance of his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell). Pretending nothing has changed, Burns jumps right into their usual banter war, only to find that Hildy is not only leaving the paper, but also getting re-married. Unable to cope, Burns does all that he can to prevent either from happening. He makes an effort to befriend Hildy’s fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), and convinces Hildy to stay on for one “last” big story; the execution of a potentially innocent man, Earl Williams. As comedies go, it’s not shocking to find that Burns’ efforts quickly spiral into the ridiculous, but in the best kind of 1940’s way. Adapted from the Broadway play, The Front Page, this depiction of journalism and it’s impact on lives, relationships, and politics claims to be a farce, yet dances right on the edge of truth. It makes light of life, death, and the pursuit of happiness in the screwiest kind of screwball way, but decades later still makes several valid social remarks. All in good fun, of course.

Check out the trailer here:

        “A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler’s gonna start another war?Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on. Why…Golly, what’s the use? Walter, you-you wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a half-way normal life. The point is, I-I’m through.”
– Hildy Johnson –

I thought long and hard (okay not that long or even that hard) about which direction I wanted to go with the critical part of this review. There was the obvious feminism approach. What’s a “Girl Friday” anyway? According to several dictionary references, it’s a term for someone’s all-around helper or assistant, and references a character in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It can also mean a female employee who has a wide range of duties, including secretarial or clerical work. How bizarre then, that the film is titled His Girl Friday when it’s obvious that Hildy is far more than an assistant or secretary. She does what she wants, is respected by the male reporters she encounters, and seems to be regarded by Walter Burns as his best writer. There’s obviously a lot to be said about this, but we all know that toting any kind of feminist agenda just isn’t my style.

The next obvious direction to go when analyzing a film like this is to take the political route, or the direction that analyzes the prejudices of the period; albinos, people out on the street talking about “production of use,” crooked mayors, governors, and sheriffs — oh my! I could also go the safe route and just talk about the comic value of the film; of which there is plenty! This route, however, seems completely obvious. You couldn’t possibly watch this film without dawning a smile and a few outward chuckles; no it’s comedic value is already apparent.

Thus, having the unique perspective as a former newsie, I’ve decided to take a look at how journalism is portrayed in the film. Was it accurate? Was it overblown? Is journalism still like this?

       Molly: They aren’t human.
Hildy: I know; they’re newspaper men.

Oh Molly, you’re the one who calls the news station to tell everyone we got it wrong. You’re the one posting to websites maintaining that your boyfriend could never have fired a gun, or robbed that bank. You’re the girl no one believes, but might take a minute to listen to anyway. Hildy, you’re the bitter reporter. No, you’re not the bitter reporter; you’ve every reporter that ever was. But let’s backup, and talk not about modern journalism, but rather journalism during the time the film was made.

The important thing to note about the film is that, though it was made in 1940, the original Broadway play was first produced in 1928. Written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur it was, no doubt, based at least slightly on their impressions of journalism at the time. Something else important to note is that in the original play Hildy was a male character, and though he was trying to leave the news business and was held in place by his Editor Walter Burns to cover the hanging of Earl Williams; there was obviously no love triangle. Incidentally, coincidentally, and completely unintentionally on my part, the director from my last review, Billy Wilder, actually made a film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthieu with the same name as the Broadway play and followed the play more closely. But wait there’s another happy coincidence from my last review…

Oh you thought I’d tell you now? Nah…we’re talking about newspapers at the moment.

       “No, no, nevermind the Chinese earthquake for heaven’s sake…Look, I don’ care if there’s a million dead…No, no, junk the Polish Corridor…Take all these Miss America pictures off Page Sex…Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page…No, no, leave the rooster story alone — that’s human interest.” – Walter Burns –

According to Michael Schudson‘s, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, “The pessimism about the institutions of democracy and capitalism in the 1930’s had roots in the doubts of the 1920’s about the public and human nature, traditional values and received knowledge. The spirit of business in the twenties was buoyant, and there was a feeling of liberation in the social science, the arts, and the social life of the urban Bohemians. But the liberation into a new culture marked the rapid disintegration of the old, and many serious thinkers began to fear that the new edifices of the arts and sciences were being raised without foundations.” (p. 126) Schudson says, the “public” in this case was the “urban masses who liked banner headlines, large drawings and photographs, snappy and spicy writing.” This “public” had replaced a more educated middle class rising against the upper-class with informed opinions. It as during this early part of the 20th century that the field of public relations arose in order to help shape the opinions of this newly established, “public.”

Schudson goes on to discuss how around this time newspapers began publishing the equivalent of propaganda, or articles that could be construed as advertisements for whoever’s public relations officer got to the paper first. Not all newspaper editors were happy with the situation, though, Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune wrote an essay in which he notes that the number of public relations agents in New York outnumbered the number of journalists, and that half or more of the news articles in the daily papers originated from public relations work. He was certain that newspaper men and public relations officers were bound to be enemies. It was during this time that the idea of interpretive reporting came into play; in which the opinion of a reporter, or the general public could become part of a regular news story. Eventually, this led to opinion columns, political columns, and opinionated magazines like Time.

All of this said, how does this play into the way that His Girl Friday depicts newspaper reporters? It claims in the opening title not to reflect the press of today, yet who can’t help but question something that tells you right away that it’s not accurately portraying something. To me, this is like the disclaimers at the end of movies, which state that any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidence. Anyone who writes knows that we write from what we know. In this script, then, can it not be assumed that the two former journalists who wrote the play wrote at least somewhat from what they knew?

In the film, the political undertones are obvious; the mayor who’ll do anything to get votes; the governor who’s trying to pardon a murderer, and the sheriff who seems to be in cahoots with the press to make sure his version of the story is the one who goes to print. Then there are the newspaper men themselves who seem to have little concern for facts, but rather telling a compelling story. Were the writers poking fun at the “public” who looked for big headlines and spiced-up writing? Or were they poking at journalists who did the spicing. My favorite instance of this sensationalistic reporting happens near the end of the film when everyone starts calling in a different version of what just happened to their editors, even though we’ve all seen what really happened for ourselves. It’s refreshing, however, that though they will do anything to get a good story our main characters, Hildy and Walter, are the only ones reporting the story correctly. If you’ve already seen the film, you can enjoy the chaos I just described in the clip below:


Was the film depicting journalists in 1940 or in 1928, though? That’s a good question that I’d need to do more research to understand. As much as I wanted to keep reading about the history of journalism, this is but one review and my goal was just to touch on some of the undertones of the time, rather than go into full-on research mode. If I did that every time, you’d never have a weekly review, and you’d probably be lucky to get a monthly one.

Now the greater question: Is journalism still like this? Sure we all like to believe that reporters strive for accuracy these days, and won’t overglorify a story of death and destruction, or grab innocent bystanders like Molly and turn her into yet another victim of the crime. Sadly, I’ve witnessed many a reporter grabbing onto one person’s version of the story, and spinning it into fact or into a new story that may or may not actually represent what actually happened. These cases are actually rare, though, and I think most journalists just want to get the story. Do they still try to get the story at all costs, sometimes disregarding personal relationships? Yes, it’s a disease. I worry for many of them; knowing that they are actually good people. Others I will forever remember as that girl who shoved me out of the doorway to bust uninvited into the home of potential interview. Those “journalists” are what bring disrespect to the profession. But, let’s get back to Hildy and Walter — is it so wrong for them to be completely happy with their particular passion for journalism and getting the story? If that’s really what ties them to one another; I suppose not. If their constant back-and-forth battles of banter and constant races for the story suit them then more power to them, and a huge thanks for the ridiculous ride. If more journalists were that amusing, I think we might look on them with a rosier light. Don’t you?

        Walter: You always carry an umbrellla, Bruce?
        Bruce: Well, It looked a little cloudy this morning.
        Walter: Rubbers too, I hope. Atta boy!
A man ought to be prepared for any emergency.

And now for a random observation: In His Girl Friday, Grant’s character, Walter Burns, picks on poor Bruce for carrying an umbrella. It seems completely random. I mean who cares if he has an umbrella. Lots of people have umbrellas, I’d assume. The only reason it stood out for me is that coincidentally in Sabrina Humphrey Bogart’s character, Linus, is also often seen with an umbrella. Though I could find no evidence of umbrellas being a symbol of dullness, weakness, or overall stodginess amongst men in the 1930’s – 50’s, this is no doubt what His Girl Friday was implying. Later in the film a messenger from the governor, also of seemingly weak countenance is carrying an umbrella. I suppose Howard Hawks had strong opinions about umbrellas. It’s easy to see how Bogart’s character in Sabrina could fit that mold as well. Umbrellas? Who knew?

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
No doubt, I blame the script for this film’s excellence. That, and the flawless comedic execution of the quick, overlapping dialogue that Grant and Russell spit out as if this is their natural mode of conversation. According to Rosalind Russell in her autobiography (according to Wikipedia) she thought her role didn’t have as many great lines as Cary Grant’s role, so she hired a writer to give her more zing. Because Hawks encouraged the cast to improvise on set, Russell was able to slip in her new lines without Hawks’ knowledge. Grant was apparently privy to her tactic, however, and would ask her each morning, “What have you got today?”

Regardless of how the realistic raillery came about, Grant and Russell were naturals. Even the bumbling Bruce has his moments near the end of the film when all three are talking at once; all on different topics. I recognize this banter as believable, because believe me I’ve been there. While others protest at such antics, I revel in the rivalry of words; as long as it’s in good fun, mind you. Perhaps, the grandest moments in the film were the times when Hildy and Burns were insulting each other with such fantastic remarks as, “You’ve got the brain of a pancake,” or, “You double-crossing chimpanzee,” or “You great big bubble-headed baboon.” Though I suppose I would protest to being told I had the brain of a pancake, I find it necessary at some point in life to use the bubble-headed baboon comment in jest. Two more of my favorite lines are as follows:

        Hildy: He treats me like a woman.
       Walter Burns: Oh he does, does he? Mmm hmm…how did I treat you? Like a water buffalo?

      Walter: We’ve been in worse jams than this, haven’t we, Hildy?
Hildy: Nope.

The simplicity of Hildy’s response, delivered so precisely by Russell, nearly rolled me from the couch. Well played; well played indeed. The list of priceless moments like these goes on-and-on-and-on…

Is it re-watchable?
Are you sick of hearing about this movie yet? If not, I say go ahead and watch and re-watch. Let’s just say that I couldn’t write the funny dialogue down fast enough, which is how quickly they flew at me. I think you have to re-watch this film at least once just to catch everything; plus what fun!

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I could tell you that I watched this film because it’s a Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant. Though this is ultimately true; I watched it because I found it on the shelf at the library and seeing that it starred Cary Grant and was directed by Hawks, who also directed one of my all-time favorite films, Bringing up Baby, I decided to give it a watch. I was both drawn and put-off by it’s news business storyline — like a moth to a flame, I suppose.

If you liked this, you might also like:
You will absolutely like Bringing up Baby; another Hawks film with Cary Grant, this time co-starring Katherine Hepburn. It’s the same type of screwball comedy, but with leopards. You might also dig other Cary Grant comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace or The Philadelphia Story, or why not take a look at another classic screwball comedy,  My Man Godfrey. I haven’t seen any other Rosalind Russell films, so I’m up for suggestions. I heard this film was her best performance, and the one she’s known for, however. I’m all for checking out Wilder’s version of The Front Page now as well. I’m also up for some more news comedies if anyone has ’em.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap loudly while everyone else is trying to talk, or while your friend is making a phone call. It would make Cary Grant very happy to see that you’re carrying on his chaotic humor