Have you ever really looked at a virtuoso athlete at work, really focused on the way the muscles strain and relax individually and on command? Or maybe you’ve seen Cary Grant do a cartwheel? (He was a British vaudevillian once upon a time, named Archibald Leach, which cheekily comes up at least once in His Girl Friday.) This is how it feels to watch Howard Hawks direct dialogue. He has the efficiency of a machine trained for the task; the way he moves scenes in and out of their lines is like brilliant, physical work. His Girl Friday is not my favorite Hawks film for the same reason that it’s so good: it’s so garrulous that it’s somewhat exhausting to watch (I wouldn’t watch the Olympics every year either). But it is perhaps his most reduced film, the film that contains as little in it that is not iconic Hawks. I’m not sure if there’s three seconds of silence in the whole film.
The film is “about” nothing but its conversation; otherwise, it would be about several different plots conflicting against each other. It could for instance be about a woman trying to get back with her ex-husband without letting him know it, or, it could be about a man trying to get back with his ex-wife by virtue of her knowing all of it. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) struts into this film with the kind of sexiness that can’t be demeaned: her energy is all pent up inside a pinstripe suit and hat but she could be naked and she wouldn’t be less in control. Hildy is a woman like Ayn Rand used to write them, all square shoulders and drawn-on eyelashes. Rand said of one of her characters once that “She wondered at the joyous, proud comfort to be found in a sense of the finite, in the knowledge that the field of one’s concern lay within the realm of one’s sight.” Rand was writing about a female engineer but it could easily have been Hildy.
Hildy has the kind of graceful simplicity that nouveau buildings used to have: when she speaks, though she always makes the perfect argument, she could convince you with the sound alone. She ably dismisses her ex-husband Walter Burns (Grant) advocating their reunion, but she can’t resist the world he represents and what that means to her. If he had begged, it would have been so offensive to her that she could have given him up; she could have left the movie easily, gone up to Albany with her new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy) and lived “like a human being,” as she says, by which she means a housewife. She’s drawn back into journalism because Walter Burns speaks to her mostly in truths: that she’s the best writer he’s got, that an amazing story is about to break, that she’s the only one who could do it justice. There’s nothing Burns can do to make her stay but she can’t resist any of the things he represents. He’s her freedom, her art, her voice, her efficacy. He’s the reason she’s on people’s breakfast tables every morning. She wants to want to give that up but she can’t.
Every conversation is a tug-of-war, not as it appears to be, between Walter and Hildy (they’re actually on the same side) but between Walter and Hildy’s idea of Hildy. He wants her to write the story, she wants to write the story, she writes it, and then she balls it up so she can get to her train to Albany in time. Then she writes it again. Two elements make His Girl Friday truly special. One is that Russell never portrays a girl who is not in control of herself. She is not deceived by Walter’s tricky machinations (planting false money, belaying them with false business) but is always absorbed into her own instincts to remain powerful and self-accepted. Walter doesn’t get even one thing by her the whole film, but he does what he intended to do, knowing his ex-wife: he delays her long enough to let Hildy’s inner journalist kick the housewife to the sidelines.
The other special thing is Grant as Walter, whom anyone could have played as a dominant man or a lecher (even the poster is clearly confused about who’s in control in this movie). But he can’t get so scoundrelly that we resent him: he’s Pauline Kael’s “man from dream city” in his ideal profession in His Girl Friday (not journalism, but tug-of-war, of course). And in the end, we see him get on the level just for a second, and send Hildy away with no more tricks and no more argument, and it’s easy to feel a pang of sorrow that the dream is over. She cries, only this one time in the whole film, because it’s the first time she wonders if he loves her. When someone calls to tell her that her fiancé is in prison, she’s relieved to know that the one truth in her life is still true: that Walter will fight for her, deceive and steal and delay and cheat and lie for her. Remarrying him is just a formality. Her crying is my favorite “I love you” in any Hollywood movie. (Hawks pulled a similar stunt in Rio Bravo when Wayne says of a scanty outfit, “You wear those things in public, I’ll arrest you” and Dickinson replies, “I’ve waited so long for you to say that.” But His Girl Friday remains on top.)
The big question for a modern audience enjoying the six full-length copies of the movie available on YouTube (His Girl Friday may be the best film in the public domain) will be if it holds up. In one sense, it’s dated: “Take Hitler and put him on the funny pages,” Burns remarks concerning the “European War.” In a more important sense, it’s as biting as a current editorial: I don’t think it’s a stretch in this age to imagine reporters sensationalizing stories, or politicians playing with people’s lives to score racial voting blocks, things that come up in this movie and come up on Twitter every day. But that defines in a sense that term “this day and age,” which a movie like His Girl Friday can make you think isn’t so much about specific times as the things that people do to get ahead in any time. It’s not so much that the movie holds up as that we do.
This is a breathless movie, filled with a playwright’s passion (it’s based on The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and a director’s passion to think of movies as plays. I’m having trouble quoting His Girl Friday: for the first time, I feel like quoting other films is an admittance that they have very little to quote from. Any one of Hildy and Walter’s flirtatious spats could take up the whole page – this is one of the few times that a quote could stand in for a review. There are scenes just like ones from this film in Pulp Fiction and in La La Land (Tarantino seems particularly fond of it, allowing his characters to be unhinged into their mundanity like Hawks’ were; I could easily see Walter rambling off to Hildy’s fiancé a distracting analysis of Parisian hamburgers). Every word further defines them, and His Girl Friday has so many that you could have coffee with Hildy and Walter tomorrow and know exactly what you’re in for. These aren’t people as they are, exactly, or even as they ought to be (neither one of them is above blackmail to get a good story). It may be just how people think they ought to be, how they talk to each other in their fantasies. This is the couple from dream city. It’s the best chemistry in the movies.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Charles Lederer (screenplay)
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (play)
|Walter Burns||Cary Grant|
|Hildy Johnson||Rosalind Russell|
|Bruce Baldwin||Ralph Bellamy|
|The Mayor||Clarence Kolb|