His Girl Friday
(Check my previous Howard Hawks film essay here: El Dorado)
This past week, I reviewed two Westerns by Howard Hawks. The first of which, Red River, is generally considered a classic Western and is often classified as amongst the greatest Westerns of all time. This despite the fact that it’s pretty lackluster, relatively boring, and there are hundreds of better Westerns than that film. The second film I reviewed was Hawk’s fourth: El Dorado. This film is a testament to everything a Western, or a film can be, an emotional roller coaster ride, a powerful spectacle, a picture with a strong subtext, which investigates its quarries of pride and honor and civilization rather than merely cashing in on them.
His films Scarface, To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep are amongst my favorite crime films from the period and I absolutely adore his classic science fiction film The Thing from Another World, as well as his two late-career Westerns Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. So when I approached his film His Girl Friday, which is often touted a classic picture and tour de force of scripting and execution of a work using methods perfectly suited to that works concept, I honestly expected something more substantive.
Hawks’ 1940 screwball comedy follows the lives of two reporters at a large New York newspaper office. Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson once both worked at the office together. Burns worked his way up to ownership of the paper as Hildy developed her career and her writing to become one of the best editorialists in town. At some point, the professional relationship became romantic in nature, the two married, and before they could even make it to their honeymoon destination, a big story came up in another town and Burns ran off to cover that story, deferring the honeymoon until an indefinite later period, which never came. This was the first strike in a marriage that was doomed to fail.
Hildy left the offices and eventually filed for a divorce from Burns (crucially asking for no alimony as both were professionals making their own money, and Hildy wasn’t a jerk). When she returned some weeks later, Burns expected to hire her on once again to the paper, immediately, and potentially to try his hand at wooing her once again. But Hildy has different plans as she has already met a new man named Bruce Baldwin who works as an accountant (or some such boring occupation) and promises a life of peace and quiet after Hildy’s years of sturm und drang under the employ of a newspaper office and the body of everyone’s favorite leading man in Hollywood.
The film’s dialogue is delivered at a rapid pace just as in real life in a high stress job environment where time is money and being quick on the uptake is a prized skill. The dialogue often overlaps and is often the butt of a joke and the start of some confusion. And although it was one of the most highly praised elements of the script, it’s been done so many times since that I find it hard to be impressed by this element of the film, which seemingly holds so much intrigue for other reviewers.
When Hildy arrives in the offices, and Burns finds out about Baldwin, he does everything within his power to keep the two from leaving town, even going so far as to lock up Baldwin on three separate occasions on trumped on charges by having his associates pin sexual assault allegations and counterfeit bills on the man, amongst other things. Further, Baldwin has a case in mind in which a man obviously mistakenly shot someone, and should have gotten off during the court case if he had a better lawyer, but was pushed through the process quickly and fought by a good state attorney who managed to pin him with the death penalty. The mayor of the town ran initially on a law and order platform and is making sure that no one prevents the man from going to the gallows on the following morning in an effort to show how tough he is on crime, whether truly committed or not.
The urge to bring about justice about through a strong editorial or two, sent directly to the governor in hopes of a reprieve and a potential pardon, is too strong of a lure for Hildy. The will to social justice through responsible journalism is strong with her and brings her immediately back into the frame of mind of all those months prior when she was working full time at the newspaper office. Eventually, she and Burns get caught up in the events in more ways than as mere writers for a local rag, and eventually free the man from being hanged by the neck until dead for what was, after all, merely a mistake.
The film is kinetic and plays out its short 92 minute runtime much more quickly than expected. In fact, the film seems to play at an even quicker rate than some episodes of Twin Peaks (which are often less than half the length of His Girl Friday) or Techxnolyze (whose episodes are only 22 minutes in length including opening and ending themes). As such, my gut reaction is to wish it was longer, took more time to develop tension and emotional connection betweens the viewers and the characters in the film, and added some visual poetry to the mix for good measure. But it is a comedy after all, and as the old adage goes, comedy needs no stylization: is a throw away genre pour la plupart.
What we get with His Girl Friday is a film that most modern audiences would most likely delight in and enjoy. However, the film is shot in black and white and is almost eighty years old. So, no modern audience will ever watch the film in droves, and most would be turned away immediately from it. The only audience such a film could reach today is one composed of film buffs and cinephiles, and if the majority have similar qualms with the film as myself, then it has absolutely no real audience at all today, and has, rather unlike Hawks’ Westerns, become completely culturally dead: unable to stand the test of time because it marketed itself to the average audience of the time. A phenomenon that seems to bear itself out time and again as great films with no box office success become cult classics while the Gone With The Wind’s of the past are relegated to the dustbin of history, where they ultimately belong. Right along with popular taste.