by Jim Clark
As we get underway with a new year, and thoughts of exciting new things coming up, let’s pause for once with something quite old that doesn’t look so out of place after all. His Girl Friday (1940), what is widely categorized as a “screwball comedy,” starring the immensely appealing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, comes to us as a euphoria-tonic antidoting a rough patch of history. Its clearly exceptional performances arise from a dynamite script, and here we must watch our step.
This high-gloss entertainment/profit centre packs a level of peppiness not often to be seen in “comedies,” and, with a little scrutiny, we must realize its “fun” is so reckless as to be constantly spitting in the face of every humanitarian nicety. In the course of delivering a sensational news story, an editor/publisher, “Walter Burns,” phones in a dramatic revamp of the front page, “No. No…Never mind the Chinese earthquake…I don’t care if there’s a million dead!” This is just one of countless indiscretions coming from Grant’s roguish charmer in pursuit of not only a scoop relating to a convicted murderer’s imminent hanging, but scooping back onto his staff and into his bed a crack reporter (“Hildy”) who until very recently was his wife.
The go-for-broke velocity of this assault displays a flawless management of dramatic tonality, as indicative of a remarkable incisiveness about the phenomena coming to light. This is in fact screwball motion with deadly serious motives—motives coming to bear from long ago and far away. The predominant writer of the original theatre piece (The Front Page), namely, Ben Hecht (1894-1964), served as correspondent in Berlin for a Chicago newspaper, right after World War I. As with all his writing projects, Hecht’s journalism was absorbed with showing a “real life” just beneath the surface of the mundane life of securing material well-being. At that time in Berlin, the writer Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was at work upon his first plays, the ones so atypical of his patented output of axiomatic Marxist humanitarianism. One such effort, In the Jungle of Cities (written between 1921 and 1924) involves “an inexplicable fight, in the “gigantic city, Chicago,” between two men, Schlink and Garga, the former instigating a clash of wills wherein usually hidden jets of intentional power would well up from mundane affairs. Schlink and Garga’s sexually-charged conflict was developed in light of similar tempestuous violence between French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, whose work Hecht studied throughout his life. The first version of his drama featured a newspaper editor and a male reporter. Coming within the vortex of Hawks’ cinematic punchiness—where the writing was shared with Charles MacArthur, Charles Lederer and Hawks himself—Hecht’s run with Continental decadence became, at the installation of Hildy and her more nuanced smash-and-grab energies, less strictly absurdist and more germane to the sophisticated problematics of a contemporary dialectic.
What we have to notice about this narrative first of all is that at its outset we have Hildy, four months divorced and pulling along with her her fiancé to whom she will be married next day, visiting Walter’s newsroom, ostensibly to tell him off concerning his frequent phone calls and telegrams to her. Since she’s leaving town that day for her future home, Albany, you’d have to wonder about the urgency of that reproof. Walter certainly doesn’t miss the point, and immediately begins manoeuvring her over the recent battlefield of their zany business highs and acrid romantic lows. “How long is it?” [since I saw you]. / “How long is what?”/ “Perhaps you’ve been seeing me in your dreams…We’ve got something in common between us…” (He has pooh-poohed the notion that “divorce is forever.” It’s “just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”) / “I am fond of you…” Walter pretends to have on the line the reporter handling the big story of the day, and weaselling out due to his wife’s having just delivered twins. “Is there no sense of heroism in this country?”/ “Walter, you wouldn’t know what it is to be respectable and lead a half-way honest life.” (She had paused at the reception desk to ask, “Is the Lord of the Universe in?”) On hearing about the new man in her life and the wedding plans, and that the sweet, considerate consort (who sells “insurance”—Walter’s near-smile at this point worth the price of admission in itself) is in the waiting room, he wants to meet him, races out to the front, Hildy in tow, and offers congratulations to a man at least eighty years old, and to Hildy, for making such a sober choice. She is far from taken aback and the groom “clears up” the “confusion” (not before being barked at, “Can’t you see I’m busy with Mr. Bruce Baldwin?”)—Walter then snapping at the hapless ancient source of such confusion, and, in shaking her beau’s hand, grasping his umbrella handle and being impressed at his preparation. “Got your rubbers on, too, I hope. Yes!”/ “The forecast was for a chance of rain.” He whisks the love birds off to lunch, during which Bruce is in the grip of Hildy’s mission statement about “a chance to be a human being,” and Walter recalls “the night she brought the Governor home” (“She didn’t know I was in town”).
The lunch allows him to go over the dramatic nub of the execution (the killer being an unemployed, depressive basket case, and having shot a black cop and thus prompting the up-for-re-election mayor and sheriff to push for his execution to win favor with the decisively numerous black voters of the constituency). Hildy rushes to the bait of catchy, contrarian reportage, suggesting a way of rebutting (by page-design) the psychologist-arbiter of the prisoner’s sanity (called here an “alienist”), and, after much tugging both ways (Walter playing both of them, Bruce, with, “You could save that poor devil’s life;” Hildy, with taking out a big insurance policy and its commission going up to Albany with them), it is decided she will work on the story for two hours, a farewell appearance, from Hildy and Bruce’s perspective.
From that point on, “the inexplicable fight” between Walter and Hildy does some amazing collateral damage to shibboleths of social justice and respectability. But, what is more, it also puts under a cloud the device and drug of scatter-gun cynical violence going from triumph to triumph in this campaign. Nowhere do the efficiencies of unexpected outrage hit their stride more spectacularly than with the repeated mugging of Bruce (played by the wide-eyed master of sanguine decency, Ralph Bellamy) by Walter and his crime-world associates (the former being an update on Brecht’s Mack the Knife, with better manners and more strategic humbug), in order to prolong her return to form. On first seeing Hildy at the press rooms at the City Jail, her former colleagues, bearing some resemblance to playful and peevish hounds at the pound (or, in their perpetual penny-ante card games, kitsch puppies around a card table), cannot believe for a moment that her departure for Albany has a hope. She tells them, “I’m going into business for myself” (being a wife and mother), and they scoff at the notion of her becoming “domesticated.” Hours later, after Bruce has been serially arrested on various trumped-up and amusingly incongruous charges, like engaging a prostitute, Hildy, too absorbed, in producing copy in the heat of battle with City Hall, to listen to his farewell to her, and his lament, “Hildy, I don’t think you ever loved me,” mutters, “Can’t you see this is the biggest thing in my life? You’ve gotta take me as I am…I’m no suburban bridge player.” With that, she has burned major bridges, and he leaves, the last such link she’s ever apt to approach. (Earlier, Bruce’s mother, also part of the package, rips into her, “You’re playing cat and mouse with my poor boy,” and Walter consigns a thug to “lock the old weasel up” somewhere. While Hildy might deny she has any but the most gracious interests regarding Bruce, there is about her insider’s temerity a cutting edge having been honed for years upon perversely saccharine sheep like the guy she plans to marry. On one of her rescue missions springing him out of the hands of the law, she has her way by threatening to smear the jailer in print.) On the other hand, there were moments when her voice and body language conveyed delight with someone capable of such uncomplicated, direct affection and loyalty. She becomes (periodically) enraged by the stream of predations upon him, and near despair, on learning that the vehicle kidnapping his mother has undergone a smash-up, perhaps killing the old lady. None of this registers in the slightest with Walter. To keep a reporter from another paper away from the office where they are concealing the recently escaped murderer (the better to capitalize on the melodrama), Walter pretends to admire the writer’s trite, sentimental “poetic” commentary upon the victim, offers him a better-paying job at his paper and sends him packing to his office to produce laughable drivel like, “His white-haired mother’s tears.” He phones his point-man at the office about this. “Wait till the Extra’s out. Then tell him his poetry smells and kick him down the stairs.”
Walter at a full gallop, the Walter and Hildy show tears through this sidebar of justice as if it were a low-budget reality program, not due to having secured some high ground from which to bid it take pause, but from intoxication with its having (willy-nilly) contrived a kinetic hand trumping those hitherto serving as undisputed pace-setters. Humming along (Walter on an everlasting cruise control, Hildy almost blown off the road by cross-winds) with their scorched earth disposition toward conventional wisdom, they’ve got their hands on a lark pertaining to a negligible power outage (the wimpy killer) activating societal solemnities readily infested with gross hypocrisy in the form of public figures scheming to the outage to their personal advantage. (At a point where all hell breaks loose due to the man of the hour’s prison break, the Mayor asks the card players (who thrive on being cards regarding the news), “Have you seen the Sheriff?” One of them replies, “I don’t know. There are so many cockroaches in this place.”) In light of the intimate juggernaut with its misfit wobble, close-ups of its pretext, namely “Earl Williams,” 180 degrees distant from their energy, perform an effective rationale for distancing such humbleness which might otherwise present itself as a reproach to the “heartlessness” being whipped up by Walter. Hildy’s initial two-hour farewell gig involves interviewing the condemned man, and we find in this a listless, puling entity clearly impressed with his own universal attraction as a casualty. “I’m not guilty. It’s just the world!” Hildy—reflexively trotting out little tricks like sharing her cigarette with him and then apologizing, “Sorry about the lipstick, Earl”—walks him through the lead-up to his pulling the trigger on a cop hoping to quell his panic, and discovers that Earl had spent a lot of time listening to irate orators, one of whom he particularly liked due to his concept of “production for use…Everything should be made use of.” The little man had gone from the mantra’s share-the-wealth premise to the notion—cued by Hildy’s sad and gentle questioning—that the gun he just happened to be wielding had to be used, that is, discharged, into the world-conspiracy figure of the cop. “It’s simple, isn’t it? he pleads. “Very simple,” is her quiet reply; and we become privy to vast regions of her far more rigorous take on bores (like Bruce) than that which Walter could embark upon. Pressing the point is inclusion of “Molly,” a hooker with a heart of gold, who befriends Earl and then frequently hounds the newshounds in hopes of bringing them onside to present her presence here as pure as the driven snow. The press corps have chosen to imply some kind of wild romance between them, the better to sell papers, and she visits upon them a hail of grievances and self-promotion. “I came to tell ya what I think of ya. I went up to him like any human being would. Earl treated me decent, not like an animal…” Hildy does what she can to get her away from the extra aggravation she’s bringing upon herself, but Molly is ravenous for vindication, catches up with Earl the escapee—as disarmed and stashed away (for the Extra) by Walter’s Girl Friday, who herself is by this time in too deep to back away—and the two of them take self-justification to a new level. “I didn’t mean to shoot him,” he says, referring to the second target, a psychologist whose examination led to the escape. “Of course you didn’t,” she maintains, and while they skirt upon tears, Hildy is now much more about doing the story than trying to figure them out. (Molly is so pumped by being taken seriously by the scribes apropos of Earl’s whereabouts that, to spite them and show that she’s extra-special, she leaps out of the window and, being found to be still twitching, seems destined for a whole new round of histrionics.)
The last phase of the narrative revisits, with a difference, the Brecht prototype, inasmuch as the latter plays out toward one of the contestants being killed. Trust Earl to squeak out (at some point prior to being given a reprieve in being declared insane, perhaps a manoeuvre, by the Governor, to undermine the election hopes of the Mayor and the Sheriff), “You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world!” But although she isn’t prone to such sweeping generalizations, Hildy comes, in the course of the frenetic prospecting she walked right into with eyes wide open, to realize there is no Mr. Right. She had, in the first stages of her supposedly brief return to dabbling in the power of the press, steadfastly connected with Bruce as the way to go—Walter’s chicanery only solidifying her decision to opt for simple, even if tepid, warmth. But the raging naiveté of Bruce, Earl and Molly does something to her patience, and the thrill of discharging discursive firepower brings her firmly back into Walter’s orbit. Bruce is set up on a charge of stealing a watch; she reads the riot act to the Lord of the Universe, and gives a final bow to the card sharps; then there is machine-gun fire regarding Earl’s escape, and she’s back on the phone to a recently despised Walter—“Don’t worry! I’m on the job!” She races into the streets, police vehicles screaming everywhere, and pursues and tackles the bureaucrat who knows all about the surprising turn of events, it costing her the sum total of their assets, which she had taken from Bruce for safekeeping, to bring off the bribe. All aglow, she reports back to Walter, “It’s the jailbreak of your dreams!” Hildy having caged the prize, Walter goes over to the Criminal Courts Building himself to oversee the explosive task of transferring that hot property to his office, from which he would lord it over the whole media world. What had been a nice windfall to brighten quarterly earnings had mushroomed into a shot at the Hall of Fame. “You’ve got the whole city by the seat of the pants! Hildy. this is war…a Revolution!” It seems she couldn’t be more pleased with this involvement in impeachment at the polls, in toppling a dynasty. “You’ve done something big, Hildy! You’ve moved up to a new class! Is this the time to think about trains departing for Albany?”/ “Why…no, of course not! I’d be the white-haired boy [an august power broker], wouldn’t I?” As the lawmakers and the competition close in on their ruse, Walter adopts a V.I.P. air of authority and immunity from laws only applying to little people. His voice and visage and bearing take on pinched qualities seen in preposterous melodramas. (He had blurted out, “We’ll crucify that mob!) Bruce had tried to bring her back to reality as he sees it, by declaring (in the teeth of her frenzied typing up the weapon of mass destruction), “He’s been too smart for us…You’re just like him…” On hearing about Bruce’s mother’s having possibly been killed, she is stopped in her tracks, and yells at the boss, “You have messed up my life! What am I going to do?”/ “Would you rather have the old dame dragging the police force in here?”/“Dead! Dead! This is the end!” The victim turns up, none the worse for wear, they are handcuffed and joyously and smugly lip and threaten the authorities who are bowled over by the arrival of the reprieve (thus capsizing the Mayor and Sheriff by a black constituency robbed of the chance for vengeance).
Off that high, Walter proceeds to send her packing to Bruce. “Get going, Hildy, it’s the most decent thing I’ve done.”/ “Get going? What is that with you?…It’s my story to finish…” Bruce calls to say he’s been arrested for possession of counterfeit cash—the $450 Walter delivered to cover Hildy’s bribe. She cries, her head buried in her hands and on the table, feeling she has been played like a puppy. He says, “You never cried before.” Perhaps he is touched by her dejection. Perhaps he is thinking out loud that he has curbed (“killed”) her antithetical energies. If we can imagine that both these options are in play, we have the makings of an ongoing struggle. He calls his office to announce his remarrying Hildy and going to a honeymoon location of her choice. She blurts out in a happy daze, “Niagara Falls!” Then the word comes in about a big strike getting underway in the state capital. (Their first honeymoon trip to the Falls was also interrupted, on that occasion by a mine crisis, rather fancifully situated, on the way to bliss, in Albany.) As he rushes her out the door he asks, “I wonder if Bruce can put us up.”
Ongoing struggle or not, Hildy would seem to be outgunned. On being blindsided by the surprise dismissal, her abjectness is painful to behold in one who has evinced such far-ranging gusto. The almost secret heart of this very out-there tour de force comes to us as the way her confused appetites (as peppered by a carnivorous commerce) play across her physical presence like intermittent sunlight on a choppy autumn day. Walter had marvelled to Bruce about her “independence,” in that she didn’t go after alimony, even though he was a “baaad husband.” He had stressed to Hildy that her rendition of the crisis would provide the “heart” needed there. Clearly he counts on her resilience for the leeway to rough her up like all the other speed bumps, and to treat her as an opponent from whom to make sparks fly; and he counts on her scruples to afford his attack a slower target. During the drive to bring off the “pip” chapter of the story, he berates a staff person on the phone while she agonizes about Bruce’s mother, for letting a woman interfere with work. While setting things up with an overly nice Bruce and a Hildy still braced by the coquetry of her eleventh-hour trolling, Walter luxuriates in the ribaldry about his “dimple” and an implied dig (apropos of his medical exam for the insurance) about his never being so hot in bed. He knows she’s not a patsy, but never doubts of a triumph over her. Unleashing his Three-Penny-Opera gang of thieves upon their departure schedule, he stalls Hildy at that work room overlooking the gallows, a positioning allowing us to read her fascinating struggle to regain a high road in a vehicle destabilizing her purchase upon a simple life the stupidities of which (courtesy of not only babe-in-the-woods Bruce but terminally ancient Earl and Molly) add their own dismay to her churning emotions.
There is a breathtaking scene to this effect, following closely upon her sharing a moment of glee with Burns about self-styled pacifist Earl’s plugging the psychologist during a for-science re-enactment of the first kill, using the Sheriff’s gun. (She calls it a case of getting “shot in the classified ads.”) Such wicked wit immediately sours noticeably in her beaming at one of the reporters phoning in an account of a black woman’s delivering a baby as assisted by some of the posse in pursuit of Earl. “When the piccaninny was born in the taxi, the cops checked to see if that was where Earl was hiding.” She pulls herself back to aptly steeped fire when the shaky man of the hour comes through the window and she disarms him (telling him to “Shut up!”) and goes on to stage-manage the kidnapping of the storied menace. There had been an outcome of her hearing of one of the muggings upon Bruce when she becomes apoplectic, screams out, “I’m going to have babies,” and puts her coat on backwards (recalling her muttering to herself, in response to Bruce’s observation that Walter is someone who could make some woman happy, “Yes, slap-happy.”) Then there was her back-pedalling as Burns brings to full flame the “revolution” they have come to share. And, just as she goes down for the count, he bundles her up for an almost exact repetition of their first marriage. Her ongoing critical tempering of the thrill of “something big” has, if not squandered, hugely jeopardized hard-won but still blurry insights. The film ends far from comedic “happily ever after.” But we’ve seen her strengths and their purchase upon moving forward, and that somewhat brightens things. Doesn’t it?
How His Girl Friday made the Top 100: