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Film / His Girl Friday

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"They ain't human."
"I know; they're newspaper men."

His Girl Friday is a 1940 Screwball Comedy from Columbia Pictures starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy, adapted from the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and directed by Howard Hawks. It's now in the Public Domain.

When newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) learns that his ex-wife and former ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) is about to marry bland insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy) and settle down to a quiet life as a wife and mother, Burns decides he must sabotage these plans. He entices the reluctant Johnson into covering one last story: the upcoming execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen). After that, Burns does everything he can to keep her from leaving, including having Baldwin arrested over and over on trumped-up changes, and having Hildy's mother-in-law kidnapped, amongst other shenanigans.

This film is noted for its sharp, rapid-fire dialogue, and it was #19 on American Film Institute's AFI's 100 Years 100 Laughs and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Today the film is in the public domain (even though the 1928 play it is based on is still under copyright), which hasn't prevented Columbia Pictures from issuing official video releases of the film. The Criterion Collection has also issued it on both DVD and Blu-ray.

The Front Page had earlier been filmed in 1931 (with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien), and was remade again by Billy Wilder in 1974 (with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) and as Switching Channels (with the setting updated to the TV-news era) in 1988.

Because the film is in the Public Domain, it can be viewed in its entirety here.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: In the midst of all the rapid-fire comedy, there is the scene in which Mollie Malloy calls out a room full of newspapermen for spinning and sensationalizing Earl Williams' story just to sell papers and cracking jokes about him while he's awaiting execution. Later, with all the news hounds clamoring at her to talk to them, she leaps out of a window rather than say anything else that they could twist into more Blatant Lies.
  • Actor Allusion: Burns briefly mentions a man he tangled with sometime in the past named Archie Leach; that’s Cary Grant’s birth name.
  • Adaptation Title Change: His Girl Friday was adapted from The Front Page.
  • All for Nothing: The reason Hildy wanted to divorce Walter in the first place is he's Married to the Job and ignored her in favor of getting the scoop (even canceling their honeymoon to cover a mine accident). The movie ends with them deciding to re-marry and have a second honeymoon — which Walter asks to include a stop in Albany to cover a big union strike. You can practically see the disappointment in Hildy's face.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Hildy and Walter's infuriated arguing is dripping with sexual tension, which is probably why they hooked up in the first place. The writing is praised today as being remarkably progressive for its time, since the film establishes from the start that theirs is a steadfastly egalitarian relationship: they're both equally pig-headed and stubborn.
  • "Be Quiet!" Nudge: Hildy Johnson keeps kicking Walter Burns under the table as he tells increasingly risque stories to rattle her dull new fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (who doesn't notice). She ends up kicking the waiter.
  • Betty and Veronica: Hildy is torn between two men: Stable but milquetoast Bruce (Betty) and exciting but petulant Walter (Veronica). Too bad for Betty, this Veronica is Cary Grant.
  • Bittersweet Ending: A sweet ending that turns bitter. Hildy and Walter save Williams from being executed and get back together, with Walter promising to give Hildy the honeymoon at Niagra Falls that he was originally going to give her when they first got married. On their way out of the office though, Walter is told about a workers' strike in Albany that he then plans to make a detour to from the honeymoon, and from the expression on her face, we see that Hildy realizes she just left a perfectly good man for one who will always put work first before her. It's played for comedy.
  • Blatant Lies: Told by the pressmen as they give wildly divergent versions of Earl Williams' capture — an event they are currently watching — to their editors as they narrate over the phone. At least one or two say that Williams is resisting when he's actually being manhandled and he's screaming for mercy. There's also their insistence on labeling Mollie Malloy as Williams' moll even as Malloy is standing in the same room, in tears, insisting that all she ever did was give Williams some help, once, and out of pity.
  • Black Comedy: A mild example, but most of the characters are rather unsympathetic, and it's a screwball comedy focused around reporters reporting on (and the main ones trying to save) a mentally ill man about to be executed. And even a woman attempting suicide by jumping out of the window doesn't stop the comedy for very long. And Walter is just a terrible person through and through.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • The fact that Bruce getting arrested due to Walter's machinations becomes a running gag is proof enough that the story is not kind to him. And he never did get his life savings back.
    • Earl is a mentally ill man who is about to be hanged for killing a cop. Everyone in charge knows that he was mentally ill and didn't mean to, but they are doing it simply for the votes. And they have a last minute psychologist come in to examine him, but he mentions they woke him up in the middle of the night to do it. He manages to get a gun (through the sheriff's incompetence) and escape, but even amongst the heroes, he still doesn't have a great time, spending most of his time hiding in a desk. And he is eventually recaptured (though shortly after, the pardon arrives again, saving his life.)
  • Career Versus Man: Hildy can either give up her job to settle down with Bruce, or rejoin the exciting world of hotshot reporting. The gendered language of her explanation gives away the conflict in her mind: she can stay in New York and "be a newspaper man" or move to the countryside and "be a woman."
  • Celebrity Paradox: Bruce, played by Ralph Bellamy, is described as resembling Ralph Bellamy.
  • The Chew Toy: Bruce and Earl Williams. Bruce because of Walter's constant manipulations so Hildy will stick around (and sheer spite), Williams because of a corrupt system.
  • Clear My Name: The "girlfriend" of Earl Williams desperately pleads with the room of newspapermen to get their story straight— that she had helped him one time out of pity and had no relationship, that he was innocent— to their bigoted and utter indifference. Once she leaves the room everyone present is visibly shown to have been affecting said indifference. All the more tragic because she later jumps out a window in despair (thankfully not dying) and the event is covered with just as much vulture-like zeal by the newspaper men.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Walter is mean to poor Bruce to the point it's horrible to behold.
  • Counterfeit Cash: Walter gets Diamond Louie to hand Hildy some counterfeit bills, knowing that it'll probably be passed on to Bruce. And then Bruce gets arrested for the third time in one day.
  • Disposable Fiancé: Walter sets Bruce up for never-ending humiliation and Hildy abandons him because she likes being a reporter too much.
  • The Ditz: Joe Pettibone, the messenger from the Governor's office. Turns out to be Too Dumb to Fool, thankfully for our heroes — arriving at an improper time for the antagonists because he's too stupid to get a clue that he's unwelcome saves Mr. Williams' life.
  • Divorce in Reno: Hildy mentions going to Reno (by implication, to get her divorce).
  • Divorce Is Temporary: Her decision to leave Walter because he's an unrelenting jerk obsessed with getting exclusives at any cost. After a whole movie of indecision, Hildy gets a Downer Ending — Walter is too much of a jerk to ever change, and she dumped a good man for nothing.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sick of the newsmen trying to twist everything she says (and get Earl's location out of her too), Mollie Malloy jumps out of the window. One of the characters says that she is still moving, but that just seems to have been a throw away line so that a woman's suicide wasn't hanging over the rest of the film (which is still a comedy), Hildy still thinks she might be dead, and as far as the plot is concerned, she is as she never comes up again.
  • Da Editor: Burns in the original play was perhaps a Trope Maker, his performance by Cary Grant is a Trope Codifier. Many journalists and editors admitted that they all wanted to be Walter Burns, with his obsession for exclusives and frenemy relationship with his Cowboy Cop top reporter (that happens to be his wife).
  • Embarrassing First Name: Hildy is visibly annoyed when one of her former colleagues addresses her as Hildegarde.
  • Exact Words: Hildy promised to interview Earl Williams and write a story about it. She didn't say anything about not tearing up the story.
  • Gambit Roulette: One would be led to believe that Walter Burns had the entire day planned out exactly as it occurred, including all of the bizarre and seemingly unforeseen reversals of fortune. Either that or he's a master of Xanatos Speed Chess
  • Gender Flip: Hildy Johnson was a man in the original play. During auditions, Howard Hawks' secretary read reporter his lines and Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded coming from a woman, resulting in the script being rewritten to make Hildy female and the ex-wife of Walter Burns.
  • Get Out!: Burns delivers this line at one point to Hartwell, as only Cary Grant could do it.

  • Girl Friday: Hildy is the titular woman. Co-Trope Namer, with Robinson Crusoe, by Word of God (it's kind of complicated, though... it's a comparison between Friday that is Crusoe's sidekick being good luck, or so the director said).
  • High-Powered Career Woman: Hildy Johnson might be the Ur-Example. She is a woman with a successful career in a male-dominated field, journalism. When working she wears a jacket and hat very similar to her male colleagues. She is highly respected by her male coworkers, all of whom treat her as One of the Boys. She is involved in a Love Triangle between her fiance, who wants her to be a feminine wife, and her ex-husband, who is her editor and wants her to continue working with him.
  • Honey Trap: Diamond Louie has a "very blonde" female friend who gets Bruce into a compromising situation for arrest number two.
  • Insanity Defense: How Hildy intends to save Earl Williams. Thankfully Williams is a man dumb enough (or at least appears so) that the lie may be bought.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Hildy. Also deconstructed — she, Burns and all the other reporters that appear throughout the film are nothing but a bunch of nearly inhuman manipulative, lying, petty and unfeeling bastards. They have little to no concern if what they write and publish either destroys or saves other people's lives, as long as it sells papers, and they jump on anything that looks like an "exclusive" not unlike vultures on a fresh carcass. Hildy and Burns do save Williams' life, but it's mostly for the sake of controlling the story — bear in mind that Hildy destroys an article that would have saved Williams earlier in the film just to thumb her nose at Walter.''
  • Jerk with the Heart of a Jerk: Walter Burns lies and manipulates everyone around him, in the process ruining his ex-wife's planned wedding and honeymoon with her new fiancee, and having them thrown in jail all for the sake of a story. Towards the end he starts to reveal a nobler side only for it to be more manipulations to keep his wife and get another story.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Pettibone arrives with a reprieve hours before the scheduled execution. The Mayor and Sheriff are so set on executing Earl Williams that they try to bribe him to go away with a sinecure in the City Sealer's office. It doesn't work and he comes back at an inconvenient time.
  • Married to the Job: The core conflict is largely about this.
  • Motor Mouth:
    • Hildy punctuates the end of an especially rapid rant with "Sold to American!", parodying the then popular tagline openings for radio shows promoted by American Tobacco, makers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. (The shows would open with an auctioneer doing a impossibly fast series of bids, ending with "Sold to American!")
    • Hollywood professionals familiar with how these things work have said that by all rights, the length of the script means the movie should have been twice as long as it is.note 
    • Hildy can talk pretty fast herself when worked up. Her arguments with Walter are so rapid-fire that the "Sold American!" punchline of one of them is the only second they pause.
    • Walter, when he has a good line going. At least one of his swindles works because his target actually can't keep up with what he's saying.
  • Noodle Incident: The Albany story. Hildy kicks Walter in the shin because he almost reveals that the two of them had been sharing a hotel room... before they were married.
  • Not-So-Innocent Whistle: Walter does this after overhearing Hildy and Bruce talking over the phone (Bruce has been arrested for having fake money (that Walter handed to him) and is using his One Phone Call to talk to her).
  • One of the Boys: Hildy. Most of her conflict between lifestyles is even phrased with genders — newsman versus housewoman.
  • Quitting to Get Married: The film starts with Hildy telling her ex-husband that once she marries her current fiance she's giving up her job with the paper to be a wife and mother. It's a Screwball Comedy and the ex is played by Cary Grant, so of course it doesn't work out that way.
  • Romantic False Lead: Ralph Bellamy as Bruce, who is pleasant and handsome and won't get the girl.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: Bruce. Unfortunately for the poor lad, he's too milquetoast for Hildy's adrenaline addiction.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Hildy's clothes are a notable figure within the film, especially since the film was released in 1940. When we first see Hildy in Walter's office, she's wearing a striking striped dress and hat — very stylish, very chic, and very feminine. And she herself says she's feminine; she's there with her fiancé Bruce, who in her words, "treats [her] like a woman." Her clothes show who she wants to be: a wife and a mother, with a family and a man to take care of her. When she decides to write the story for Walter, though, she changes her clothes. Inside of feminine attire, she puts on a plain striped jacket (which looks a lot like the male reporter's jackets) and a utilitarian hat (which one of the reporters teases her about). Hildy's changed from feminine, stereotypically womanly clothes to more masculine, utilitarian work clothes, symbolizing her return to the work world.
    • Ralph Bellamy is the actor who plays Bruce Baldwin. But he's also an inside joke. When Louie asks Walter what Bruce looks like, he responds with, "that guy in the movies, Ralph Bellamy". The joke isn't just that Bruce is Ralph Bellamy. It's that he is the kind of guy Ralph Bellamy would play. Bellamy played a similar role to Bruce in the film The Awful Truth — which Cary Grant also starred in. Just as in His Girl Friday, Grant's character divorced his wife, who then took up with a Midwestern innocent played by Bellamy.
    • Prior to the events of the film, Walter hired a skywriter to write in the clouds, "Hildy. Don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter." when he and Hildy were with a judge to be divorced, who delayed the divorce 20 minutes to read it. The large, flamboyant, egotistical message is a good summary of how Walter interacts with Hildy throughout the film. He uses language not so much to communicate with her as to delay her. And he loves using technology to misdirect and to say things he can't get away with otherwise. For instance, Walter yells at reporter Butch's fiancée for keeping him away from the paper, and even tells Hildy they're getting remarried on the phone, but not even on a phone call to Hildy herself. He's talking to Duffy, the copy editor, and casually mentions the upcoming nuptials.
    • Early on in the film, as Hildy and Walter are walking through the newsroom, Walter would go through a door and let it slam back onto Hildy. Hildy would then reprimand him for not being chivalrous. They come to a second gate, and Hildy illustrates the right way to hold it open, letting Walter walk through. They then come to a third gate… and Walter again goes through first and lets it slam on Hildy. Aside from deliberately mistreating Hildy, Walter was being canny. His whole pitch to Hildy, his effort to win her back, is based on his argument that her second most important identity is as a woman. Her first identity was as a journalist. Walter's appeal is to Hildy's professional ambition. He's in love with Hildy as a journalist, not as a potential housewife. By slamming doors on her, he's treating her like another one of his employees. But she's cool with it as Walter's letting her know it's more fun to joke with him than it is to be put on a pedestal by Bruce.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Bruce disappears from the movie in the third act after becoming fed up with Walter's constant swindling, getting Bruce tossed in jail (three times) and overall humiliating him. He begs Hildy to come with him so they can just take the train to Albany and leave. Hildy, unfortunately, is too caught up in the Williams story to care and Bruce tells her that he will go to the station before getting out of the office. He comes up as one of the final gags, calling Hildy from the police precinct after being arrested for trying to purchase the train ticket with fake money.
  • Sleazy Politician: The Mayor and Sheriff Peter B. "Pinky" Hartnell, who wish to kill an innocent man for the sake of obtaining additional votes.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Despite the surface cynicism of the film, the political corruption, the callousness of the pressmen, and Walter Burns' manipulation of all the people around him, there is a strong hint that a free press is what ultimately ensures justice will prevail in a free society.
  • Starmaking Role: Rosalind Russell got her big break from this film.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: The Mayor and Sheriff Hartwell might have succeeded in covering up Earl Williams's Last-Minute Reprieve if Pettibone, the messenger from the Governor's office responsible for delivering the reprieve, weren't so incredibly dense.
  • Unfulfilled Purpose Misery: Played for laughs. Earl is a delusional idealist who thinks everything should fulfill its intended purpose — including handguns, which were made "to shoot" (and especially, shoot people). When he found a gun, he used it as intended, killing a cop.
  • Villain Protagonist: He isn't as bad as the mayor and sheriff, who would see an innocent man executed to give themselves good publicity on election year, but Walter is a very manipulative and self-centered man. He ruins his ex-wife's relationship with her new fiance because he doesn't want to lose her as a worker (and is jealous that she's trying to get with someone else). He only really cares about his work, and even though he woos Hildy back to him, at the end of the story he sidetracks their honeymoon for a second time to catch a big news scoop. The disappointment on Hildy's face says everything.