Saturday 20 October 2012

His Girl Friday (1940)

What exactly does this title mean? Not a clue really. Probably I am missing something. I was mystified by the title before I saw this film and I still am.

But who cares? What matters is the movie behind the title and that is a lot clearer to interpret.

“His Girl Friday” is an adaptation of the monster Broadway hit “The Frontpage”. It is the story of Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Rosalind Russell), a newspaper journalist who is about to leave her job and very demanding boss (and former husband) Walter Burns (Cary Grant) to retire to a married life in Albany with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter does not want her to leave the paper (and him) and does everything in his power to prevent her from going and when a major story breaks out involving the possible execution of an (sort of) innocent and political shenanigans by the mayor, she is her herself not so difficult to talk into talking this last job before heading north to get married.

Cary Grant, my current favorite actor, is as usual stunning. He is speed talking, charming and cunning like he always is, but there is an unscrupulous twist to him here. He has no qualms or restraints in what he asks of the people around him and what he will do or say to get his way. That means that a lot of people are getting hurt by him and that is what ruined his and Hildy’s marriage in the first place. It also means that for all his charms it is a bit difficult to root for him, as much as I want to. He just does not care for the people around him. He need to get the story of the dude who killed some guy and the mayor who wants him dead because it was a black guy who got killed and executing this clearly insane man will get the mayor a lot of black votes in the upcoming election for office.

On top of the story about getting the story, Walter is also trying to sidetrack Bruce, the insurance guy and clearly the dork compared to worldly Walter and Hildy. This is not just to get the story, but just as much to take out a rival to his attempt at winning Hildy back. This is probably a redeeming trait that makes Walter more palatable, but I am not convinced.

Hildy is the hard boiled reported who had enough of journalism and especially of Walter and have found the exact opposite in Bruce Baldwin. She really really wants to catch that train with her fiancée and his mother (sic) so she can get married, but she is snared in by Walter and soon has to juggle the story, Walter and her concern for Bruce, who is clearly out of his depth dealing with Walter Burns. She would seem as the hapless victim of the manipulations of Walter had it not been for the fire that the story and all its prospects lights in her. She is not at all ready for a retired life and blossoms when she gets her hands on a juicy story.

That leaves Bruce. He thinks he is getting married. He thinks he has found a nice simple woman to settle down for a quiet life with his mother in Albany. Instead he ends up in prison thrice, every time framed by Walter, and his mother gets abducted before it gets through to him that maybe Hildy is not coming along. Hildy hates Walter for doing these stunts, which she knows he is perfectly capable of, and yet ends up in his arms.

I love the dialogue of this film. It is verbal fireworks of premier caliber. The timing is always excellent and all the principal actors deliver a first class performance. This I have come to expect from Grant and Bellamy but this is the first time I have really noticed Russell, and although I found her a bit weak in the beginning she gets better and better as the film progresses.

My problem with “His Girl Friday” is how Hildy returns not just to the job (she is obviously cut out for it) but also for Walter since he obviously is not exactly improving the behavior which caused the divorce in the first place. His only attack of gallantry is when he is giving up on having her write the story and encourages her to go on and meet Bruce at a time when she is basically already won over. To me it feels more as if she has again been snared by Walter and Walter is, as is his habit, getting his way again.

I am not sure if that is really a serious argument against the movie, but it makes it less satisfying than a number of very similar movies.

The one that particularly springs to mind is ”The Awful Truth”. Not only is it featuring Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy in very similar roles (Irene Dunne was first choice as Hildegard Johnson), the story and wit of dialogue is quite parallel. The couple is divorced, fighting a war of wit. She gets a new fiancée (Bellamy) who is a dork and through the events unfolding the couple realizes that they should not split up after all. The newspaper setting is practically all that sets the movies apart. And that little detail about Grant’s character being so flawed that, though incredibly charming, you have to be an equally ruthless journalist to really fall for him. And that difference is probably the main reason why I prefer “The Awful Truth”. And of course the fact that second time is rarely as good as first time.

It should however not prevent anybody from seeing this movie, if nothing else then for the dialogue. According to the extra material on the DVD the actors improvised quite a lot and it shows. Two notable examples, both from Grant, is when he describes Bruce Baldwin as looking like that famous actor Ralph Bellamy. Or telling the mayor that the last person who tried to get him down was Archie Leach, and he failed. Archibald Leach was Cary Grant’s original name.

I cannot dislike a movie with Cary Grant and by Howard Hawks so of course I like this one too. Just not as much as I would have liked to.


  1. The title is a reference to the early 1700s novel Robinson Crusoe. It tells the story of a man shipwrecked on an island for twenty-some years. He is alone until a "native" (read: black) man also ends up there. Crusoe names the man Friday and the two fall into a "natural" relationship where Friday acts as Crusoe's servant. People sometimes refer to having a "man Friday" when they talk about an assistant who does everything for them. The title is then a play on words, since Hildy is a "girl Friday" for Burns.

    Actually, I find it interesting that you enjoyed the dialogue in this. I don't have any proof, but I think this film has more words spoken per minute than any other film ever made. I can't believe how fast the dialogue is. When contractors from India would ask me for recommendations on classic American films to see I always hesitated to recommend this one because I thought the extremely fast dialogue might be too much for them.

    1. Ah, but the DVD I got comes with subtitles in a million different languages, including Danish. Whenever I got lost I just had to lower my gaze and lo the meaning became clear. But I think actually that even without subtitles this would have worked out. Fast as it is, the dialogue is actually quite articulate and the sound quality on my copy was very good, not like the early thirties.

      Thanks for opdating me on the meaning of the title. I know of course the story of Robinson Crusoe (Who hasn´t?), but I never heard that expression before. Now it makes a lot more sense and just adds to the inequality in Walter and Hildy's relationship and adds to the discomfort when they end up together again.

    2. Btw. you could suggest to those contractors Gunga Din and see what they would think of it. If you do, let me know.