Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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2 thoughts on “Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

  1. Fantastic write-up! I’d never have thought of the prison bars in this, though I’ve often noticed them in early 1930s melodramas and noirs – love your thought about how they are echoed by the stripes of Hildy’s clothing, and also about the noir within the comedy. You make me want to watch this again immediately.

  2. As always you’ve written some fantastic text on a fantastic subject. So glad to have found your blog via Twitter and Self Styled Siren. Your subjects couldn’t be better!

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