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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Do Not Pass Go: Each Dawn I Die (1939)

poster“When I first came here, I believed in justice. I believed that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure on weeks and months and now I hate the whole world and everyone in it for letting me in for this. Buried in a black filthy hole because I was a good citizen. Because I worked my head off to expose crime—and now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict. I think and hate like a convict!”

—Frank Ross (James Cagney)

If you’re looking for a feel-good flick, I wouldn’t recommend William Keighley’s Each Dawn I Die—as the title might suggest. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking one of James Cagney’s most poignant, edgy performances, you came to the right movie. 

In this indelibly brutal look at America’s prison system, Cagney plays neither a fearsome gangster nor even a petty hustler, but rather a good guy locked up due to a miscarriage of justice. Crack reporter Frank Ross got a little too close to the corruption he was trying to expose—so the crooked politicians he threatened decided to keep him quiet with a nasty frame-up. Sent to Rocky Point with a twenty-year sentence, Ross forges an unlikely friendship with big shot racketeer Stacey (a sly, swaggering George Raft) who offers to help Ross dig up evidence of his innocence… if Ross helps him escape.

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Now, whenever two stars at the top of their game appear in the same movie—receiving equal billing—it’s mighty tempting to see them as competition in a zero-sum contest of “who came off better?” In this case, I applaud how well Each Dawn I Die both stretches and showcases Cagney’s and Raft’s respective talents. Right off the bat, I’ll confess my bias: to my mind Cagney possessed the far greater range as an actor—and I think even George Raft would agree with me.

However, Cagney’s earnestness, his relentless intensity, and his ability to structure his performances, usually building up to a climactic freak-out—all these qualities are nicely balanced out by Raft’s laconic, under-emotive coolness. Frank Ross’ sensitivity to the world and his awareness of the moral stakes of any given situation provide the catalyst for glib tough-guy Stacey to grow as a person. Ross’s energy and his righteous indignation force Stacey to actually weigh the ethical consequences of his actions for once. In this way, Cagney’s and Raft’s acting styles (and abilities) translate beautifully into their onscreen characters.

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If Raft plays a more automatically charismatic character—a slang-slinging outlaw—Cagney certainly rips into the more difficult of the two lead roles. We understand his Frank Ross as a wronged man; yet, Cagney brings a strength and complexity to this risky victim role, a part that could have easily seemed like a wimp or a weakling in the hands of a less capable performer.

Frank Ross initially recalls Paul Muni’s similar role as a man incarcerated through a quirk of fate in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. However, Cagney’s Ross ironically “earned” his punishment, by fighting long and hard against unscrupulous politicians who unjustly imprison him. Indeed, in the opening scenes of Each Dawn I Die, Cagney channels all of the virile aggression he displayed in his gangster roles, only turned to serve a social purpose.

20Stalking through the rain in a trench coat, scaling walls into a fortress of profiteers, and smiling to himself as he watches the bad guys incriminate themselves, Cagney exudes a malevolence twisted for good, an anger born of hard-knocks and displaced onto corruption. His risk-taking star reporter doesn’t just want a story—he genuinely despises the grifters and crooked politicians he strives to unmask.

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He wants to bring them down—and he pursues their downfall with the same sort of single-minded ferocity that we tend to associate with Cagney’s less benevolent characters, like Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett. Cagney’s variation on the muckraking reporter adds a deep subtext to that stock character of the 1930s. He doesn’t just breeze through the world of racketeers looking for newspaper fodder, like many a wisecracking movie journalist. Frank Ross, who, as we later find out, rose from the slums to make something out of himself, hates criminals and exploiters of the public confidence. He hates them deeply. Personally. Intensely. Implacably.

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About to spill his big scoop on the district attorney and the governor, Ross leaves his office one night, only to be seized by two ugly henchmen who hustle him into his car. Even in a moment of danger, Ross exhibits the typical Cagney moxie—he bares his teeth like a frustrated shark. We can practically hear his thoughts, saying, “Why, I oughta…!”

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Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t have a chance to fight back. The baddies knock him out, force him into the driver’s seat of the car, smash a bottle of liquor, and send him out into the city traffic—to make the killing look like a drunk driving accident. Even more unfortunately, Ross wakes to discover that, although he survived the collision, three people in the other car were killed on impact. Pleading innocence, Ross nevertheless receives a harsh sentence from a judge most likely in league with the hypocritical politicos that engineered the frame-up.

GO TO JAIL. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

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When Ross first meets ‘Hood’ Stacey, on the way to Rocky point, he’s chained to him. Unsurprisingly, given his disdain for all manner of crooks, Ross hates the kingpin on sight. Their immediate baiting dialogue offers one of the rare moments of levity in this grim movie.

Stacey: Write a piece about me when you get out, will ya? The name’s Stacey. Life sentence. I like to read my name in the papers.

Ross: If you don’t shut up, you may find it in the obituary column.

Stacey (sarcastically): Oh my goodness! Hey, deputy, willya change my seat? I don’t like to play so rough. He run over a coupla guys so he thinks he’s tough. You know how it is with the first coupla guys.

29Cagney doesn’t take that talk from anybody, so, with one well-placed swing, these very different men enter into their first brawl—and win a modicum of respect for each other.

Although the unusual bromance between Raft and Cagney sustains the film, the emotional core of the movie witnesses Ross slowly transforming into a hardened, bitter man. He quickly learns to curry favor with big gangsters like Stacey. On his first day, he saves Stacey’s life by tripping a man who was about to stab him with a shiv. Soon, Ross has made the choice to look the other way when Stacey decides to murder a fellow inmate, a dirty rat called Limpy Julian.

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The scene where Ross catches Stacey practicing his knife technique—but agrees to remain silent—stands out as a key moral reversal for our protagonist. “I don’t see any shiv,” He tells Stacey, with a grin, pretending not to see what’s right in front of his face. Denying physical reality, even in a metaphorical way, Ross signifies that he’s splitting from the ethics that he cherished “on the outside.”

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I don’t see nothing… Cagney, Raft, and shiv.

Ross’s behavior shifts to reflect a logic more germane to outlaws and gangsters, because those social menaces at least embrace their own code of honor. We perceive less justice operating in society at large than in the tightly knit circle of cons and shysters who follow their own unwritten laws of loyalty.

Ross’s eventual descent into madness proves that prisons don’t turn bad men into good ones—on the contrary, they beat an exemplary citizen into a feverish con. Seeing his basically decent comrades being abused by guards, Ross learns that Rocky Point, like the outside world, is a playground for underhanded tyrants.

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In one particularly chilling scene, Pete Kassock, the sadistic head guard, accuses Ross of helping Stacey escape and proceeds to slap and punch our hero around a cell. As the camera follows Ross, being propelled around the room by the force of Pete’s blows, we the viewers can hardly believe that we’re watching Cagney passively taking this. But, then again, any protest would only equate out to more beatings.

Finally, Pete gives the nod to his men to take over the interrogation and the camera turns away, although we can still hear the dull thuds of hard punches. Whenever off-screen violence occurs in a Cagney movie, it’s usually Jimmy dishing out the beating! In this case, we the viewers feel totally helpless and shocked by the brutalizing of our protagonist, so awful that we’re not even allowed to see it. When the camera turns back, Cagney hangs limply, a broken man.

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During his days in solitary confinement, in a cell quaintly nicknamed “The Hole,” the fighting spirit returns to Ross. He yells at his guards and alternately begs to be released and threatens to be worst con any of them have ever seen. Unjust punishment has turned the crime-fighter into a criminal. When Ross’ girlfriend intercedes on his behalf and the kindly warden arranges a brief respite from The Hole, we can hardly recognize the man that the guards drag into the warden’s office.

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Ross sports a ratty beard and speaks with an almost mechanical rhythm, as if he’s spewing invective that he rehearsed many, many times in his head while chained in his cell. An exemplary citizen has devolved into an animal. It’s a horrific spectacle. The burden of this film’s social critique lies squarely on Cagney’s shoulders. And, boy, does he make it work.

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Cagney’s performance astounded me not only with the facet of rage that he brought roaring out of the character, but also with the moments of vulnerability and tenderness. When his mother comes for a visit, bringing a basket of sweets and goodies, the ashen-faced prisoner can barely manage to eat a bite. You can tell by his halting delivery and the little catch in his throat that he’s choking back tears at every moment. When his mother eventually breaks into sobs, his whole face crumples. Those luminous eyes fold under their lids. With a nod, he lets the guard know that he can’t take his mother’s pain any more and she’s escorted away.

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As Cagney walks back to the workroom, the camera tracks back in front of him and we watch him cope with his own anguish during the rare few seconds when he’s not surrounded by guards and prisoners. He wipes two tears away and steels himself back into his impassive tough-guy act.

Similarly, when Frank Ross comes up for parole only to discover that the man who’s going to make the final decision actually participated in the frame-up. Overcome with injustice and disgusted by the “sanctimonious” speeches of the parole board, Ross yells at the whole pack of them. He leaps from his seat and we’re not quite sure what he’s going to do. He shouts and screams… and then realizes that he’s killed what little chance he had of winning parole. Back-pedaling, he begins to weep, to implore the stony men before him for a second chance, for something he knows he’s not ever going to get from them.

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Just as Cagney’s strength and cockiness taught America how to be strong and cocky, his grief and despair taught America how to grieve without self-pity: “You ain’t so tough,” as he sneers to himself in The Public Enemy.

In Each Dawn I Die, his wild cries of defeat howl from the heart of America’s dark side. He gives us the shadow of the American Dream: the man who rightfully clawed up from the gutter, and got wrongfully kicked back to oblivion. His passionate dismay holds all the power of a wake—a one-man wake for the freedom that was supposed to be his, but never really was.

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Cagney can wring the spectator’s hearts because, through the emotional arcs he creates in his performances, his characters earn their breakdowns. His characters weep only when the situation becomes truly, utterly hopeless. Long before today’s “sensitive manhood” and overactive male tear ducts (I mean, James Bond cries these days; God help us all!), Cagney merged toughness with the occasional glimpse of raw emotional wounds and boyish tenderness.

I especially love the way he puts one caring hand to protect George Raft’s head as guns shatter a glass window above him. Orson Welles once praised Cagney for the way he could take the truth of his roles, then expand the scope of the performance to be larger than life, but no larger than truth. Never more so than in Each Dawn I Die.

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Because this film was made after Joseph Breen and his reinforced Production Code, Cagney is denied the opportunity to give his performance the haunting ambiguity that we get from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, for instance. The movie insists that innocence and virtue will eventually be rewarded. Each Dawn I Die lacks the hard-hitting conclusion that could have made it a masterpiece.

If you’re a “square guy,” eventually the system will come through for you. That seems to be the affirmative message of Each Dawn I Die. But I don’t buy that redemptive claptrap, the stuff that the screenwriters clearly slapped onto the end to show us that the world is just. The ending of this movie should comfort us. It doesn’t. The echoes of the beatings and the miscarriages of justice and the dirty political deals still chill us to the bone.

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In the world of Each Dawn I Die, a man is guilty because the right people say he is. A shiv dematerializes because one man decides to be loyal to another. Rage against criminals galvanizes into an uncontrollable criminal rage. Reality warps under the dehumanizing rhythms of days, weeks, months in jail.

And, through the magic of Cagney’s searing interpretation of Frank Ross, a happy ending doesn’t seem so happy anymore.

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I didn’t end this post on such a happy note, so here’s a fun fact. According to Cagney’s autobiography, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he tried to rid Hollywood of mob influences. So the mafia decided to put a hit out on him. However, lucky for Cagney, a friend of his had some pull with the gangster crowd and decided to convince his buddies to spare ol’ Jimmy. That friend was George Raft. Life imitates art, doesn’t it? 

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This blog post is part of the Cagney Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector. Cagney was a fascinating and versatile guy, so be sure to check out the other entries and learn as much as you can about this screen legend.

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