The Artifact: Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a recently divorced couple, both newspaper room vets, Howard Hawkes’ His Girl Friday is a 1940 screwball comedy which had so little effect upon its initial release that it was allowed to fall unceremoniously into the public domain, which explains its uninhibited presence on YouTube and Hulu. It, along with It’s a Wonderful Life, are probably the two most famous (and most well-loved) public domain films. Both also became classics in the 60s and 70s when they were discovered by new generations. Today, the mile-a-minute newsroom comedy is widely renowned as an example of pure screwball inanity, and was name-checked many times when The Social Network revived the downhill-race pacing which His Girl Friday trademarked.
You know, I sincerely wish that this was one of those times where I could say “Found this old movie, it’s good, you should see it if your into that kind of stuff,” and leave it at that, but I simply can’t being myself to use brevity here. His Girl Friday is more complicated than that. Instead, I’ve decided to use a question and answer format to address why you should definitely see this movie! And why you should take it with a grain of salt when you do. (Yes, I am talking to myself from here on out. I’m as concerned as you are.)
-First off, how’d you find this old movie, and what made you want to watch it? I mean, 1940?
Well, first of all, remember, old movies, kind of the whole point of this blog… No? Yeah, I’d kind of forgotten too. I’m working on fixing that. But watching this movie actually came through genuine, non-blog related means. Long story short: Before watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was looking for clips from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes on YouTube (more on this later), and saw that the whole movie was included on one users profile. Actually he had a lot of old movies — most of them very bad. But I saw His Girl Friday on there and was intrigued immediately because, well, from what I’d heard, His Girl Friday is a very good movie and it was walled in on this public domain catalog of low-quality films they make fun of on MST3K. The contrast lingered in my mind, and so, later that night, the first in my new apartment, before I had unpacked anything but my computer, I did the only thing I could other than stare at drying paint… I went on YouTube and looked for something good to watch. His Girl Friday proved to be an extremely enjoyable, if somewhat disheartening, way to spend an evening before passing out on the couch in preparation for work the next morning.
-Disheartening? Isn’t this movie supposed to be funny?
Yes, and it is. Very funny. Much of the comedy here seems almost effortless, but what is surprising is what a dark place it comes from. You always hear this movie refered to as a screwball comedy, which brings to mind for me crazy high-jinks by loopy but good-hearted people embroiled in high-larious but ultimately harmless misunderstandings and faux-pas. There’s some of that here, but the film’s undertones are decidedly more sinister than one is prepared for from a classic tra-la-la Hollywood comedy. After all, this is a film about a working class murderer heading for the hangman’s noose, and about the callous newspaper people who could really give a damn except they have to report it. It focuses on two very screwed-up people, a divorced couple, who want to save him primarily for the sake of profits for their newspaper. One of these people engages in countless acts of criminal activity to try to win back his female counterpart, who wants to live a normal life of some virtue until he forces her to realize that she is destined to be just as miserable and screwed-up as he is. He does this largely by ruining the life of the only seemingly decent man in the picture. Also, a woman’s suicide and city-wide corruption are both played for laughs, and both events in fact save the day, stay the execution of the murderer, and resuscitate the marriage of the protagonists. So, umm, yay? If this is a light romp through “screwball hijinks,” then I’m forced to believe that “screwball” is synonymous with “screws loose”!
-Wow, heavy stuff. So why is His Girl Friday a “screwball” comedy then?
It’s largely about plot. Screwball describes a farcical set of misunderstandings and screw-ups more than it describes, as one might assume, a joyful mood. His Girl Friday fits all the commonly accepted tenets of screwball plotting. Misunderstandings abound, secrets are kept, a couple is openly antagonistic to each other, their witty repartee keeps the movie bopping along, and there is a “happy” (those quotes are very intentional) ending when they realize their love is true. It is largely a farce. There are many traces of distinct social realism upon which the relentless laughs build, but only rarely does the film let any of that harsh realism peak through the joke-making and effect the it’s kind of cold, sleek exterior made to generate laughs through comical mishaps. So, as it turns out, screwball comedies can be just as diverse in mood attitude and theme as any other American film genre that’s constrained by plot (the political thriller) or setting (the Western). There are optimistic ones and cynical ones, happy and sad. This one is both supernaturally cynical and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s still screwball.
So it’s all rather dark then… Would you say it’s a black comedy?
I would, yes, even though no one else seems to say so. When we label things, after a time, we start to get in a rut and fail to reevaluate and see whether the labels we made still make sense. As its been traditionally defined, His Girl Friday has two defining characteristics: 1) The characters talk really fast. 2) It’s a straight-forward example of the screwball comedy. And it does have screwball elements, for sure, but I think over time, His Girl Friday has lost the bite it once had in context in 1940 that made it somewhat taboo and helped it become an unabashed flop. It’s no small wonder this film was more popular in 1970 then it was in 1940, considering all the taboo subjects it makes light of, but because it became popular out of context, it’s never been assessed as particularly dark or biting — but it is both of these things. Sometimes it’s downright jet black, and meets all the requirements of a black comedy. This is absolutely a film which makes light of serious or taboo subject matter: keep in mind that this film deals with, to list a few things, woman in the workplace, divorce, socialism, class warfare, government corruption, police incompetency, media bias, the muder of police officers, suicide and public execution. These are not things Hollywood generally joked about in 1940 — heck they’re barely things people would talk about in polite company — and His Girl Friday does not tread about them lightly. It stomps on top of them about as gently as a rampaging rhinoceros. It is bold and merciless. This is what has gotten lost in history about this movie: it is not a happy-go-lucky romance; it is a socially conscious black comedy that was once progressive and controversial. It’s not just a movie with really fast dialogue, which is all it seems to be remembered for today. It’s a truly remarkable social document with a really big achilles heel, which I’ll get to later.
-You keep teasing me with it… How fast is the dialogue in His Girl Friday?
It’s the first thing you hear about this movie, how delightfully fast the dialogue is… It’s really not that fast. The first roller coaster was really fast to people back then too, I’m sure. Today it would feel like a gentle carriage ride compared to what you can find at your local theme park. Kiddie rides at Disney are probably more harrowing. That’s kind of how going into this movie expecting a wild super-fast dialogue coaster feels: you’re going to be disappointed if you’re expecting astounding speed. Really, this film simply set the standard for what we know so well today — you don’t have to be a fast talking gangster or moll to get your point across sharply or talk over other people; everyone talks that way in real life and this film was a step towards reflecting that in cinema. The dialogue in His Girl Friday is as fast as the dialogue in any snappy, clever film you see today. No faster.
-So then the comparison to The Social Network isn’t apt?
No, it’s very apt. It couldn’t be more apt really, but the similarities have nothing to do with the speed of dialogue. It’s all about the spirit of the film. Both films are very distinctively “media” films. They are behind-the-scenes, down and dirty portraits of the men (mostly men) who make a living out of connecting people to each other through media — and neither of these films has very nice things to say about those men.
The fictional Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Walter Burns (as played charmingly by Cary Grant with a dash of a deviant spark) are very different media men. Zuck is socially awkward, using his Facebook empire to cover up for the pain he feels at not being able to connect with people. He is undersized and quiet with a steely, unmoving stare. Burns, a strapping figure (how could he not be when he’s played by Grant), is a strong-willed charmer who appears to get everything he wants and is not afraid to use his position as editor of the paper to course-correct the one thing that went wrong in his life (his wife leaving him), truth and honor in journalism be damned. This difference is largely a reflection of time however. Both characters are reflective of the tropes of masculinity which defined their times. In essence, they are the same man — a man who uses his media throne, his ability to control how others connect with each other, to make up for a personal inability to connect with those they most seek a connection with.
This inability, this connection impotence, extends through the whole of His Girl Friday, to the point where a running motif in the film involves looking behind the scenes at the men who give the news to everyone else in the city and realizing they are unable to process the people around them as anything but cold headlines. Hildy yells at them at one point for their lack of humanity, and the creeping realization that she is right is probably the only silent, dialogue-free moment in the film. It is also its most chilling and effecting scene, because it exposes the inhumanity of the men who tell us how to feel. In fact, the only person in the newsroom who seems capable of any human connection is Hildy, who spends the entire film trying to escape the callous newsroom — and her own callousness that creeps up whenever she finds a juicy scoop in her lap. Of course she loses this battle, a big story blinding her to the only man in the film who, despite being a wet blanket, seems to be able to interact with others as fellow human beings, with sympathy and compassion. I believe he utilizes what we, in common parlance, like to call “love.”
Bruce, earstwhile insurance salesman and newly-jilted lover, leaves Hildy Johnson a broken-hearted man, ignored and thrust aside, rendered irrelevent at the arrival of the charming yet unbelievably cruel Walter Burns. The great irony at this film’s romantic center is that it hopes we will find solace in the idea that two people incapable of expressing love will create a meaningful connection because they can be disconnected… together! As for me, I just left the film feeling like Walter and “his girl Friday” would be as unhappy and disconnected in their second marriage as they were in their frist. It’s a profoundly strange — and strangely profound — way for a rollicking comedy to end, and it is apt to say that same feeling of disconnection where there should be love defines Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliantly detached portrayal of social media mogul Mark Zuckerberg.
– Since you brought up Hildy being “his girl Friday,” ummm, what exactly is a “Girl Friday,” and why does “he” possess her?
Ah, yes, we’ve reached the potentially troublesome part. The idea of Hildy being “his girl Friday,” it’s not a positive thing. It essentially means Hildy is Walter’s own female version of the black servant Friday from the classic novel Robinson Crusoe, and if you’re wondering, the portrayal of Friday in that novel is not exactly, ummm, sensitive by today’s standards. He is a savage who learns how to be a somewhat civilized creature and a dedicated servant from his master, the white, Christian Crusoe, who saves him, teaches him that eating other people is bad, and converts him to Christianity, so, yeah, the associations are immediately dubious to say the least. Essentially, in common parlance, a girl Friday has come to be seen as a kind of do-anything right hand woman, a faithful female servant as uncomplicated by free will as the faithful Friday was. So, yeah, you don’t want to go around calling any of your female friends or potential girlfriends “your girl Friday.” I don’t see it as a particularly endearing title, and, if they’ve caught even a whiff of feminism since the 1960s, they probably won’t jump for joy at the idea of you implying that you control them either.
Could it be, like, ironic? Hildy’s a strong female character, right?
Whether the title is meant to be ironic is, from what I can tell, up for debate to this day. Hildy is an incredibly strong female character. This is her movie. She is the protagonist, the character with depth, the character who changes. And in no way does she seem to be a servant or lacking in free will. Hildy is delightfully free, a brilliant, sharp-tongued, immovable rock of a woman completely in her element in a room full of hard-boiled newsmen. Better yet she has that touch of humanity, of genuine caring, that those men lack…that especially her ex-husband lacks. She is compassionate and powerful, with something to say, completely unafraid to say it. She is genuinely troubled as she faces the two options afforded to her — in the world she lives in, she can continue doing what she loves and is good it, which is exposing the truth and writing about it eloquently and movingly, or she can settle down and become a good wife and mother. She can not do both, and the conflict this creates forces legitimate character growth that is fascinating to behold and creates some Grade A comedy.
Even better, in the end, she is not punished for her transgression of being a hard-working woman who is not interested in a family yet; she keeps her job, saves the day and gets a second chance at love. In short, Hildy would be a wonderful, progressive, almost shocking character today amidst the all the high-strung Katherine Heigl’s who are humiliated at the altar of the feminine ideal and end the film deeply in love and realizing they haven’t had their priorities straight their entire life, what with being all ambitious and “masculine.” That Hildy hit screens in freakin’ 1940, when a divorce was social suicide and a woman reporter who continued working after marriage would have been viewed as an Omega Level Freak, seems almost revolutionary today. Portrayals of woman in romantic comedies suck so much in 2011 that to see such a strong clear-headed portrayal of an ambitious, genuinely talented working woman in a film from 1940 literally blew me away.
And then the ending ruins it all completely! With only a few minutes to go, just as Walter decides Hildy truly would be better off with a nice man like Bruce, Hildy breaks down crying at the thought that Walter, in what seems like a moment of mercy, would simply relent and let her go live in Albany with her lame fiancee Bruce. When she believes that her ex-husband would just give up his absurd chase and let her do what she says she wants to do, the tears begin flowing, and in its last two minutes, the movie loses all its impact. It was all an act, you see — the strength, the fortitude, the I don’t give a damn what you think moxy. Hildy’s true nature is revealed — she is woman, weak, frail, playing hard to get but secretly hoping to be possessed by that special man. At any cost. The cost for Hildy becomes clear. The same things that forced her to leave Walter in the first place will happen again, but this time she will accept them whole-heartedly and submissively because she has realized, from her exploits as a “strong female,” that there is nothing better out there for her. Early in the film, a snapping, hilarious Hildy vamps that one of the reasons she left Walter was his flagrant treatment of their first honeymoon as a business trip. In the film’s final minute, when Walter calls in to take off work for their second honeymoon at Niagra Falls, he is told that a story is breaking nearby and he wonders if they can cover it while on vacation. The Hildy we see for the first two hours of this film would have given Walter one look, and Walter would have immediately relented and told the man on the other line, “To hell with that story, we are going on our honeymoon, I will not make this mistake twice.” The new Hildy, who we see for the last five minutes of the film, simply whimpers that this seems okay, and the two ride off into the sunset preparing to do exactly the same thing that Hildy hated the first time. Rather then making Walter realize how to truly love a woman, it is Hildy who is made to realize something — she really isn’t that valuable, and her expectations were far to high the first time. This is where we leave Hildy Johnson. Fade to black, triumphant music. Except I didn’t hear triumphant music at all. I heard a sad trombone going “Mwa-mwa-mwahhhh.”
Which is an overly cute way of saying you were dissapointed…
Crushed. Not that this film is really affecting the discourse very much today. Young woman are not watching Hildy going, “I’ll do what she did at the end!” (Unfortunately, they are watching contemporary romantic comedies, so there’s that…) Which is the problem with watching old movies: it’s difficult to quantify the effect they have decades after their relevence peaked. And it’s not like this movie did unquantifiable harm back in 1940 either. As established, this movie was transgressive, adressing taboo issues frankly, taking the stigma off the strong woman, the working woman, the woman willing to get a divorce, making her a sympathetic, if not downright heroic, figure. The harm all comes in realizing that the film’s ending undermines everything that the brilliantly choreographed downhill ski-race of a plot; the sharp, witty diologue; the profound theme about the inability of the media to connect to humanity in spite of its job being to connect humanity; and the brilliant characterization of Hildy constructed for me in my mind as I watched the film. It was unpleasantly dissonant, like seeing Do the Right Thing, only to have Jar Jar Binks narrate the outro. Truly, it hurt me a little as a movie-lover…
You sound a little down. Are you going to be okay?
Yeah, I’ll be fine…
So… You’re certain you liked this movie?
Absolutely, though I know it doesn’t sound like I did. This movie is great. It is brilliantly written and acted, and its one-of-a-kind. It is an important film, and best of all, it subverts it’s reputation as a fast-talking screwball comedy about some crazy-cool newspaper vets by being morbidly funny and surprisingly relevent. I just had to dig that extra level deeper then saying how funny and cool I found it so I could reveal what I really discovered, what I felt as I watched the film, because, almost every time we say, without qualification, that a movie was “really great” and leave it at that, we are lying to ourselves. A truly great film challenges us to never simply leave it at two words. It begs for long question and answer sessions, and in lieu of finding a friend who’s also seen this old dinosaur of a movie, I decided to talk it out with myself! (I swear, I do have friends!!!) I hope you enjoyed.
It’s been a pleasure! Want to watch the trailer? I put it in below. It gives the entire movie away, as trailers from the ’40s are so want to do!
Yeah, no thanks, we saw the movie already, remember? Sigh… That kid’s not to bright…