I intended to be with you on our honeymoon. — Walter Burns to ex-wife Hildy Johnson, recalling the mine cave-in whose reportage he had to oversee and that separated them on that occasion
It is Howard Hawks who came up with the inspired idea to make Hildy Johnson a woman in His Girl Friday, his cracklingly hilarious film version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play The Front Page, which satirized and excoriated the two things that the authors knew best: Chicago newspapers; Chicago politics. (One fleeting line insists this is not Chicago; but we know better.) This time around, the conniving, fast-talking Morning Post editor, Walter Burns, and star reporter Johnson are just-divorceds, with Burns angling to get Johnson back to her job, and hence to him, and away from the insurance salesman-boob she is planning on marrying the next day. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell both give their best, funniest comedy performances; combined, playing off each other brilliantly, they comprise a dazzling comical torpedo—and with a knockout finish of romantic feeling. However, scenarist Charles Lederer and director Hawks, and of course Hecht and MacArthur, may be the real “stars” here.
As in Scarface (1932), Hawks is peerless at creating an amoral atmosphere; in His Girl Friday, two such “atmospheres” overlap: the reporter’s realm and the mayor’s. Tomorrow, Earl Williams (John Qualen, perhaps giving the film’s finest performance) is scheduled to be hanged for the shooting death of a black police officer—this, in a city where a quarter-million African-American votes (as a result of the northward migration of blacks from the rural South) are at stake. Williams indeed committed the crime, but he was scarcely responsible, and in any case the mayor (supported in this by the sheriff) goes so far as to pretend that word of the governor’s reprieve of Williams has never reached him. He is determined to provide the execution that will deliver black votes to his candidacy.
The end justifies the means for the press as well. Williams had lost his bookkeeping job after 14 years and couldn’t find another; haunting a park where soap box rebels speechify, he may have been subliminally brainwashed by the phrase spoken there: “production for use.” Desperate, he put a gun to use when the officer tried to arrest him. A killer doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong at the moment of killing; even in the case of premeditated murder, which is not the case here, one’s moral compass operates, if at all, only during the process of premeditation. Williams’s crime was the culmination of his jobless, financially-stressed and deemed-hopeless state. Given the mayor’s political motivation for murdering Williams, it is hardly surprising—though equally wrong—that the press devises a portrait of Williams to counteract the state’s intent to harm him. It is Hildy who plants in his mind the possibility that he was directed in his actions by the words “production for use.” Thus she manipulates him during their jail-house interview to draw from him his assent to this. But note two things that hardly set the press in a noble light. (Incidentally, note how little light, including anything even representing natural light, is included in this film.) One, everyone but Hildy wants the execution moved up two hours so that news of it can make their early editions. Two, Hildy, presumably the film’s hero/ine, rips up the piece she wrote in Williams’s defense when enraged at Walter about a purely personal matter between them. Williams is the pawn of all these game-playing reporters and office-holders.
One person cares about Earl Williams: Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack, strikingly proving there’s life after Son of Kong), who befriended him as he wandered shell-shocked in the park—and whom the press has viciously characterized as a whore to sell copy. Sometimes a single feature dominates a set; such is the case with the pressroom in the CriminalCourtsBuilding. It is the large window. Panning shots towards it formally encapsulate its attraction. It is visited two or three times because down below the noose and scaffolding are being tested for Williams’s execution; then Mollie jumps out of it, splattering herself on the ground, in a desperate effort to help Williams escape.
Some will be surprised that Hawks does so little with Williams’s actual psychology. But how could he when part of the film’s argument is that the state is overpsychologizing matters by subjecting Williams to “expert” examinations not to arrive at any truth but, instead, to a mumbo-jumbo rationalization for his execution. It is good that the governor’s action owes nothing to this psychological bullshit; but also note that Williams’s reprieve, which comes to light in time to save him, is just that—a reprieve, not an exoneration. At best, Williams will serve a long time in prison for an act over which he had no control whatsoever. To protect themselves from such a self-evident truth as that, some people defend execution after execution until their souls are swimming in blood.
Make of this what you will: Clint Eastwood has called Hawks’s His Girl Friday his favorite film.
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