There are a few spoilers here and a lot of analysis, please watch the movie, available on Netflix Instant, before reading.
Howard Hawks is not as cinematic as Orson Welles or the visionary that Alfred Hitchcock is, but he was able to construct films that best demonstrated the potential of the studio system and operated with richer thematic undertones, be it a gangster film (Scarface), a western (Rio Bravo), or in the case of the wonderful His Girl Friday (1940), screwball romance. It was not always that way, however; respect for Hawks was at first limited to brave Cahiers du Cinema critics and later studious Americans. Even then, however, His Girl Friday was rarely the beneficiary of admiration. It was not until His Girl Friday was called “the American film par excellence” by Cahiers critic Louis Marcorelles and, a few years later, entered the public domain, that its audience began to grow.
Hindsight is always 20/20, especially for film critics. A world where Vertigo, Psycho, and Hitchcock in general were dismissed as tacky genre thrills, where Citizen Kane was a thinly-veiled attack on Hearst devoid of innovation, is hard to imagine. But many Hawks films, His Girl Friday among them, are, in many ways, not terribly cinematic. His Girl Friday was an adaptation of the play The Front Page, and although the film has a few more sets than the confined play, it still feels quite theatrical. His Girl Friday is widely known as a film with overlapping dialogue of fast-talking newspapermen, and the camera movement is unflashy, strictly adhering to the rules. The plot follows the basic work/romance designed to maximize the audience, and the star was one of the biggest box-office draws of his time. On the surface, it embodies much of what a number of French intellectuals wanted to see the cinema move away from.
While the critique that the film is un-cinematic is largely true, that criticism dismisses the intelligent gender politics at work beneath the surface, initiated by Hawks’ change of the male Hildy in the play to a female Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson. Similarly, it ignores the gags/minute ratio that is so high that the most attentive viewer is bound to miss a few on his/her first view. Howard Hawks reportedly encouraged competition and “scene stealing” between actors, and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, as the jabbering editor Walter and his equally fast-talking ex-wife and former best reporter Hildy stepped up to the plate. Russell went as far as hiring a writer to add humorous pokes to her part for her to “spontaneously” spit out to garner extra laughs. The chemistry pops right off the screen, and the two hilariously and believably capture the relationship between the ex who never got over her and the woman trying to walk away from the art she mastered to start a family. In this way, His Girl Friday dynamically suggests that a woman can win in a “man’s world” and her own without ever having to betray herself.
From the very beginning, we know that Hildy is the only character who can keep up with Walter, and it does not take much longer to realize that Walter is the only one who won’t bore Hildy. As the film begins, a long tracking shot reflects the fast-paced environment of a newspaper, where workers bark orders and requests and yell for a “copy boy.” Amidst this chaos, a dissolve sneaks in and Hildy walks through a “NO ADMITTANCE” sign into Walter’s office (take note: fiancé Bruce opens a gate on the way but obeys the sign), unphased by the hectic surroundings but also too quick for even Hawks’ camera to keep up. At the sight of her, Walter effortlessly clears the room, assigning a task to various other men unable to talk back or keep up, but Hildy comes back with her own insults and brushes off any of Walter’s reminisces of their marriage, finally telling him that she is getting married. Unwilling to be outdone, Walter follows Hildy out to the lobby to meet her husband, and the gender politics begins to emerge.
While criticism that most of the gender politics is evoked through endless chatter is true, it is also an overstatement. There are several instances of Hildy stating that she is ready to leave the newspaper business to start her own family, but His Girl Friday is never heavy-handed in its characterizations. The contrast between Bruce’s dull, over politeness and Walter’s disregard of basic gentlemanly elements of chivalry is intelligently understated in the film’s next scene, in which Walter takes the couple out to dinner. Here, Walter humorously seats himself between the couple and uses Hildy’s match to light his own cigarette, not offering it to Bruce, who evidently does not smoke. Walter easily removes Bruce from the conversation with Hildy, bringing him back only to ask leading questions, and sets up a convincing image of suave masculinity. Meanwhile, Bruce can only remark that Walter “seems like a nice guy.” Walter is able to emasculate Bruce entirely, foreshadowing the film’s end, while also disregarding codes of chivalry in an attempt to bring his best reporter back into the business. That Hildy is so willing to rearrange her schedule to write a story and catch a later train with Bruce displays the dynamics between her domestic aspirations and her professional dedication.
These dynamics continue to complicate over the next hour and a half. Walter uses every trick in the book to get Bruce arrested, and it is Hildy who must bail him out. Hildy is on good terms with the men in the press room, who gossip behind her back that she can’t go six months without working. Hildy points out the femininity of these actions, saying that “it’s getting so a girl can’t leave the room without being discussed by a bunch of old ladies.” The men are stripped of their masculinity for straying away from masculine ideas, such as the poker game they play throughout the scene, but Hildy is the exceptional woman, looking to balance domesticity and professionalism. To reinforce her position, she is contrasted with the hysterical, lovesick Mollie and Bruce’s powerful mother-in-law, who is able to defeat the men. Hildy falls between the two, looking to settle down with a family but also working for the big story in the same way the rest of the press do, Hildy is “one of the boys,” torn between escaping that label or embracing it. Still, in being one of the boys, she finds it increasingly difficult to have her femininity acknowledged. Just as her light was taken by Walter for his own smoke, she constantly finds herself opening doors for herself (or other men) and carrying her own suitcase. Both of these are acknowledged by Walter, who refuses to hold the next door and smirks when Hildy is carrying her luggage. Furthermore, Walter always keeps his hat on in Hildy’s presence, refusing to grant her a simple notion of politeness, affirming his own masculinity while also questioning her femininity.
Still, Hildy’s femininity pokes through, defending her hat on the basis of price and finding it hard to run because of her heels and dress. She also breaks down at the end of the film, revealing a level of emotional honesty of which the men are incapable. Still, Hildy is faster thinking than any of the men (aside from Walter), covering up every jam and getting the latest story before anyone. It is at the end of the film that Hildy reaches a balance between the two, agreeing to remarry Walter, a symbol of domestic completion, but also going back to the newspaper, asserting her professionalism. For a pre-war film, His Girl Friday is thus incredibly progressive, depicting a sympathetic, likeable woman who chooses a level of work instead of a romantic, traditional life with the chivalrous-but-dull Bruce. Hildy is able to continue to be “one of the boys” without losing her femininity. The only weakness is perhaps that Walter is too perfectly masculine, able to be controlling and decisive without being violent, but also able to be sincere and passionate without being weak. In this way, His Girl Friday reinforces traditional notions of masculinity, suggesting that the toughest man, devoid of the ethics one expects of journalists (an issue with suspension of disbelief that Hawks cleverly addresses with a title card just after opening credits) is the man most deserving of exceptional women. Still, His Girl Friday’s complexity with which it addresses femininity and female professionalism remains virtually unmatched today, and the lack of cinematic flourish and occasional piece of over-explanation cannot stilt the film’s greatness, even if it does not quite have the courage to have the woman triumph over the man.