In arguably his best screen performance, Cary Grant heads the terrific His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ classic 1940 comedy about fast-talking journalist Walter Burns (Grant) and his morally circumspect schemes to win back his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell). As well as Walter’s better half, Hildy was also once one of the best journalists at their paper but now engaged to to well-meaning insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), faces a life of idle, dull comfort.
Grant is magnetic as Walter: the actor once known as Archie Leach was never more ‘Cary Grant’ than here, playing master manipulator and tireless charm machine Walter. Dominating the script with endless quips in that famous transatlantic drawl, Grant trips across the screen, Hawks’ fluid camera hanging on his every move. Grant’s allure is irresistible, making Walter’s dubious ethics and faultless insincerity all the more seductive; were it not for the screwball comedy dialogue and sense of fun, His Girl Friday‘s moral murkiness could almost be considered noirish.
It’s the moral ambiguity that really sets Hawks’ film above other comedies of the 1940s, and with the exception of Hildy’s nice but dull fiance, everyone’s hands are dirty. Walter has no problem lying to Hildy to persuade her to come back to the paper, partially because he still carries a torch for her, but also because she can write copy like no one else. Meanwhile, Hildy herself doesn’t take much persuading, and when an interview with a mentally-disturbed man sentenced to death comes across her desk, she has no hesitation in manipulating both the prisoner, Earl Williams (John Qualen), and the sensitive political situation – Williams killed a black police officer – to construct a sensational story.
The ethics of Hildy, Walter and their colleagues are unquestionably sketchy, but the film also makes no bones about the importance of investigative journalism, too: by the film’s close not only is a corrupt city offical facing jail, but Hildy and Walter’s efforts have also saved Williams from the hangman’s noose. Hawks’ mastery, as with so many of his films, is to combine the comic and the dark, and in so doing elevate both. But the real emotional weight comes from Hildy’s choice – does she commit to a staid but comfortable life with Bruce, or a tempestuous future with Walter and the newspaper?
Her rebuke to a colleague, ‘stop trying to change me into something I’m not! I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaper man!’ is as thrilling in its machine-gun staccato as it is political in its ferocity. Hawks’ film is hilarious and mature in its study of journalistic ethics and personal vice; delivering a parity of belly laughs and social commentary, His Girl Friday is satire of the highest order.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell