— Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
After watching Howard Hawks's classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) with a friend recently, I asked him what he thought of it. He admitted that it was a very funny movie but then confessed that in the end he didn't really like it very much. When I asked him why not, he replied, "Because there weren't any nice people in it." His comment made me realize that the cynical view of human nature pervading Hawks's movies, even his comedies, is something I have come to take for granted. Even in a Hawks comedy it no longer strikes me as incongruous because it is what I expect of any Hawks film.
In His Girl Friday, based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Cary Grant plays Walter Johnson, the editor of a New York newspaper. Rosalind Russell plays Hildy Johnson, his ex-wife and star reporter. The play was filmed once before by Lewis Milestone in 1931 under its original title, with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien playing Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, and has since been remade several times and in many other guises. Hawks's major innovation was to update the source material to the then-fashionable screwball genre by making Hildy a female character and also Walter's ex-wife.
In the very first scene Hildy walks briskly through the crowded, bustling city room and into Walter's office to announce not only her resignation from the newspaper but her engagement to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a strait-laced insurance agent from Albany. In typical Hawks fashion, this walk to Walter's office—with its swift pace, lengthy tracking shots as the camera follows Hildy's progress through the city room, abundant visual detail, and non-stop banter between Hildy and the other reporters—sets the tone for the whole movie. The entire sequence is one of continuous movement and sarcastic, rapid-fire dialogue.
As soon as Hildy announces her intention to resign and remarry, Walter immediately begins a campaign to thwart her in both of these intentions. His strategy is to convince her through flattery and chicanery that she is the only person who can possibly cover the story of convicted murderer Earl Williams, scheduled to be executed the next morning unless a last-minute reprieve from the governor comes through. What follows is in many ways an archetypal screwball comedy. Baldwin is a likeable but vapid dunce, and Hildy is clearly making a mistake in her plans to leave behind the excitement of her career and unstable life with Walter for the comfortable, unchallenging boredom of a conventional marriage, "with a house and children," to Baldwin. What really distinguishes His Girl Friday from other screwball comedies of the time, though, is precisely what disturbed my friend about the movie: the cynicism in which Hawks steeps the characters and their behavior.
Hawks's bitter view of humanity—his deep conviction that all human action is essentially motivated by self-interest—is projected onto nearly every character in His Girl Friday. In no character is this more apparent than in Cary Grant's Walter Johnson. His dirty tricks campaign to sabotage Hildy's engagement is relentless. So single-minded is he in pursuing his goal that his actions are wholly unrestrained by what would normally be considered human feeling.
The hapless Bruce Baldwin is the repeated victim of Walter's machinations. Walter intentionally humiliates Baldwin the first time he meets him by marching up to an elderly and unattractive man and pretending to mistake him for Baldwin. The mild-mannered Baldwin meekly sits in the background, unable to get a word in edgewise because of Walter's non-stop effusion in introducing himself to the man he has pretended to mistake for Hildy's fiancé. When Hildy, who seems not at all surprised by Walter's self-centered sense of humor, arrives and sorts out the situation, Walter responds with mock apology, and the credulous Baldwin innocently assumes there has been a true case of mistaken identity, never for a moment suspecting Walter's manipulative ruse. Walter continues to torment Baldwin at every turn (even causing him unjustly to land in jail), and Baldwin continues to believe that the string of merciless humiliations is unintentional. That Hawks manages to obscure the innate unkindness of Walter's repeated victimization of Baldwin by making it seem very, very funny is a testament to Hawks's skill at wresting humor from the most unpromising premise—that even cruelty can be played for laughs.
Even the initially sympathetic Hildy eventually shows her true nature when, as Walter intended, she is hooked by the irresistible lure of the story she has committed herself to write. (She has agreed to do this for purely mercenary reasons, to earn $5,000 so that she and Baldwin can buy a house and not be forced to live with his mother.) She is simply too thoroughly a professional reporter to overcome her natural instinct to pursue to the end, and if necessary embellish, a potential story. In the press room at the prison, she easily holds her own with the other reporters—all male, all aggressively pursuing the same story. But it is when she is finally allowed to conduct an interview with the condemned killer that Hawks fully reveals his cynic's conception of her exploitative personality.
The condemned killer, like Bruce Baldwin another soft-spoken naïf, has no clear conception of why he actually shot his victim; the murder seems to have been more the result of an accident than an intentional act. Yet Hildy, in her "interview" with the laconic killer, cleverly manages to create a story where there is none. This she does by putting words in the befuddled and suggestible man's mouth until she has created a scenario that not only appears to explain his actions but also in large measure exculpates him by making him seem to have been temporarily insane at the time.
The minor characters in the movie also get their share of Hawks's bile. The reporters in the press room are portrayed as vultures. They are, after all, essentially participating in an all-night death watch with the remote possibility that a last-minute reprieve from the governor will arrive before Williams hangs. Either way, they will get their story, and that is all these ultra-competitive scoundrels care about. When Williams's lady friend of one night, another pathetic and lonely individual, arrives and then dramatically throws herself from the window, the reporters all race to the window and stare into the courtyard below, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. "She's dead," one calmly says. "No she ain't. She's movin'," another impassively adds. Then they all race back to the telephones to call in the story.
But Hawks reserves his most vitriolic judgments for the elected officials in the movie, the sheriff and the city mayor, two characters of such unredeemed ambition, greed, and corruption that they make the politicians, lawyers, and bankers in the typical Frank Capra movie seem almost innocuous in comparison. When a messenger from the governor does indeed arrive with a reprieve, the mayor, desperately needing to be perceived as a law-and-order crime fighter before facing an election the next week, bribes the messenger and persuades him to take the retrieve back and pretend he arrived too late to prevent the hanging. The sheriff, his crony, abets him in this scheme.
In the end, after many more complications, Williams is saved from execution and declared to have been temporarily insane at the time of the shooting, and the corrupt sheriff and mayor are exposed. Baldwin returns to Albany without Hildy, and Hildy returns to both Walter and the newspaper. Despite, and in some measure because of, the fallibility of human nature, order has been restored and justice has prevailed—at least for a little while, for in Hawks's world human nature may be constant, but everything else is in perpetual motion.
It is widely known that although Cary Grant, who had worked with Hawks before, was cast early as Walter Johnson, virtually every major comic actress in Hollywood turned down the role of Hildy (including, according to notstarring.com, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, and Ginger Rogers) before the part was offered to Rosalind Russell. I have also read that after viewing the first dailies, Hawks and his stars all realized that something wasn't working. At a loss to identify what was wrong, Hawks suggested that the actors speed up the dialogue, firing it off at about half again the speed they had been using. After seeing the results, all agreed that the problem was fixed.