We've said it before, and we'll say it again: if we had a time machine, we would never want to go back to 1940. That sexism. That racism.
But, on the other hand, they really knew how to dress to impress.
When we first see Hildy, in Walter's office, she's wearing a striking striped dress and (semi-ridiculous) hat—very stylish, very chic, and very feminine. And feminine is what she says she is; she's there with her fiancé Bruce, who, she defiantly tells her ex-husband Walter, "treats me like a woman." Her clothes show who she wants to be; a wife and a mother, with a family and a man to take care of her.
When she decides to write the story for Walter, though, she changes her clothes. Gone is the feminine attire; in its place is a plain striped jacket (which looks a lot like like the male reporter's jackets) and a utilitarian hat (which one of the reporter's teases her about). Hildy's changed from feminine, stereotypically womanly clothes to more masculine, utilitarian work clothes, symbolizing her return to the work world.
Look out world. Hildy's back.
As critic Colin Manning points out, Hildy is on a tight deadline; she needs to get the story written and catch her train to Albany and blissful domesticity. But even so, she took time to change into work clothes. She took the time to change back into the old Hildy:
"This is Hildy-the-reporter and nothing remains of Hildy-the-wife, save her purse and long feminine coat." (Source)
Maybe, like Manning says, this indicates she was chomping at the bit to get back into her work attire… and wasn't so much excited about going to Albany. Oh, and that "long feminine coat" and purse? By the time it comes to get ready to go to Albany, Hildy loses her purse and puts her coat on backwards. It's about this time that she realizes that her happy homemaker disguise is just that: a costume.
But here's another thought: maybe Hildy knows that her colleagues wouldn't take her seriously in feminine attire. The change in clothes could show the era's understanding that work and femininity were two separate worlds—and it could also illustrate how Hildy, by understanding the difference between those world, was able to operate so effectively as a career woman at a time when women were often prevented from doing so.
Ralph Bellamy is the actor who plays Bruce Baldwin. But he's also an inside joke. When Louie asks Walter what Bruce looks like, he responds,
WALTER: That guy in the movies, Ralph Bellamy.
The joke isn't just that Bruce is Ralph Bellamy. It's that he is the kind of guy Ralph Bellamy would play. Bellamy played a similar role to Bruce in the film The Awful Truth — which Cary Grant also starred in. Just as in His Girl Friday, Grant's character divorced his wife, who then took up with a Midwestern innocent played by Bellamy.
The filmwriters are therefore winking at the audience, letting everyone know that they know about the earlier film. But it's not just the screenwriters doing the winking—it's Walter.
Walter's so smart, he knows he's in a movie. He's so sophisticated, he knows that Ralph Bellamy plays (and is playing) Midwestern bumpkins. The actor, Ralph Bellamy, becomes a sign of Walter's smarts—all without poor Bruce ever knowing.
When they were standing over the judge to be divorced, Walter hired a skywriter to write in the clouds,
Hildy. Don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.
The judge delayed the divorce twenty minutes to go out and read it.
First of all: what a terrible judge. Can't the judge stay on task? Can't the just read an eight-word message in less than twenty minutes? Someone should fire this moron.
Second of all: that big, flamboyant, self-aggrandizing message is a good summary of how Walter interacts with Hildy throughout the film.
He uses language not so much to communicate with her as to delay her. And he loves using technology to misdirect, and to say things he can't get away with otherwise. For instance, Walter yells at reporter Butch's fiancée for keeping him away from the paper:
WALTER: Now listen, you ten-cent glamour girl. You can't keep Butch away from his duty!... What's that?... You say that again, I'll come over there and kick you in the teeth!
(Which, to be fair, is something he probably wishes he could say to Bruce for taking away Hildy.)
Walter even tells Hildy they're getting remarried on the phone —and not even on a phone call to Hildy herself. He's talking to Duffy, the copy editor, and casually mentions the upcoming nuptials:
WALTER: She never intended to quit. We're getting married!
To which Hildy responds,
HILDY: Can we go on a honeymoon this time?
(This relationship dynamic is weird.)
As adorably antique as it seems now, telephones in 1940 were examples of up-to-date technology; they were modern, forward-looking, and exciting. They fit right in with Walter's rapid-fire, hip dialogue, and suggest a futuristic world in which everything is sleek and speedy.
And Walter's mastery of that world is demonstrated when he uses it to slow the equally fast-talking Hildy down—his technology beats her train to Albany.
Early on in the film, we watch Hildy and Walter walking through the newsroom. Well, they're not doing anything as dull as "walking"—Walter's striding and Hildy's sashaying.
Walter goes through a door and lets it slam back onto Hildy. Hildy then reprimands him—in fast-paced, snarky dialogue—for not being chivalrous. They come to a second gate, and Hildy illustrates the right way to hold it open, letting Walter walk through. They then come to a third gate… and Walter again goes through first and lets it slam on Hildy.
If Walter's trying to get Hildy back, it seems like he's doing a poor job of it. He's not treating her with consideration; he's being a deliberately rude jerk. Do people usually let doors slam on the woman they love?
But actually Walter is being canny. His whole pitch to Hildy, his effort to win her back, is based on his argument that her second most important identity is as a woman. Her first identity? Walter tells it like he sees it:
WALTER: You're a journalist!
Walter's appeal is to Hildy's professional ambition. He's in love with Hildy the journalist, not Hildy the would-be domestic goddess. By slamming doors on her, he's saying (in that smooth-as-butter Cary Grant voice),
WALTER: Hildy, I think too much of you to treat you with kid gloves. You're a reporter. You can keep up with me. I'm treating you as an equal—which means I'm treating you as sloppily as I treat everyone else!
And you can see from how Hildy reacts that she's not really offended. She's amused. The two are playing together—or, if you prefer, flirting. Walter's letting her know it's more fun to joke with him than it is to be put on a pedestal by Bruce.
Even if some of those jokes can swing back a bit hard against the knees.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
At the beginning of the film, Hildy is going to marry and have a decent, normal, boring life with Bruce, in Albany. (Or so she thinks.)
Walter asks Hildy to save Earl Williams. He appeals to her noble instincts. Plus, there's some smoldering chemistry between them—Hildy did miss Walter's dimple.
Hildy wants to be a happy homemaker, so she tells Walter to shove it. (She still thinks he's cute, though.) So Walter offers her money. That works—every aspiring domestic goddess needs some walking around money.
The newspaper guys are our mentors, since they fill Hildy in on the case. But they certainly look more "sleazy fedora-wearing slicksters" than "Gandalf" or "Dumbledore."
Hildy gets involved with Earl's escape and she gets hooked on breaking the story. She's in it to win it at this point, and she remembers just how much she loves journalism. It's a rush.
His Girl Friday ain't a heroic journey; it's a fast-paced comedic romp. So the typical Hero's Journey breaks down a bit.
After all, the plotline of His Girl Friday pings back and forth and around manically; Hildy keeps trying to get to Albany and getting stuck—or does she keep trying to write her story, while being distracted?
Either way, the hero's journey turns into a series of distractions and vacillations and witty quips… which is what this movie's known for, after all.
Walter and Hildy save Earl Williams and decide to get remarried. Bruce gets shipped back to Albany. It doesn't exactly fit a heroic end neatly… unless you wanted to say that Walter conquers and captures Hildy.
But that seems awfully barbaric for someone who wears such nice suits, don't you think?
His Girl Friday never tells you precisely what city you're in… which is probably a smart move on their part, because the film portrays the city government as insanely incompetent and corrupt.
But here's what we do know: it's somewhere in New York State, since Albany is the state capital. And how many other huge, famous, media-centric cities are there in New York state besides The Big Apple? Not a one. (Syracuse doesn't count, guys.)
It's important that the setting be New York—or some similar big urban center—because you need a big urban center to contain Walter and his fast-talking, dynamic personality. He's just too big for a small town.
And after all, where could you find a plane to write in the sky begging your wife not to divorce you—except in New York? Where else would a newspaperman have two real life criminals on the payroll—except in Gotham? Where else would you pick up the phone and declare—
Now listen, you ten-cent glamour girl. You can't keep Butch away from his duty!... What's that?... You say that again, I'll come over there and kick you in the teeth!...
—except in The City That Never Sleeps And Is Rude Because It Is Sleep-Deprived?
New York is fast, gigantic, chaotic, and profane. If you insult people three times before you even shake their hand, you're in a New York state of mind.
In the film, New York is directly contrasted with Albany. Bruce is from Albany, and Hildy wants to get there for peace, quiet, and domesticity.
BRUCE: Mighty nice little town, Albany. They've got the state capitol there, you know.
Albany is little: pretty much all they've got going for them is the state capitol. (According to this movie. No offense, Albany.)
Albany's hardly enough to contain Hildy or Walter—though they will visit to report on a strike, maybe, just to bring the news back to New York.
There's a pretty standard ending to any rom-com: love, marriage, and a honeymoon in Niagara Falls (or Albany.)
So the point of the plot is less to get you there (you know where you're going to end up anyway) and more to spin out events and more events so you have a full hour and a half of screen time before you do get there.
And His Girl Friday is chock-filled.
Few films delay as thoroughly and inventively as His Girl Friday. The very first scene, in which Hildy and Walter spar, is one long interrupted conversation. Hildy wants to tell Walter that she's getting remarried, but she keeps getting cut off—often by discussions about being interrupted. (And yet Walter manages to keep it suave. Because Cary Grant.)
They banter back and forth about how Walter hired a plane to skywriter during their divorce, delaying the proceedings—and they reminisce about how their honeymoon was put off by a mine disaster:
HILDY: Instead of two weeks in Atlantic City with my bridegroom, I spent two weeks in a mine with John Kruptzky.
When Hildy finally does tell Walter the news, he immediately begins plotting to keep her from going through with it.
WALTER: Is there any way we can stop the 4:00 train to Albany?
DUFFY: We could dynamite it.
WALTER: Could we?
Walter has to think up something trickier than dynamiting the train, but he manages. First he gets Hildy to cover the execution, then he sets Bruce up to be put in jail over and over—and then he even kidnaps Hildy's mother-in-law.
By the end of the film, Hildy finally breaks down and cries, maybe because she realizes Walter loves her, but maybe just because she's so exhausted with the hour-and-a-half runaround.
His Girl Friday takes a lot of time and a lot of words to get you to your eventual happily-ever-after destination. But, as they say, the journey is the destination.
Though the film is almost bewilderingly clever in inventing ways to slow things down, it's pretty straightforward in the way it presents the story. You're almost always following Hildy—although there are occasional jumps to follow other parts of the story (like Walter's machinations, or the Mayor's sneaky scheme) when necessary.
Hawks is a no-nonsense old Hollywood director; he doesn't mess around with chronology or complicated point of view. He tells you the dang story from beginning to end—with a few witty detours along the way, of course.
The word "screwball" sounds like a horrendous-but-campy insult; like something your grandma would call your great uncle after drinking a few too many eggnogs at a holiday party.
But it's actually a totally benign term, for a totally benign (although hilarious) kind of film.
Screwball comedies flourished during the Great Depression. They're a lot like romantic comedies; there's a guy, there's a girl, and they fall in love while saying witty things. But screwball comedies were…well, screwier.
They have fast-paced dialogue; they have slam-bang humor. And most of all the romances are not just romances, but struggles for dominance. The guy plots to get the girl or, in a role reversal for films of the time, the girl plots to get the guy.
Screwball comedies like His Girl Friday also often addressed the changing role of women—or at least the nervousness around the changing role of women. There's a big question beneath all that yacking: can you still have love and romance with a working woman who would rather outwit you than darn your socks.
And His Girl Friday answers by saying: of course. In this film, a career is a way to a woman's heart. If you tell her "The movies will be after you! There'll be a Hildy cigar!" and she'll fall into your arms… even if—or especially because—she calls you a "stinker".
This film is one the most famous screwball comedies around—and one of the other contenders for Best Screwball Comedy is another Howard Hawks/Cary Grant effort, Bringing Up Baby (1938).
But other notable screwball comedies are The Awful Truth (1937), also with Cary Grant (he was screwball's leading man), and It Happened One Night (1934).
Oh, and we can't forget The Philadelphia Story (1940). You know who The Philadelphia Story stars? Cary Grant (as Hildy discovers, you can't escape him).
Crusoe, an Englishman, is stranded on an island; Friday is a native. Friday becomes Crusoe's servant (because Defoe was kind of a racist, and thought everyone should serve Englishman).
The phrase "my man Friday" came to mean "my servant," or "my guy who picks up after me—the subordinate who cleans my shoes and brushes my teeth and generally handles all the stuff that's too tedious for me to deal with."
The title of His Girl Friday switches the gender of the servant. This is a wink at the fact that Hildy's gender in the film is switched. The original version of His Girl Friday was a play from 1929 called The Front Page, in which Hildy is a man.
So His Girl Friday signals both that Hildy is a woman and that the role used to be for a man. It also, maybe, signals that Hildy is like a man in some ways —by being career-focused, for example, which was considered a masculine trait at the time.
The title also suggests that Walter and Hildy aren't equal. She's his servant or helper or right hand woman, not the other way around. He's not only her boss, he's the guy who wears the pants in the relationship.
And maybe His Girl Friday's also a joke about how stuck up Walter is; he does tend to treat everyone as if he's the lord of the island (or "the lord of the universe" as Hildy sarcastically calls him).
Or maybe the title is a more straightforward description of how Hawkes, and the film, sees Hildy—for all her success as a career woman, she's ultimately indebted to, and tied to, Walter.
The film certainly presents Hildy as independent and competent—but it also sees limits to that independence and competence. She is awesome, but she's still a girl Friday… emphasis on the "girl."
At the end of the film, Walter proposes to Hildy (by telling Duffy on the phone that the two of them are going to get married) and then they agree to have a honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
…until Duffy tells them there's a strike in Albany and they end up agreeing to a working honeymoon in Albany. Albany, of course, is the very city Hildy has been trying to get to throughout the film with her fiancée, Bruce.
Hildy sounds briefly elated to think that they'll honeymoon in Niagara Falls, but then defeated, shoulders slumped, when she says, barely audibly, "Okay, we'll honeymoon in Albany." The last scene ends up, not in a happily ever after rapture, as in many romantic comedies. Instead, Hildy seems completely defeated.
That defeat is underlined by the fact that she's going where she wanted to for the entire movie. Walter's kept her from going to Albany. Now, when she no longer wants to go to Albany, they're heading there because Walter says so.
The last line of the (very line-ful) movie is when Walter asks Hildy,
WALTER: Say, why don't you carry that in your hand?
He's suggesting she rearrange the suitcase she's carrying in her arms—but he doesn't offer to carry it for her, as Bruce surely would have.
Hildy's back to being a career woman and his star reporter… but as she hurries after him with her case, she seems more like a servant. She may be his wife, and she may be a reporter, but she's also just his girl Friday. (Check out What's Up With the Title? for more.)
Critic Andrew Sarris defined the screwball comedy as "a sex comedy without the sex." His Girl Friday knows that sex exists; Walter is concerned that Bruce and Hildy may have sex on the train to Albany until he hears that Bruce's mother is going to be going along.
WALTER: That relieves my mind.
HILDY: It was cruel to let you suffer so.
But why is the film so concerned about Walter suffering? This is a sophisticated comedy about irreverent adults. What's up with making sure Walter, and the viewer, knows that no sex will be happening? Why's Walter made of such delicate stuff?
A big part of the reason is the Hays Code. The code was adopted by the motion picture industry in 1930. It declared in part, "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it." That meant no traveling to Albany with Bruce without mother coming along for the ride. (Source)
And it also meant that all other references to sex in the film are super-buried. One of the newspapermen, Stairway Sam, is so-called (if you watch closely) because he looks up women's skirts when they go up the stairs. And Mollie denies she ever slept with Earl. But that's about the extent of it. You're not even allowed to hear that Mollie is a prostitute in the film (although she was in the play).
The violence in His Girl Friday is also low key. The worst moment is when Mollie throws herself from a window—but the film is careful to tell you she survived.
You could easily imagine a racier, franker, version of His Girl Friday. But thanks to the Hays code, it's pretty much sanitized. Watch this with your little nieces and cousins… or, better yet, watch this with your grandparents. They'll love you for it.