Hildy wants to feel like a natural woman. She is woman; hear her roar. Man! She feels like a woman.
And for Hildy, being a woman means a whole lot of domestic bliss. She's chasing that hearth and home feeling—she feels as though being a journalist and being a woman are about as compatible as baking soda and vinegar.
HILDY: I'll be a woman, not a news machine! I'll have babies, give them cod-liver oil, and watch their teeth grow!
Dang. That makes you appreciate how far we've come, huh? But she's not just being anti-feminist. She's talking about how robotic she felt in her former marriage to Walter.
When she was married to Walter, Hildy worked all the time on the paper. Walter treated her more like an employee than like a wife; he cut their honeymoon short to go running after a story in a coalmine. He sent her around, she says, "like an errand boy." He was, in short, a "stinker."
But Bruce, her new fiancée, is not a stinker. He's a sweetie. He holds doors open for her. And Hildy likes how he treats her:
HILDY: He treats me like a woman.
See? And part of being a woman is being "respectable." Hildy wants to "live a half-way normal life" — which means honeymoons, babies, and staying at home while Bruce goes out and sells insurance.
Being a woman, in other words, for Hildy, means wearing pretty things, doing her make-up (as she does in that first scene with Walter), raising kids—and giving up her career. Hildy wants to be the kind of woman that woman were expected to be in 1940—beautiful, domestic, and homey.
Rosalind Russell, who plays Hildy, didn't want to be a domestic goddess, of course. She was a career actress. Grant introduced Russell to her future husband on the set—not an insurance salesman like Bruce, but a producer, Frederick Brisson. She didn't stop working when they got married though; she just kept making film after film.
Hildy says she doesn't want to be like Russell—but then, sometimes, she's not so sure. She claims she wants to stop being a newspaperwoman, but then she sure seems to be excited at the chance to chase down the story of Earl Williams' escape… so much so that she catches the warden with a flying tackle, and pays him $450 for the inside scoop.
And that $450? That money is Bruce's. She gives away her husbands dough to advance her career. That's hardly what a good domestic helpmate would do—or someone whose main ambition is to to feed babies cod liver oil. (Ew.)
Also, when Walter tells her that the Earl Williams story will make her career, she goes all dewy eyed. She practically swoons when he says:
WALTER: They'll be naming streets after you. Hildy Johnson Street. There'll be statues of ya in the park. The movies will be after ya. The radio. By tomorrow morning, I'll betcha there's a Hildy Johnson cigar.
Hildy wants there to be Hildy Johnson cigars. When Bruce tries to get her to come away with him to Albany towards the end of the film, she's so absorbed in her writing she can barely pay attention to him.
HILDY: This is the biggest thing in my life!
BRUCE: You never intended to be decent and live like a human.
Being "decent," for a woman at the time, meant giving up career and opportunity and ambition. Given that, Hildy decides, she doesn't want to be "decent" after all.
But then, at the end, she sort of is decent after all.
In the original version of this story, Front Page, Hildy was a man, who was choosing between his career and his fianceé. But Hildy isn't just choosing between career and love. She's choosing between lovers, one of whom wants her to stay at home and work for him… and the other of whom wants her to come to the newspaper and work for him.
Hildy chooses a career—but she doesn't exactly get independence. Instead, she goes back to being Walter's errand boy, as well as Walter's woman. She doesn't even get to pick her honeymoon spot. Instead of Niagara Falls, she goes to Albany.
Albany, of course, was where Bruce and Hildy were trying to get for the whole film. You could say that Hildy gets everything she wants: domesticity and career both.
But you could also say that the "everything she wants" shows how little she's allowed. To be that career woman, she has to be in Walter's thrall. The movie can't, for example, imagine her as his boss. She has to settle for being Bruce's or being Walter's. She chooses Walter… but you can understand why, there at the end, she cries a little.
Walter—well, Walter's kind of the worst.
He's a bit of a dirtbag. He isn't trustworthy. He lies. He cheats. He kidnaps. He bullies and insults and manipulates. Hildy calls him a "stinker," a criminal and the descendent of snakes—and these are all pretty true statements… although we never actually see his forked tongue.
Seriously: this dude has actual thugs and molls on staff in case he needs dirty work done. He gets on the phone and calls his reporter's girlfriend a "ten-cent glamour girl." He's selfish, swaggering, awful, and ruthless. What's to like? Why are we even watching this guy?
Two words: Cary Grant.
We could watch Cary Grant read the phone book. We could watch Cary Grant eat Nissin Cup Noodles. We could watch Cary Grant sleep… oof. That sounds creepy.
The point is, whenever you start to wonder why Hildy would spend even a moment of marriage with Walter, you just have to look at the screen to realize that she stayed because he's a hottie with a body.
And it's not just that Walter is played by Cary Grant; it's that he's played by Cary Grant at his most swooningly charming. Yes, Walter is a jerk and a bully. But he's also incredibly smart and quick and funny. He hired a plane to fly overhead during his divorce from Hildy with the message,
Hildy, don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.
How sweet is that? Of course, it's not just sweet—it's also incredibly conceited. Walter goes on to say:
WALTER: I've still got the dimple, and in the same place.
Walter knows he's hot stuff. He knows that he has charisma. He knows that his butt-chin in the source of his superpowers of sexual chemistry.
And he really does. He's the perfect combination of swagger, self-effacement, and teasing. (Hey, it's almost as if Hollywood dreamed up the perfect man…) And of course it's the "teasing" aspect that makes Hildy and Walter such a dynamic duo: they're both able to tease each other mercilessly. It's clearly their preferred form of foreplay:
HILDY: I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda, oh, about four months, I guess. It seems like yesterday to me.
WALTER: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy. Been seeing me in your dreams?
HILDY: Oh, no, Mama doesn't dream about you anymore, Walter. You wouldn't know the old girl now.
WALTER: I'd know you [Hildy finishes the sentence with him] anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
The seeing-me-in-your-dreams bit is a corny line, but Walter delivers it with pizzazz, and Hildy knocks it right back with that flirtatious (and weirdly incestuous) "Mama doesn't dream about you anymore." Bruce is solid, dependable, nice—but Walter's knock-your-socks-off charming.
He's also fun. Hildy reminisces about the good times she had with him:
HILDY: Remember the time we stole Old Lady Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's physician...We proved she'd been poisoned then, didn't we, Walter?
Okay, so that's not exactly the kind of fun most people enjoy having, but when you're a fast-talking lady journalist in mid-century New York, it's probably your idea of an awesome Saturday night.
So who's the real Walter: the stinker or the gallant? It's hard to tell…in part because it's hard to tell where the real Walter is—or isn't—beneath that whirlwind of talk.
Walter gabs and gabs. And then he gabs some more. And this is notable because, in a whipsmart talkie from 1940 where everyone is uber-gabby, Walter is the gabbiest of them all.
When he's onscreen, he's chattering so fast his words have the same effect as a blizzard—people are bewildered and don't know which way is up. Bruce is bemused; Hildy is flummoxed; people on the other end of various phone lines don't even get a word in edgewise.
Occasionally, he says something that seems like it's almost revelatory or vulnerable—
WALTER: I wish you hadn't done that, Hildy… Divorce me. Makes a fellow lose all faith in himself... Almost gives him a feeling he wasn't wanted."
—but then he's right back to boasting and flirting and joking and bullying. (Also, notice that Walter's bad feelings about being dumped have to do with the fact that "he wasn't wanted," not that he, say, "missed her.")
Walter's a newspaperman, so it makes sense that in a lot of ways he's just a whirl of words. Does he want Hildy back because he loves her? Or because she's a great newspaperwoman? Or maybe just because he wants to win?
Maybe, in all that chatter, even Walter doesn't know for sure.
If Hildy is like a jalapeño, and Walter is like a habañero, then Bruce is like… a bowl of cottage cheese. Scratch that. He's like a bowl of non-fat cottage cheese. Without salt.
He's good for you. He's wholesome. But he's so bland you kind of have to choke him down to get the nutrients.
Bruce is a nice, safe guy. He sells insurance, carries an umbrella when it's a little cloudy
just in case, doesn't take rum in his coffee, and is just crazy about his wife-to-be Hildy. When she walks across the newsroom to see Walter, leaving him in the lobby, he declares:
BRUCE: Ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.
And Bruce isn't just nice to Hildy either. He starts out disliking Walter, but he wants to think the best of him as soon as he has the chance.
BRUCE: I like him. He's got charm.
You could see this as Walter bamboozling Bruce. But you could also see it as Bruce just being that sweet of a person. He wants to think the best of everyone.
Yawn. Oh, sorry. We nodded off there for a second. It's just that Bruce is so nice he's… boring.
It seems like there's something about Bruces and anger management, though. While Bruce Baldwin doesn't hulk out like Mr. Banner does, our Bruce Friday does get a little angry.
And you wouldn't like him when he's angry.
After Walter has him slung in jail for the tenth time or whatever, Bruce is good and mad. And when he's good and mad, the person he takes it out on isn't Walter—it's Hildy.
BRUCE: You're coming with me right now.
HILDY: Just a second. This is the biggest thing in my life.
BRUCE: I see. I'll keep. I'm like something in the icebox. You just don't love me.
HILDY: That isn't true. Just because you won't listen you say I don't love you.
BRUCE: You never intended to be decent and live like a human.
Oof. That's cold, Bruce.
Sure, Hildy's distracted during this discussion… but still, what she's saying to Bruce isn't that crazy. She has a chance to write a story that's important to her. She cares about her career. That doesn't mean she doesn't love Bruce. It just means that she also loves her career and her work.
But when Hildy says she has something important to do, Bruce flips out. First he whines that she doesn't love him. Then he says she isn't "decent" and that she won't "live like a human." If she doesn't put his needs first—if she doesn't give up her job—then she's uncivilized and unworthy of respect in his eyes.
All this despite the fact that, at the beginning of the film, Bruce says that what he likes about Hildy is her unconventionality:
BRUCE: Everybody else I've known, you could tell ahead of time what they'd say or do. But Hildy's not like that. You can't tell that about her.
Bruce thinks he likes Hildy's independence. But under pressure, it turns out he doesn't like it all that much—in part because he buys into the idea of his time that women should be domestic helpers, not people in their own right. He accepts the misogynist ideas of the day. If a woman has her own goals and dreams, and if she has interests other than him, he thinks she's unnatural and indecent.
(Man. Every time with think about how cool a time machine would be, we remember what life was really like in the days of fedoras and swing dancing and saying "Gee, that's swell.")
Bruce may be nice. But being nice, for him, also means being cruel. Bruce is normal, orderly, and decent. And for him to be normal, orderly, and decent, everything has to go just so… which means women in the home, and men telling them what to do.
Nice, as it turns out, isn't so nice at all.
So maybe Bruce isn't like a bowl of cottage cheese. Maybe, if Hildy and Walter are like chili peppers, then Bruce is like a salmonella-tainted custard. Hildy and Walter will burn you with their quips (and fiery tempers), but at least they're upfront about it.
Bruce, on the other hand, will go down sweet… but poison you slowly from the inside.
Earl Williams is a murderer. He killed a police officer.
So he's a bad guy, right?
Well, this is where His Girl Friday gets issue-filled. Here's the thing: Earl's also a very sympathetic character. It's true Earl shot and killed a man, but it's also true that he seems to barely know where he is or what he's doing. He seems beaten down and confused. He lost his job as a bookkeeper, plunged into despair, and seems to have lost touch with reality as well.
Actor John Qualen gives Earl a hangdog, sheepish, half-panicked air that it's hard not to pity, especially in the scenes where he's cowering inside of an extremely uncomfy-looking roll top desk.
So: Earl's a criminal with a heart of gold, right? Or maybe he's a mentally ill man who simply didn't know what he was doing?
Oh, we wish it were that simple. Fasten you seatbelts: it's going to be a bumpy analysis.
In the world of His Girl Friday, the case of Earl Williams is supposed to showcase political corruption. Williams shot a black officer, and the Mayor and Sheriff want to execute him in order to appease the black vote.
But—um—how likely does that scenario sound to you?
Let's take a trip down history lane.
Both in 1940 (when the film came out) and in 1929 (when the play it was based on was written) were years before the Civil Rights movement. Before Martin Luther King Jr. Before Malcom X.
In 1928—while this play was being written—Kentucky was passing laws requiring black patients and white patients to be housed in separate facilities. In 1930 there were laws being renewed in Oregon that stated that interracial marriage was illegal. By the time this film was being made, a Florida law required schoolbooks used by black children to be stored separately from those used by white children. As this film hit the theaters, laws were being passed prohibiting black prisoners and white prisoners from sleeping in the same quarters. (Source)
We know about Jim Crow laws, but racism didn't stop at the Mason-Dixon line. As the Depression hit America, black Southerners moved to urban centers in the North, looking for work. (Everyone was moving around the USA in the Depression looking for work.) And this new population resulted in mad racial tension—which essential translates to "white Northerners being racist."
Just check out this New Yorker cover from 1938. We'll wait.
Yeah. It's gross.
Now does it seem like pandering to the black vote would be high on the list of corrupt government officials, even in feel-good rom-coms like His Girl Friday? We're guessing not at all.
In light of this info, Earl becomes more than one confused guy. He can be read, instead, as a symbol of racism. And not only is Earl a racist, but this issue makes the entire film pretty freakin' iffy on the subject race. (Scratch that "iffy"—it's straight-up bigoted.) Black people in the city, His Girl Friday suggests, have too much power; they're a corrupting force. And His Girl Friday goes on to suggest that white people who kill black police officers are innocents, motivated by confusion or lunacy but certainly not racism.
His Girl Friday wants to be about how newspapers hold politicians accountable. But it can't shake off its own racist preconceptions. As a result, it ends up showing how the media is biased in favor of white people like Earl Williams, and against the black people that are never shown on screen.
In His Girl Friday, we don't learn what Mollie's profession is. But, in the original theatrical production of The Front Page, Mollie's a prostitute. That helps explain why the newspaper reporters treat her so badly, and perhaps why she's desperate enough to throw herself from a window.
She's in a stigmatized, precarious profession, and the having her name bandied about in the paper could get her arrested, destroy her relationship with her family, and generally ruin her life.
In 1940, you didn't get to talk about prostitutes on film, though, so the character of Mollie doesn't end up making a lot of sense. It's not clear why the newspaper reporters treat her so badly, or what she has to lose. The character seems to mostly exist to yell at the newspapermen and tell them how awful they are.
Bruce's mom, Mrs. Baldwin, is an angry, very proper Mommy Dearest. It's not a new part, but to her credit actress Alma Kruger does look incredibly indignant when, as Mrs. Baldwin, she's picked up and hoisted away by Walter's henchman.
Walter's copyeditor. He's mostly just a sounding board so Walter has someone to talk to while he talks and talks and talks. Duffy doesn't get enough words in edgewise to have much of a character.
The film's main message is, "don't trust politicians." A secondary message is "don't trust newspapermen, except when they're telling you not to trust politicians." A lesser message is "don't trust psychologists"—or at least don't trust one if his name is "Egelhoffer."
Evangeline hardly has any lines; mostly she just stands in the background looking seductive and amoral. Like Louie, she shows Walter's unscrupulousness—though the film can't quite say how unscrupulous because it's not quite ready to acknowledge that prostitutes exist.
Hartwell is incompetent and corrupt, and the Mayor is corrupt and incompetent. Either way you arrange it though, they're both politicians, and that makes them the bad guys when your heroes are the crusading pressmen.
As Walter's criminal associate, Louie works primarily in the story to highlight Walter's awesomeness. In the first place, Louie's uncouth, thuggish and not too bright (a stereotype of a "dumb immigrant" as Walter says—what a charmer that Walter is!). His subservience and general confusion (he thinks "albino" is a nationality) contrasts with Walter's perfect mastery and cool.
At the same time, Louie shows just how dangerous and smoothly ruthless Walter is. After all, Walter has his own gangster on the payroll.
The rough-and-tumble, cynical, pressmen rag on Hildy and the Mayor and anyone else they can manage to rib. But still, there's a fundamental decency peaking out every so often from beneath their shaky morals.
The film thinks the press is a bunch of slimy invertebrates who would lie about their own grandmother if it would make a story more scandalous. ("His grandfather was a snake" Hildy says of that pressman among pressman Walter.) But at the same time, those slimy invertebrates are our slimy invertebrates, protecting democracy by keeping tabs on the even slimier politicians. You need slime to fight slime.
And if the press is just a bit wittier and cleverer on film than it could ever be in real life? Well, that's Hollywood.
The portly Pettibone, who delivers the pardon and continually touts the wisdom of his wife, is played by notable comedian Billy Gilbert. Gilbert appeared with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the Three Stooges, but is probably best known for a role he didn't play. His famous comic sneeze routine was the basis for the Sneezy in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.