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.
Corruption and Race
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.