Ace reporter Hildy Johnson returns to The Morning Post to notify Walter Burns – the Post’s Managing Editor and Hildy’s ex-husband – that she plans to quit the paper, move to Albany, and marry insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin. Burns exhibits few scruples as he attempts to disrupt this plan. While breaking up Hildy’s engagement and remarrying her himself is a secondary goal, Burns is more immediately concerned with convincing Hildy to interview condemned murderer Earl Williams; write a front page story sympathetic to Williams; get Williams reprieved; and get the sheriff and mayor (running for re-election on a law-and-order ticket) kicked out of office. In service of these ambitions, Burns deploys (among other dirty tricks) a pickpocket, a vamp, and $450 in counterfeit money. Most of the movie takes place in the press room of the criminal courts building, the sole location used in The Front Page, the stage play on which the film is based. Each plot twist introduces new members of a skilled ensemble of character actors. The last character, an incorruptible buffoon of a deus ex machina named Pettibone, turns out to be the ‘unseen power’ that watches over Hildy, Walter, and The Morning Post.
A popular joke about Hollywood in the 1930s has it that, once the movies learned to talk, they wouldn’t shut up. Hollywood produced hundreds of movies in the 1930s that are not fast-talking comedies. But the fast-talking comedies from the 1930s and early 40s – from the reality-bending productions of the Marx Brothers, to the heteronormative screwball romances that brought together skilled actors including William Powell and Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and Cary Grant and a string of leading ladies – are among the most satisfying products of an extremely satisfying decade in American cinema. At decade’s end, stands out as one of the fastest – and funniest – films of all time.
Films from the 1930s are unmatched not just for the speed of the dialogue but for their wit thanks to the journalists, playwrights, short-story writers, satirists and novelists hired by the studios after sound film became the central product of the Hollywood system. Viewed in retrospect it is striking, and anomalous, that in these films the women got lines as good as the men’s. The most prominent comedians of the silent film era were men: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. So were most of the comedians who made the transition from Broadway, vaudeville, or silent film to the talkies: the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, Bob Hope. Mae West, performer and playwright, was a notable exception. But the enforcement of the Production Code beginning in 1934 more or less put West out of business. From the 1970s through the first decade of the twenty-first century, when US comedies have been vehicles for male comedians who made their names in stand-up comedy or on Saturday Night Live, women have existed mostly to look pretty. In the early twenty-first century, David Denby has identified a genre of comedies that he terms ‘slacker-striver romance[s]’. Of the typical heroine in these pictures, Denby writes, ‘she doesn’t have an idea in her head, and she’s not the one who makes the jokes’.
Comedies of the 1930s and 40s feature actresses like Loy, Colbert, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, and His Girl Friday’s Rosalind Russell – actresses who get terrific dialogue and the opportunity to demonstrate that they are terrific comic actresses. Even when they are enmeshed in plots that fail to imagine roles for women much beyond the roles available to Jane Austen heroines, their verbal acuity gives them a kind of presence His Girl Friday (1940) 261 that is rare in Hollywood pictures of any era. As in Austen’s novels, even when the plot moves women inexorably towards marriage, a sense of possibility accompanies the sheer pleasure of seeing (or reading about) women who are as smart as men and are not afraid to show it.
Even in this group, His Girl Friday is unusual. The film’s female lead is not a society girl choosing between two potential husbands, as in It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) or The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), or a charming sparring partner for her detective husband, as in the Thin Man movies. Hildy Johnson is a working woman, an ace reporter, the best writer on the criminal justice beat in some big city. The script for His Girl Friday is based on The Front Page, a stage play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (The play was adapted for the screen under its own name in 1931 and again in 1974). While audiences who saw The Front Page on stage in New York or London missed most of the local references, they knew the play took place in Chicago. When the play moved to the screen, the local references disappeared – the script is careful to indicate that the film does not take place in Chicago, New York, Baltimore or any recognisable city. The Production Code, enforced most rigorously between 1934 and 1941, included the following clauses, ‘the presentation must not throw sympathy with the criminal as against the law. The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust’ (Doherty 1999: 351). If Joseph Breen, the man in charge of administering the Production Code, saw the film as an indictment of contemporary politicians, he could have halted production. His Girl Friday takes place in a generic city and features generic yellow journalists. In case we miss the point, the opening disclaimer announces, ‘you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today’.
This 1940 adaptation of The Front Page is built around one radical decision: in the play Hildy Johnson – protégé of Walter Burns, reporter for the Chicago Herald and Examiner – is a man. He has chosen to leave the newspaper business, marry Peggy Grant, move to New York, and work in an advertising firm owned by his fiancée’s uncle. In His Girl Friday, Hildy is a woman and Burns’s ex-wife. Peggy Grant becomes Bruce Baldwin, an insurance salesman from Albany, who apparently resembles movie actor Ralph Bellamy. Burns is less a Mephistophelean, thoroughly unscrupulous manipulator than a charming rogue. Choosing between Burns and Baldwin, Hildy is given the same choice, and the same stacked deck, given to Irene Dunne’s character in The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937). Who would choose Ralph Bellamy over Cary Grant?
A good deal of mythology surrounds the decision to turn Hildy into a woman. Howard Hawks tells a story in which he reads the play out loud with a female employee reading the reporter’s part. When he heard the lines read by a woman, he decided it sounded better that way (Breivold 2006: 26, 142). Whether this story is true, it says a great deal about Hawks’s control over the production process during his long and productive career. He began as a screenwriter during the silent era, directed his first film in 1926, his first sound film in 1930, and his forty-fifth and final picture in 1970. From 1932 on he produced his own films. Never tied to a particular studio, Hawks produced and directed films for all eight of Hollywood’s major studios. He is recognised as a director who managed to produce outstanding films across a range of genres. He directed films still considered among Hollywood’s finest examples of the gangster film, the adventure film, film noir, western and comedy.
Hawks’s early adventure films are stunningly male-oriented (and strikingly homosocial). By the late 1930s, Hawks proved himself exceptionally good at romantic comedies. In some of his most successful movies, notably To Have and Have Not (1944), he combined genres, bringing adventure and flirtation together in a single confection. Despite this extraordinary range, Hawks films have recognizable characteristics. But it took the French film critics of Cahiers du cinéma, inventors of the idea of the auteur, and auteurist critics, such as Robin Wood and Peter Bogdanovich, to articulate the signatures of a Hawks film. The time span represented in the diegesis tends to be limited to a few days or even hours. The action is linear, presented without flashbacks, parallel action or technical wizardry. The pace is snappy. The mastery of continuity and invisible editing is unmatched. The camera is positioned at eye level. Camera position and shot duration tend to show multiple characters in space, allowing the actors to move around and interact with each other. Less frequently noted is the fact that the films almost always feature musical performance, although they are rarely musicals (His Girl Friday is an exception). Most of all, the films are fun to watch, no matter what the genre.
The scene in Walter Burns’s office, at the beginning of His Girl Friday, illustrates these qualities as well as any Hawks-directed scene. The scene lasts more than ten minutes and takes place entirely in a small office. For more than nine of those minutes, the only characters in the room are Hildy and Walter, except for a brief cut to the Morning Post’s city editor, and a foiled attempt by the same editor to enter the office. Hildy and Walter spend those nine minutes talking to each other. Stage business is limited to answering a phone, standing up and sitting down, taking a glove off and putting it back on, lighting a cigarette, putting a carnation into a lapel. But nothing about this scene feels confining. There are a few brief close-ups, and a few brief shot/reverse shot sequences, but most of the time both characters are in the shot, usually in medium shots that show head, shoulders and torso.
These characteristics carry through to the rest of the film. While the play takes place entirely in the press room in the criminal courts building, the film adds almost 25 minutes in other settings to the beginning of the film. Once Hildy arrives at the press room, we are there for most of the rest of the film. This confinement doesn’t feel stagey. Nor does the speed of the dialogue wear on viewers. For this, it’s hard not to give Hawks credit. Hawks is a master of pace, using silence as effectively as dialogue. Mollie Malloy’s speech to the newsmen shames them into silence. Her exit is followed by almost 20 seconds in which no one speaks, and then only to answer a phone. Twenty seconds of silence is deafening in a film that talks as fast as this one.
As a film about a career woman, His Girl Friday anticipates the movement of women into the workforce during the 1940s in numbers that would not be matched for 30 years. During the Second World War, male military conscription, and the expanding wartime economy, made women’s employment an economic necessity and a patriotic duty. The Second World War movies feature women who work. After the war, when an ideology of domesticity pushed women back into the home, domestic melodramas feature women who must choose between career and family. Women who try to have both, such as the title character in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), are punished. Hildy Johnson has the remarkable opportunity to choose both marriage and career.
Two of the films cited in Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay in feminist film criticism ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ are Howard Hawks films: Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944). Both screenplays are credited in whole or part to Jules Furthman, one of Hawks’s frequent collaborators. Furthman also wrote Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), Marlene Dietrich’s Hollywood debut, and another film discussed in Mulvey’s essay. All three films feature women who work at the morally questionable profession of stage performer. All three films dramatise the sacrifices women must make to demonstrate the devotion that will make them worthy of the leading man’s attention. While Johnson gets to choose husband and career (thus avoiding the sacrificial trap in which the heroines of melodramas are routinely placed) the movie dramatises a shift in the balance of power between Hildy and Walter. At the movie’s outset, she has left him for a life of respectability. He spends the film in pursuit. By the end, she is prepared to return to her earlier life, apparently on terms identical to those she rejected before.
Robin Wood describes Hawks films as products of and celebrations of collaboration (2006: xvii). He gives Hawks credit for exerting exceptional control over his productions. We must give Hawks similarly paradoxical credit for creating female characters like Hildy Johnson – smart, confident, self-assured – and then for placing them in movies in which they must learn to submit to their men.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Columbia Pictures Corporation. Director: Howard Hawks. Screenwriter: Charles Lederer (based on the play ‘The Front Page’ by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur). Cinematographer: Joseph Walker. Editor: Gene Havlick. Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Peter Hartwell), Frank Orth (Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Malone), Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone), Edwin Maxwell (Dr Max J. Eggelhoffer).]
Scott Breivold (ed.), Howard Hawks Interviews, Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 2006.
David Denby, ‘A Fine Romance’, The New Yorker, 23 July 2007, pp. 58–65.
Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930–1934, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page: From Theater to Reality, edited by George W. Hilton, Hanover, Smith and Kraus, 2002.
Gerald Mast, ‘From Howard Hawks, Storyteller’, in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, third edition, New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 563–71.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57–68.
Peter Wollen, ‘The Auteur Theory’, in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1972, pp. 74–115.
Robin Wood, Howard Hawks (1968), Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2006.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.