Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Movies You Ought To See: His Girl Friday (& some thoughts on history)

His Girl Friday (1940).  Rosalind Russell attempts to escape the newspaper business by marrying a sweet but simple insurance salesman, played by Ralph Bellamy, but her ex-husband (and ex-boss) Cary Grant isn't about to let that happen.

The really wonderful thing about His Girl Friday is that, appearances to the contrary, it is not a love story about Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant: it's a love story about Rosalind Russell and the newspaper business.  For the middle hour of the movie, Grant is offscreen trying to get Bellamy thrown in jail.  That's a whole hour where all we see is the fast-talking and talented Ms. Russell quipping with hardened newspapermen, interviewing murderers, comforting maligned and helpless women, and tackling police wardens for a story (literally tackling, it's brilliant).  No wonder that at the end of the movie she finds she can't give it up, even for the love of a good man.

And Grant's plot to win her back has decidedly little to do with romance and everything to do with wanting his star reporter back.  They've just been divorced as the movie opens, but Grant assumes that she's coming back to work for him as usual.  When she says she isn't, he assumes she has a better offer from another paper, and tries to give her a raise.  It's not the fact of her getting remarried that he objects to; it's her quitting the business for good.  He wins her back not with romantic gestures or declarations of love--he's quite a heel, in fact--but by dropping her in the middle of a juicy story and waiting for her reporter's instincts to kick in.  He wants her back as an employee, not as a wife.  The comic punch that ends the movie is Grant suggesting that hey, instead of that romantic honeymoon they've just discussed, why don't they go cover a labor strike in Albany?

The fascinating thing about this movie is the assumptions it's predicated upon, all of which seem entirely reasonable today but come off as odd for a midcentury film: first, that men and women can work together, if not as equals than at least in the same realm; that married women can choose to continue their careers; that some women can (and should, the film argues) give up the prospect of a couple of tykes in suburban Albany for an exciting life chasing down criminals; and that a woman can work in a man's job and still be attractive.  There are some particular reasons why His Girl Friday feels so progressive--for one, it's a Gender Flip version of a play called The Front Page, in which the Rosalind Russell role was male--and a certain amount of its appeal was probably due to the incongruity of Russell triumphantly shouting "I'm a newspaperman!"  But the fact remains that it plays much better now than it would have in, say, 1950.

Actually, imagine the 1950 version of this film: Russell's role would be played by somebody cute and blonde, a Doris Day type.  Instead of a sharp little suit and hat like Russell's, she'd be a skirt-and-sweater kind of girl, very wholesome.  The Cary Grant character is a sleazeball who tries to tempt her away from her upcoming nuptials with the clearly-perfect-for-her Bellamy character.  She agrees, because she feels she owes him--but she's no match for the (pruriently displayed) wanton filth of the New York City criminal underworld.  At the climax, she's trapped in the press room with the killer and his trashy gun moll girlfriend--when her noble fiance charges in to rescue her!  The epilogue shows the happy wife holding a baby and handing her husband the Albany News: headline "Cat Rescued From Tree."

The thing is, His Girl Friday was made in the cultural moment between the thirties and the forties, when the war was on in Europe but hadn't touched America yet (trying to get lead space for his pet story, Grant at one point shouts "Put Hitler on the funny page!").  In the thirties, women were entering offices for the first time, usually but not always as secretaries and clerks.  (I've got some thoughts which may turn into a blog post on the similarities between thirties and eighties fashions, given that they were both periods of large growth in the female workforce.)  During the war, unprecedented numbers of women put on men's clothes and did men's jobs--too much too quickly, it seems, because the cultural backlash was intense and immediate.  The postwar vision of the world does not include fast-talking career women, not even in a light comedy, and I have to think that His Girl Friday must have seemed pretty old-fashioned even ten years after its release.

That's one of the reasons I love the late thirties and early forties, though; there's a sense of openness and possibility, of outward movement for women, that got badly stalled for at least twenty years after the war.  I once checked out two home ec-type fashion advice books for girls side-by-side, one from 1939 and the other from the mid-50s.  The first had section after section on college girls, and the co-ed, and office jobs and study dates and so on and so forth; the second had a very large chapter called "When A Young Girl Gets Married."  I know which decade I'd rather look back to.


  1. I never really thought about this movie in terms of the time it was shot. Interesting analysis.

    I remember really enjoying this movie, but it's been years since I've seen it. If I'm remembering right, it was also one of the first movies with fast-paced dialogue where the characters talked over each other. Modern in technical ways, not just storyline.

  2. Love those fast-talking movies! The play it's based on was notable primarily for the breakneck pace and smart, funny dialogue, and it's nice to see Rosalind Russell really hold her own against Cary Grant. If you haven't seen The Philadelphia Story, it's a Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn-Jimmy Stewart picture, also based on a play--a little less breakneck but just as witty--worth taking a look. :)