His girl friday

29 August 2013


WALTER BURNS. “Because it happened to be a colored policeman—and you know what that means, Hildy.”
HILDY JOHNSON. “Mm. (to Bruce) The colored vote’s very important in this town.”

I love His Girl Friday (1940) and always will, but every rewatch there’s that uncomfortable moment at lunch. It’s when we’re made to sit through the premise, right after the hilariously unfamiliar line reading Rosalind Russell gives the word “lowdown”: A black Chicago policeman has been shot by a mentally unbalanced white man; he’s going to be hanged as a sop to the city’s African-American vote; the Morning Post is taking the shooter’s side.

The movie, bless its heart, doesn’t really care about the case. It just has to sound like Chicago dirty politics-as-usual, something that will let Hildy and Walter be world-weary and knowing and on each other’s wavelength. Just texture, as they say. And if you’d like to forget all about it, the movie will let you. But it’s precisely the film’s genial indifference that makes the thing so perverse and unsettling: we’re meant to sympathize with Earl Williams, the “poor little dope,” to delight in the craven political hackery of the mayor and the sheriff—but what about the person who just got shot? The invisible dead black policeman is never mentioned again. He doesn’t even merit a name. Does a single black character appear on screen?

His Girl Friday is so palpably eager to dispense with all of this and get to the good stuff that the premise can’t possibly be original to the film—and sure enough it isn’t. It’s from the film’s source: hard-boiled Broadway smash The Front Page (1928), written by a pair of Chicago ex-reporters named MacArthur and Hecht. The whole thing takes place in the courtroom set. We don’t even see Walter Burns—or his partner in heterosexual bromance, Hildy Johnson—until Act Two. In the meantime, we hang out with the reporters and their poker game and take in some exposition:

SCHWARTZ. (As he starts a deal) I’m telling you what’s happened. Hildy quit.
MURPHY. What do you mean, quit? He’s a fixture on the Examiner.
KRUGER. Yeh. He goes with the woodwork.
WILSON. (Crossing down Right to stool) They’re the journaleese twins.
ENDICOTT. You couldn’t drag him away from Walter.
SCHWARTZ. All right, but that’s what happened, all right! I got it from Bert Neeley. I’m telling you—Hildy’s gettin’ married.
MURPHY. Hell, Walter wouldn’t let him get married. He’d kidnap him at the altar.
McCUE. Hello, Sarge. McCue. Anything doing?
ENDICOTT. Remember what he did to Bill Fenton, when he wanted to go to Hollywood? Had him thrown in jail for arson.
MURPHY. Forgery.
McCUE. Shut up!—(In phone) Anybody hurt?— Oh, fine! What’s his name?—Spell it—(Starts to write name) S—C—Z—J—Oh, the hell with it. (Throws pencil away and jiggles receiver)

Polish jokes in 1920s Chicago—charming. Hard-boiled patter, etc. etc. A little later, the reporters tell us what’s what:

MURPHY. Listen, Woodenshoes, this guy Williams is just a bird that had the tough luck to kill a nigger policeman in a town where the nigger vote is important.
KRUGER. Sure! If he’d bumped him off down south they’d have given him a banquet and a trip to Europe.


The Front Page turns out to be a nasty piece of work, but it’s worth considering for a moment how and why. MacArthur and Hecht want to have it both ways with their old-school nothing-sacred yellow journalists. Their reporters may be jaded cynics and racist old drunks, but they’re always right in the end. They’re the city’s only defense against the corrupt powers that be—kind of like Batman. The playwrights can’t help themselves but glorify, even while they play at painting them warts and all. Their Hildy Johnson, they’ll write later, “is of a vanishing type—the lusty, hoodlumesque half drunken caballero that was the newspaperman of our youth”—and the one they fantasize themselves to be.

The Front Page‘s Hildy Johnson is also kind of an asshole: “Who the hell wants to work on a newspaper?” he asks rhetorically. “A lot of crumby hoboes, full of dandruff and bum gin they wheedle out of nigger Aldermen.” In the original, he’s not a woman talking herself into respectability and a life (in Albany, too!) raising the children of an insurance salesman. He’s gotten himself affianced and is going to Manhattan to make a shitton of money as an ad man.* His big character choice is to maybe not do that. Why does he stop to write the story, wrecking his prospective marriage in the process? He just can’t resist the lure of the game.

*How much money, exactly? In the play, he’s leaving his $70/week job at the Examiner for an ad agency contract that gives him $150/week—$2,010 in 2012 USD, or an annual salary of a little over $100k.

It’s impossible to understate how much better His Girl Friday‘s famous gender swap makes the movie. Your women in The Front Page are—what, exactly? Oblivious, or sluts, or both. You’ve got Molly Malone, hooker with a heart of gold; Peggy Grant, Hildy’s bummer of a fiancée; and her mother, playing every mother-in-law in history. This exchange just about sums up Hildy and Peggy’s relationship:

HILDY. You know, the fellow they were going to hang in the morning.
PEGGY. (Dully) Yes, I know.
HILDY. Aw, now listen, sweetheart. I had to do what I did. And—and the same thing when it came to the money. (PEGGY turns away) Aw, Peggy!

Change Hildy to Hildegard, and marriage seems like a real threat to your professional future instead of an annoying requirement to explain what you do with money. Change Peggy Grant to Bruce Baldwin and every neat division of the play is suddenly scrambled—and suddenly funnier. It defangs The Front Page‘s poisonous gender politics and replaces them with a sweetly clueless insurance salesman. Of course Bruce can’t imagine Hildy being happier fighting for stories than she would be raising his kids! He’s too busy holding doors for her and talking earnestly about the virtues of his profession: “I figure I’m in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don’t help you much while you’re alive—but afterward—that’s what counts.” And he’s a foil for Cary Grant’s Walter Burns—every time they’re on-screen together, you learn something about Walter. This is not exactly true for Peggy and The Front Page’s Burns (who, like Hildy, is also kind of an asshole—and a more-or-less straight caricature of one-eyed Hearst editor Walter Howey).

I would never dream of arguing that His Girl Friday is a straightforwardly feminist text, because there are a lot of things about it that make that kind of impossible—but it is multivalent, self-contradictory, deliquescent.* The reason it’s still fun to watch, apart from the obvious pleasure of watching awesome people talk fast, is the rich combination of frustration and interpretative wiggle room it offers the viewer. It survives as a text because you can’t pin it down.

*I’m stealing from John F. Danby on the “deliquescent truth“ of  Antony and Cleopatra: “The war of the contraries pervades the love too. In coming together they lapse, slide and fall apart ceaselessly.” (Here is your rabbit-hole, and here’s an example I found without digging around too deeply of the kind of His Girl Friday essay I read in film studies class that will do until I die or something better comes along.)

His Girl Friday imports The Front Page‘s setup—black policeman shot by white man, election controlled by black votes—a full twelve years later with no change, and then ignores it as soon as it can. And it has to, because the longer you look at it the weirder it gets. His Girl Friday never pretends to be a realistic, hard-boiled story about municipal politics. (The Front Page, incidentally, does, I think.) The only thing you need to know is that there’s a game, and it’s a dirty game, but it’s the only one worth playing, and the only two kinds of people in the world are the people in the game and the rubes who aren’t.

Meanwhile, from what reality is The Front Page importing? It comes out in 1928, but it’s written by two guys whose heyday was a decade earlier, so everything is a little out of date. (The movie lampshades this: the title text sets it in a sort of fairy-tale ”’dark ages’ of the newspaper business, when a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder.”) The plot loosely adapts the infamous jailbreak of Thomas “Terrible Tommy” O’Connor, who among other crimes was arrested after shooting Detective Sgt. Patrick “Paddy” O’Neill to death in the winter of 1921. Sentenced to execution by hanging, he escaped with four others, using a smuggled nickel-plate revolver, from downtown Chicago’s Municipal Correctional Center, where security was so lax there was a moonshine still in the basement where guards and prisoners would fraternize. The gallows from which he was to hang stood in Chicago until 1977, waiting for him to be found. He was never found.

In MacArthur and Hecht’s telling, the two Irishmen split: the detective sergeant becomes a black policeman protected by a black mob; the armed robber and multiple murderer becomes a duped innocent. The Front Page‘s 1929 Broadway staging coincides with the first success of black Chicagoans in gaining access to city jobs, and follows a decade and a half of the profound demographic shift of the Great Migration—with all of the alarmism and racist violence that entailed. MacArthur and Hecht had both been reporters for a half-decade when the Chicago papers—the Tribune, the Daily News, the Herald-Examiner—were running headlines like, “Half a Million Darkies From Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves”; “Negroes Arrive by the Thousands—Peril to Health”; and “Committee To Deal With Negro Influx.”

So, violence: neighborhoods in the South Side were officially segregated as of 1917 by the Chicago Real Estate Board. Predominately Irish youth gangs patrolled the boundaries, and among the members was future mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1918, when Langston Hughes was a high schooler on his first Sunday in the city, he made the mistake of crossing Wentworth Avenue and was sent home with a black eye and a swollen jaw.

Charles MacArthur returned from a stint in the Army hunting Pancho Villa in Mexico and shooting at German planes in the 149th Field Artillery just in time for the Chicago race riots of 1919, which erupted when six black teenagers went swimming and drifted too close to a “white” beach. A white man started throwing stones. He hit one of the boys and the boy drowned, bleeding from the head. A white policeman refused to arrest the man who threw the stones.

A week and a half orgy of violence followed: Carloads of white men carrying army rifles and boxes of ammunition drove down the streets of Chicago’s black neighborhoods firing into crowds; gangs waited outside the stockyards and assaulted black employees leaving work; mobs pulled streetcars from their wires and dragged out the black passengers. A thousand people in the Black Belt had their houses burned down. Thirty-eight people were killed. Five hundred and twenty people, two-thirds of them black, were officially reported injured.

Ten years later, MacArthur and Ben Hecht moved to New York and wrote a play in which the main threats are: a dull, vanilla woman who will just hold you back, and a horde of unseen black voters, easily provoked by the unscrupulous into causing the death of an innocent white man. A decade after that, what with one thing and another, this got turned into one of my favorite movies, and I feel a couple different ways about it.


Here’s a long postscript, accidentally written while I tried to answer another question: where was Ben Hecht in 1919? (This turns out to have an interesting answer?)

In 1919, Ben Hecht was still in Berlin, the Daily Mail’s foreign correspondent on Europe’s Communist revolutionary movements. He came back and, in 1921, inaugurated a column called “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago”—an impressionistic series of city vignettes you can’t quite imagine in a modern newspaper: seamy court cases, fog settling on nighttime streets, strange gifts of cigars from Poles in bars etc. Basically straight-up noir and they’d be a nightmare to fact-check. He wrote about Tommy O’Connor after he escaped in the close third person, if you’d like a taste:

They were hunting him. Squads of coppers with rifles. Squads of coppers with rifles, detectives, stool pigeons were hunting him. And the people who had read the story in the newspapers and looked at his picture, they too, were hunting him.

Tommy O’Connor looked out of the smeared window of the room in which he sat and stared at the snow. A drift of snow across the roofs. A scribble of snow over the pavement.

There were automobiles racing through the streets loaded with armed men. There were crowds looking for a telltale face in their own midst. Guards, deputies, coppers were surrounding houses and peering into alleys, raiding saloons, ringing doorbells. The whole city was on his heels. The city was like a pack of dogs sniffing wildly for his trail. And when they found it they would come whooping toward him for a leap at his throat.

Well, here he was—waiting.

Hecht was a partner in a PR firm that was contracted by the National Unity League in 1922 to expose Klan members. Hecht published a bi-weekly from 1923–24, The Chicago Literary Times, which ran a regular column called “Black-Belt Shadows” under the then-radical disclaimer, “This column is conducted by a Negro journalist.” Hecht would go on to work on 70 or 80 Hollywood screenplays in the particular way that that sausage is made—so, the story goes he did an uncredited rewrite of Sidney Howard’s Gone With the Wind script in five days, pitched story ideas for Stagecoach, wrote an early, dead-serious draft of Casino Royale, etc. Hecht and MacArthur cowrote plays and scripts together through the 30s—Gunga Din, maybe most notably. Hecht wrote a 1946 play, A Flag is Born, promoting the creation of a Jewish state; part of the proceeds went towards the purchase of a 400-ton former yacht, rechristened the S.S. Ben Hecht, that was used to ferry 600 Holocaust survivors from a port in southern France to Palestine. (They were stopped by the British navy ten miles offshore and detained in a camp in Cyprus.)

Charles MacArthur’s brother was, ironically, an insurance company owner; he endowed the foundation that awards MacArthur genius grants. MacArthur briefly dated Dorothy Parker, but he married the actress Helen Hayes. He died in 1956; Hecht, eight years later.

One Response to “His girl friday”

  1. Andrea Tosten Says:

    Just finished watching ‘His Girl Friday’…thank you for writing this article. It seems well researched and really answered questions I had after that “uncomfortable moment” at lunch.

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