His girl friday

29 August 2013

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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?

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