“It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game — when to a reporter ‘getting the story’ justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”
That quote is from the opening frame of His Girl Friday (1940), directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Lederer. It’s based on a play, The Front Page, penned by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (That’s according to imdb.com, but the credits in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die do not include Lederer’s name.)
The theatrics of a stage production translate to the film version as journalists and ex-husband and wife Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) banter their way through a hot-of-the-presses murder story and her decision to quit the business and get married.
Johnson comes back into Burns’ world on the eve of her wedding to Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) only as the biggest story the paper has covered is starting to unfold. A man is convicted of murder and is going to be hanged, but there is a chance he didn’t do it.
It’s apparent Burns wants Johnson to come back to work and deep down you can tell she can’t just write one more story and move on. Burns will do and say anything to convince her and push Bruce out of the picture while he’s at it.
It’s also apparent Hildy and Walter still have feelings for each other, as much as they act like the opposite is true, and she can’t let go of her old career and let someone else finish the big story as the deadline approaches.
Hildy, with Walter’s backing, is even willing to become part of the story to get it to the press before the other reporters as they all work from a room at the courthouse with phones ringing off the hook.
His Girl Friday is smart, witty and certainly makes me, as a former newspaper reporter, miss that lifestyle. The film, as an early showing of romance and comedy in one, set a precedent in that genre and has to be inspiration for the walk-and-talk moments often seen in movies about the newspaper biz today.
“The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you’re gonna get a job that’s a little bit of a caper, that isn’t really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it — that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody’s lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working.”