HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) – Not as feminist as it first seems

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The following is my entry in my Movies That Haven’t Aged Well Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from now through Aug. 31, 2015. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of blogs from movie viewers who have been disillusioned by revisiting movies they had previously enjoyed!

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I first saw His Girl Friday 35 years ago in a college film class. Like most of my classmates, I was quickly enamored of director Howard Hawks’ lightning pacing, the overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue, and most of all, its brash heroine Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). Here was a 1940 movie depicting a sassy, smart woman who worked as an ace newspaper reporter, the lone female in a pressroom filled with hard-bitten males who regarded her as their equal!

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(For those not in the know, His Girl Friday is an adaptation of the hit play The Front Page, about Walter Burns, a fast-talking editor who conspires to keep his best reporter from leaving his job to get married. Hildy is about to leave when he gets the scoop of a lifetime — a man who is about to be railroaded and hanged for murder sneaks into the press office, and Hildy is forced to cover for him. In Hawks’ movie version, Hildy was gender-changed into Burns’ ex-wife.)

For years, I regarded this movie as a quietly feminist statement. A few years after I saw it, I myself married a female editor of a local newspaper. I showed her the movie, and she loved it, thereby cementing the movie in my memory as one of the all-time greats.

Recently, I signed up to participate in a blogathon devoted to strong movie heroines. Without thinking, I volunteered to write about Hildy Johnson for the blogathon. I figured I should refresh my memory, so I tried re-watching His Girl Friday. Unfortunately, it now seemed like a completely different movie.

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As the movie opens, Hildy plans to leave town to marry her fiance, insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, above far right). (I guess that should have been a tip-off right there. Whenever a scriptwriter wants to convey in shorthand that a character is a wimp, insurance salesmen and accountants are always the first go-to guys.)

The movie establishes that (a) Hildy and Bruce are leaving town that night to get married, and (b) Hildy has already quit her newspaper job and has been divorced from Walter for four months. Yet she makes a point of visiting Walter personally at his office to tell him of her impending marriage. That gives Walter a chance to try to sweet- and double-talk Hildy into coming back to work for him. When that doesn’t work, he worms his way into meeting Bruce, condescends gloweringly to the poor guy, and then takes the couple out to lunch so that he can work some machinations to make Hildy stay put whether she likes it or not.

Now, if Hildy knows what a finagler Walter is, why does she meet him face-to-face rather than telling him over the phone that she’s leaving? And why does she let Walter within ten feet of vulnerable Bruce, knowing how Walter can con anybody? The ostensible answer is that if Hildy didn’t do these things, we wouldn’t have a movie. But in the end, it makes her look either very needy or very stupid.

Sure enough, Walter manages over and over to get Bruce arrested or in trouble on some trumped-up charges just so that he can have Hildy working the story for him. We’re supposed to cheer Hildy on because she goes through hell and high water to get the story. And she does indeed have many triumphant moments. But let’s never forget: Those moments are all in the service of Walter Burns, the man from whom she tried so hard to untether herself in the first place.
(SPOILER PARAGRAPH ALERT!) In the movie’s finale, when Walter manages one last flim-flam on poor Bruce, Hildy — for the first time in the movie — breaks down and cries. But she’s not upset because Walter has again squelched her plans. She’s upset because Walter had just given her a big (and, as it turned out, fake) send-off speech, and Hildy was worried that Walter really didn’t want her in his life anymore. So, lucky Hildy, she’s in Walter’s clutches again — and Walter’s final lines of dialogue make it clear that Hildy is, indeed, his girl Friday.

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ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) – Murderous farce goes down surprisingly smoothly

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Frank Capra has become hallowed in film history as the director of films that champion the average American and the common cause. Of course, that’s only if you haven’t seen his film version of the Broadway black-comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the funniest farces ever.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who’s newly married after having lived with his doting aunts all of his life. At first glance, this family seems as sunny as any in a Capra comedy. Mortimer’s eccentric uncle has delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt, and there are references to Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan. But his aunts are as doting as aunts can be. And Mortimer, newly married, is preparing to go on a Niagara Falls honeymoon with his loving wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane).

This happy domesticity unravels the moment Mortimer happens to open his aunts’ wooden chest and sees a corpse inhabiting it. At first, Mortimer jumps to the logical conclusion that crazy Teddy has committed the murder. Then he discovers that his sweet aunts were responsible for that corpse and 11 others who are buried in the cellar.

The aunts regard their work as mercy killings. After all, they poison only lonely old men whose lives have no meaning — unlike Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who heartlessly kills anyone who gets in his way and who happens to pay a return visit to his old home on the same night that Mortimer uncovers the unwelcome houseguests.

As with most farces, Arsenic and Old Lace requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In particular, this story is quite obviously a remnant of the 1940’s, when mental illness was a lot more frivolously regarded. And the ever-opening door, a staple of farces, seems awfully overused — especially when Jonathan, a convicted murderer, seems rather unconcerned about so many people (including cops) traipsing in and out of the house.

If there’s any glue that keeps the story together, it’s Cary Grant. Just watching him do wacko double-takes or muttering under his breath like Popeye the Sailor is worth the watching. There’s a great moment when he and Massey try to protect their secrets at the same time, and then some major plot points play across Grant’s wondrous face for about ten seconds. It’s far funnier and more effective than a page of expository dialogue could be.

Besides enjoying the movie as a major black comedy, film aficionados can only wonder how a comedy about murderers (a) became such a hit during World War II and (b) how it ever made it past movie censors intact.