#132. His Girl Friday (1940)

I can see Cary Grant’s allure and appreciate his talents but I’m thinking finally that I just don’t like seeing him on screen. I realize too, though, that my disdain is almost 100% a sublimation of high school grudges. He moves like the pretty kid who knows he’s pretty and so never takes anything too seriously. Trusts that his beauty and charm will pull him through everything. I think what’s also petty of me is resenting how often I see vestiges of that sorta behavior among the undergrads I currently work with. Not to just offhandedly denounce beautiful people, or to dwell so much on – as Bret Easton Ellis put it to Michael Silverblatt – our cultural habit of “treating beauty as some kind of achievement,” but Grant, here and in other movies, is weirdly reminiscent of the studnt who smiles in talking about how he doesn’t know his teacher’s name, that he doesn’t pay attention in class, and then sorta slides his assignment toward his tutor and lens back in his chair to await its completion. I know that this sounds prejudicial and presumptuous, but I’ll bet that lotsa high school and college teachers and tutors will cite similar experiences.

[Editor’s note from the future: Since writing this essay I’ve read Marc Eliot’s terrific biography of Cary Grant, as well as seen a few other movies with the guy and given serious thought to Pauline Kael’s 1975 essay about him, “The Man from Dream City” — and, as will almost invariably happen when you give a guy a chance and try to understand him, I no longer think he’s smug. I’m looking over that first paragraph, along with some of the grievances that follow, and I can see where 2017 Alex was coming from. But my head’s not there anymore.]

his girl friday pic 1

Anyway. So His Girl Friday, which is clever and charming, bothered me just by merit of Grant’s performance but also because I keep getting annoyed with this trend among romantic comedies of the decade, like with Awful Truth and Top Hat, where the witty and wide-grinning hero is trying to take the heroine away from a perfectly decent other guy. Often he’s pushy about it. Haunts the women. Assures them that they don’t wanna be in the situation where they’ve put themselves. The decent guy is kept in the dark and ends up getting his heart broken, usually offscreen, while our gorgeous stars abscond toward a sunset of what’ll probably be an argumentative and miserable relationship, punctuated with riotous intervals of backseat and tabletop sex, until the man proves too much a narcissist to ever really love another person.

But I’m not bitter.

Rosalind Russel, who plays Hildy Johnson opposite Grant’s Walter Burns, is the movie’s savior. She’s engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) who’s soft-spoken, loving, humble – fuckin nerd – and it becomes Walter’s quirky and charming venture to interrupt that wedding by getting Hildy caught up again in a job that she’s been very clear about wanting to quit an, haha!, framing Bruce for a series of crimes. Cuz y’see, if Bruce is in fucking jail the whole time, then he won’t be able to offer support to his wife as she fights off Burns’s advances.

Russell gets a lot of great lines in her exchanges with Grant, but her monologues are what work best. Like this one about why she definitely wants to quit the “news game”:

Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain’t gonna be any interview and there ain’t gonna be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong! [she tears up her story] Do you hear that? That’s the story I just wrote. Yes, yes, I know we had a bargain. I just said I’d write it. I didn’t say I wouldn’t tear it up. It’s all in little pieces now, Walter, and I hope to do the same for you some day. [to newsroom] And that my friends, is my farewell to the newspaper game. I’m gonna be a woman, not a news-getting machine. I’m gonna have babies and take care of them. Give ’em cod liver oil and watch their teeth grow.

Now maybe you can say that the last bit is problematic, that she’s pursuing a deadening and subservient role because maybe she’s been brainwashed by a patriarchal society to believe that this is what she wants to do – but I’m gonna err on the side of saying that it’s her choice and that Grant’s character shouldn’t constantly trying to “make her realize” that “what she really wants” is to do the exact thing she’s explicitly saying she’s done with.

 

his girl friday publicity
Poor pathetic Ralph Bellamy there at the top, hurting nobody.

Anyways. The clever rapid-fire banter gets a little dizzying and tiresome toward the end, but it’s remarkable to watch. Amazing feats of comedic timing pulled off by Howard Hawks and a really impressive cast. As with Hawks’s previous collaboration with Grant, Bringing Up Baby, it’s an undeniably intelligent and gratifying comedy, cleverly structured so that consequences pile up and sub-plots intersect to complement one another, but overall I guess I’m just sensitive to a bunch of different shit that coalesced to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

 

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