Cary Grant personifies charm and elegance. As the notoriously caustic film critic, Pauline Kael, put it, for women, Cary Grant was a “dream date—not sexless but sex with civilized grace, sex with mystery . . . When he and a woman are together, they can laugh at each other and at themselves.” This charm was not exactly on full display, however,in Howard Hawks’ 1940 “His Girl Friday,” a screwball comedy “squared,” as Scott Eyman put it in his book, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (2020).
As with most screwball comedies, the plot is secondary to the laughs. In fact, it seems as if the plot in the movie makes no sense at all. Cary Grant plays Walter Burns, an editor for the Morning Post. Like most newspapermen of the time, he is ruthless. He has no interest for anyone’s humanity, including his own. The sensational story is the only thing that matters.
Rosalind Russell plays Hildy Johnson, a star writer for the the Morning Post, and Walter’s ex-wife. She is no longer working for the paper, but she pays Walter a visit to make her resignation, not only from the paper but also from his life, official. She has decided to settle down, get married to Bruce Baldwin (played with wonderful restraint by Ralph Bellamy), and move to Albany, New York.
Walter is not keen on the idea, and from that moment on, he engages in a ridiculous charade of trying to keep Hildy as a writer for the paper and possibly as his wife. As expected, things don’t go well. No matter how hard she tries to bid Walter adieu, Hildy is thrown into one journalistic mishap after another. Walter convinces her that she’s the only one who can cover the story of Earl Williams, a man accused of murder who is about to be hanged.
In the meantime, Bruce is waiting patiently for Hildy to join him to catch the train to Albany, get married, and live happily ever after . . . with his mother. As the film progresses, Hildy’s passion for Bruce and marriage recedes. She can’t stay away from Walter or the newspaper business. She’s either too self-centered (like Walter) or a bit of a masochist because she can’t help but choose to be embroiled with the likes of Walter. But the two are similar people in many ways.
“His Girl Friday” is most definitely an ironic title, and there is no traditional “battle of the sexes” here. Something is off balance. While Walter and Hildy are equals in terms of work, Hildy naturally tends to be more subservient as the woman. Walter takes advantage of this. In fact, it seems like this is a relationship between a sadist and a masochist. Hildy is a woman who is never truly in possession of her own being, and we are only left with a pretense of such power. Walter has cast a spell on her, and she can’t free herself from his attractive clutches.
This is the case, in part, because of Walter’s ways of buttering Hildy up, so to speak. Coming from one egomaniac to another, he constantly appeals to her ego as a superior journalist. Walter doesn’t really care about her charm or beauty, and why would he? Despite the fact that Rosalind Russell is an attractive woman, these things are plainly out of sight and utterly unimportant to him. The dynamic between Walter and Hildy has been established in the past and it will never change, even after they get back together.
Nobody in the movie really “deals” with their personal problems, nor are they interested in imagining where life in journalism will ultimately take them. The pace of the dialogue in “His Girl Friday” greatly contributes to this apparent inability to engage in self-reflection. In fact, the speed at which the film is moving is almost inhuman.
Everyone is talking over each other, at all times. At some point, in the midst of covering the Earl Williams story, Walter gets irritated at everyone’s talking and says, “Be quiet! I can’t concentrate!” Of course this is funny because nobody in the film can concentrate. The decisions are made on the fly, be it about a story or life itself. Hildy is falling into the quicksand yet again, and the loving embrace she is looking for from Walter never arrives.
Is there ever any reprieve from this craziness? Not exactly, although Bellamy’s Bruce Baldwin achieves something close to it. He’s the only character in the film who speaks deliberately. After all, he is a safe man: an insurance agent, who does not take risks of any kind. He even carries an umbrella because “there will be a chance of rain.” Yet Bruce’s safety is not entirely dull. He makes his own decisions and never lets himself be thrown into the craziness of the newspaper crowd. They are a complete other species, operating in a realm where morality and values mean nothing. Bruce is governed by something other than self-centeredness, but he is also sanguine, a characteristic Hildy clearly detests.
Howard Hawks gave his actors leeway in this film, and many of the lines are ad-libbed, producing some of the most hilarious meta-cinema. In one instance, when Bruce has left the newspaper office and Walter needs him to get back, he enlists a lackey to retrieve Bruce. The lackey is not sure what Bruce looks like, and Grant frenetically yells out: “He looks like that fellow in the pictures—you know, what’s his name—Ralph Bellamy!”
In another instance, Walter is threatened by another party, and he powerfully rejects the threat by saying, “The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat!” Of course, Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name, and the joke here is self-deprecating, morbid, and mysterious. How did Grant see Archie Leach? Was he wholly separated from Archie, and did he forget him entirely? Or was Grant clinging to that last bit of his own authenticity and personhood?
For the most part it is this separation and break from Archie Leach that created the Cary Grant we know and love. But at what cost and what sacrifice?
Grant remained unhappy for most of his life, hiding behind the metaphysical mask of “Cary Grant.” He demanded perfection in his many marriages, and by his own admission, he was capable of being something of a tyrant. He was always engaged in self-improvement, especially toward the end of his life. Perhaps the only true yet uneasy peace came after the birth of his only child. But it is the persona called “Cary Grant” that remains in our imaginations; a man who exists only as a persona and who always remains in an “in between” space of being.