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His Girl Friday (1940) Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University

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1 His Girl Friday (1940) Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University

2 Origins This film was derived from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 stage play The Front Page, which had been filmed once before, in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, and once again later, in 1974 by Billy Wilder. But after Charles Lederer adapted it for director Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940), the definitive version was created. How so? Lederer and Hawks had the brilliant idea of turning the character of Hildy Johnson into a divorced woman, with an ex-husband editor, who leaves her newspaper job to marry a man. Thus there was an added struggle of having the romantic entanglement of the editor of the newspaper--a love triangle that wasn't there before. Howard Hawks Charles Lederer

3 Cary Grant as Walter Walter is gleefully unscrupulous, showing nary a hint of conscience or remorse. He treats people, including Hildy, poorly. Did you like him and root for him to succeed? Why? Grant’s magnetic charm helps disguise that Walter, in contrast to Bruce, is not a particularly nice guy to Hildy or anyone else. As Hildy herself says, “Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.” Does Walter represent a kind of progressive 20 th century man who can work along side his spouse as an equal?

4 Rosalind Russell as Hildy The first film to feature a female journalist every bit as capable professionally as her male counterparts. From her snappy, stripped suits to the witty barbs she shares with the boys, Hildy is portrayed as the near equal of the men she works with. Yet she is torn between the traditional, “safe” choice of wife and mother (as manifested in her fiancé Bruce) and the career-driven, “dangerous” role of “newspaperman” (as manifested in her ex-husband Walter). In the end she cries, is manipulated by Walter to stay in the newspaper business, and forsakes the traditional route represented by Bruce. Can you imagine a different ending? Isn’t the only morally acceptable ending to have Hildy walk out on both men or to present her capitulation to Walter as tragic?

5 Dualities in Film: Work v. Home Romantic comedy is about love and marriage, which confirm traditional bonds and integrate individuals into the social and cultural order. In some ways, journalism movies subvert all that. Romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s show strong women finding romance without sacrificing the best parts of themselves – in this case Hildy’s best parts are her work as a journalist. The very existence of female journalists, often portrayed as equal to or better than their male counterparts, implicitly challenges the notion that women belong in the private home realm and men in the public work realm.

6 The Paradox of Social Change in Film In a 1974 article on the film, Tom Powers wrote: “Howard Hawks' film HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) represents one of the major paradoxes of American narrative cinema — Hollywood's ability to incorporate images of social change into films that ultimately deny and frustrate the possibility of such change. HIS GIRL FRIDAY suggests that new possibilities lie in the roles of the sexes. The film offers the alluring mirage of a sexual relationship based on equality rather than exploitation, with a woman achieving political- sexual parity through her intelligence, creative energy and economic independence. In the process of creating this relationship, however, the film mythologizes the roles of men and women. It establishes as "natural" some modes of conduct that are in fact economically and socially determined and that actually predetermine the possibilities of meaningful change.”

7 Screwball and Women Journalists: A Critical Perspective The film hints at the price depression-era women journalists paid by making the female protagonist face a familiar dilemma: continuing a newspaper career or forsaking it for marriage and family. Screwball comedies present a mythic view of romantic and democratic possibilities. True to myth, they smooth away social rifts and contradictions. The wrenching economic misery of the Depression is glossed over in stories of common reporters meeting and marrying those with money. The harsh realities that most female journalists of the time faced (relatively few jobs, layoffs during the Great Depression, pay and job-assignment inequality, and less-than- glamorous lifestyles) are largely ignored in tales of women simultaneously finding true love and professional fulfillment. Hence, the idea that “women can have it all” was born. Is this idea a myth propagated by Hollywood?

8 Screwball and Women Journalists: A Positive Perspective Despite the many things to be critical of, the film does provide a tantalizing glimpse of gender equality – a new kind of marriage, one of mutuality, one in which the turn-on is work, one in which male and female do not occupy separate spheres but lose themselves (and their romantic self-consciousness) in a unifying, energizing, and eternally engaging profession. Hence, movies make women—and journalists—models for what American life could and should be.

9 Dualities in Film: Public Interest v. Private Interest The notion that journalists prey on and exploit their subjects often is validated by the movies such as with the reporters hounding Earl Williams in His Girl Friday. Yet journalists are also portrayed as heroes who uncover stories that others try to suppress or ignore and who uphold the public’s right to know. These conflicting depictions reflect conflicting myths: 1.There is the belief that journalism should play a central role in the political process and that people need journalists’ help to govern themselves. That is in keeping with many or most journalists’ self-image and with official mythology. It is bound up with other beliefs: that we can govern ourselves, that citizens can influence events, that the system works, and that the truth will emerge. 2.There is also the belief that journalism’s claims to being society’s appointed storytellers or arbiters of truth are full of bunk. That belief holds that the media and their vast technological apparatus disempower the citizenry and prop up the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Consistent with outlaw mythology, it views the press as just another impersonal, oppressive institution that restricts individual self- determination and liberty. Which is true today?

10 Investigative Journalism How far should journalists go in order to get a scoop? The male journalists know they cannot get the story on their own and therefore suggest Hildy use her sexuality to score the scoop. The warden forbids Hildy from interviewing Earl Williams, yet she bribes him for access. In order to get his story, Hildy lies to Williams by pretending to be someone other than a reporter. She talks Williams into a defense even though he doesn’t understand what she is having him say. Hildy and Walter’s goal is not to so much to solve crimes, expose corruption, aid the dispossessed, or do justice but is instead to score a scoop, thereby helping their newspaper and furthering their career. Yet in the end the unscrupulous journalists triumph over the crooked mayor and sheriff – and we don’t care because even if the “good guys” use unethical or questionable methods, the “bad guys” get what’s coming to them. The moral is that journalism is a wonderful adversarial game played against the politicians. It’s won by playing dirty and if the fun or the game ever stops then we’ll die like rats in poisonous boredom. What are the implications of this thesis for the intersection of media and politics?

11 Journalism Ethics New York Times columnist Randy Cohen commented on the film: “We will see reporter Hildy Johnson and her editor Walter Burns do baaad, baaad things. Things that would absolutely get you fired from The New York Times.” “When it was released, several scenes were cut because reporters had begun to protest their portrayal as drunken, amoral, egomaniacs. I don’t see what the problem was,” he added, pointing to the film’s prologue: “You will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.” In the movie, “they lie, they cheat they steal. There’s no other way to do what they’re doing,” Cohen explained. “I barely have a favorite color,” he said, “but if I had to make a fairly large list [of my favorite films], a dozen say, this one would be on it.” “I checked The New York Times code of conduct, something you don’t want to do all that often,” he said. “I found something that was very upsetting to me. Our code of conduct explicitly forbids us from breaking into buildings, homes, apartments or offices. It seems peculiarly specific about real estate! Had I known I probably would have chosen some other job.” Is there ever a time when a reporter should violate codes of conduct in order to get a story – particularly if it involves an important political issue and will reveal the truth to the American people?

12 Ethics and Truth Should journalists do whatever it takes to uncover the truth? One recent study based on in-depth interviews with reporters found that nearly 75% of them had engaged in some form of deception, taking into account such things as using hidden cameras, not identifying oneself as a journalist, and even insincerely flattering sources. The journalists asserted that some practices were clearly worse than others (insincere flattery does not equal fabricating news), and circumstances helped determine when deception was acceptable (e.g. the story’s importance, the harm the harm that deceptive means could help prevent). Do you agree that ethical standards depend on context? Is deception more justifiable when the story is more important?

13 Conclusion Screwball comedies both celebrate a new kind of democratic and romantic equality for women while simultaneously glossing over the realities of women’s inequalities in the workplace and struggles to “have it all.” Journalists are at once unscrupulous, scoop-hounds but also able to expose corruption and best crooked officials. We learn that corruption and injustice are the real foes and the proper targets of democracy and a free press. Yet the illusions on the screen vanish when the lights come on. Male dominance, female inequality, the family as the basic unit of society and the ultimate impotence of political struggle come home to the audience as enduring truths.

14 Sources Ehrlich, Matthew C., Journalism in the Movies (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004). Lee, Seow Ting, “Lying to Tell the Truth: Journalists and the Social Context of Deception,” Mass Communication & Society 7 (1, 2004): 111. Powers, Tom, “His Girl Friday: Screwball Liberation,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 17 (April 1974): Girl Friday: Screwball Liberation Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell, “Creating a Classic, with a Little Help from your Pirate Friends,” Observations on Film Art, February 21, a Classic, with a Little Help from your Pirate Friends Turner, Zeke, “’The Ethicist’ Dissects ‘His Girl Friday.’ Also: ‘Times’ Ethics Policy,” The New York Observer, April 26, Ethicist’ Dissects ‘His Girl Friday.’ Also: ‘Times’ Ethics Policy


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