This movie is supposed to belong to a genre called ‘screwball comedy’. Well, there was some comedy in it, of a very black sort, which is fine with me because I like black comedy. It is the kind of comedy found in the real world in the most abundant quantity.
However, what I felt most while watching the movie, especially after the first twenty minutes or so, can only be described by the word ‘horror’. Screwball horror.
The movie I am talking about is called ‘His Girl Friday’. It is a story about an unbelievably unscrupulous newspaper man and another newspaper ‘man’ who is actually a woman and who was previously his wife and his primary reporter. His Girl Friday, as the title says. She is almost equally unscrupulous, but this we find out a bit later into the movie.
Since she is just a bit less unscrupulous than him, she got fed up at one point (before the movie starts) and divorced him to go and become ‘a human being’. At the start of the movie, she seems to be on the way and has found a human being (an insurance agent) to marry (who loves her) and comes to the office of her former husband to inform him of the news.
But her former husband has other designs. He is determined to not let her go. As we find out later, not because he ‘loves’ (whatever that means) her, but because she is too good a reporter (of the kind shown in the movie and of the kind often found in real life) to be let off and also because, as a person, she is of the same flock, and would have been much better off had she stayed married to the reporter.
As it happens, a man is going to be hanged the next day and there is great news capital that can be made out of that. The man happens to be a poor man who was fired after a long spell of loyal service, who started getting drunk and started attending some union meetings just because he had nothing else to do. Then something happened some day and he shot a cop. He says accidentally. The cop happened to be a colored man and the colored vote is important in the locality concerned. So, the governor doesn’t want to give him a reprieve as the elections are coming.
So far so good. But, as the reporter (editor? owner? all in one?) tries every trick in his morally anarchic bag, and after he has got his former wife to stay for a few hours (he has a plan) and interview the convict (which she does) for a great story, the convict escapes during his ‘psychoanalysis’ by a shrink from New York.
The Wikipedia page says this is where the fun begins. I don’t think the statement is accurate. Actually, this is where the little bit of fun (as I understand it) that was there ends and true horror begins.
I don’t have the patience (or the stomach) to describe everything that happens after this. We begin to really understand the distinction made by the screenplay writer between newspaper men and human beings (which a notice at the start of the movie indicates doesn’t apply in the ‘present’ times).
Basically, what we see is almost everyone (newspaper men, cops, politicians etc.) behaving like monsters, except that there is no (visible) blood and gore. Without batting an eyelid. Or bowling an eyelid for that matter.
The game of the hanging to be (which later becomes shooting to be) gets dirtier and dirtier, till we realize that the director is not just showing us a screwball comedy, or a satire, or a black comedy. We realize that the genre to which the movie belongs is that of the blood and the gore which flows thick through the stream of rapid fire dialog but is not directly visible to the eyes.
Because it is not directly visible to the eyes, some people (who don’t look at such things very hard as it might upset their constitution or their life) can understandably call the movie a screwball comedy.
The director has to be given credit for sticking with the idea throughout and not giving us a falsely feel good ending.
Almost all the characters in the movie, who all belong to a particular class, are not bothered, even superficially, by such trifles as deaths of human beings. Even when they might be causing it. They are not shaken even by the most moving emotional outbursts by one of the few ‘human beings’ in the movie who had talked kindly to the man to be hanged and is therefore branded a murderer’s girl friend.
So there is enough horror in the movie to make it feel more like amplified (albeit sanitized) ‘Clockwork Orange’ than, say, ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘It Happened One Night’.
But there is some more horror off the film. Like in the movie, this horror can also be seen in the trivia:
- The director Howard Hawks, who could be perceived to be a closet commie (by many) in this movie, was known to make anti-semitic remarks. Ben Hecht, whose play was adapted for the movie, was Jewish and is known for his anti-Holocaust activism.
- Rosalind Russell, who played the female lead (the newspaper ‘man’), hired her own writer to ‘punch up’ her dialogs to make them as good as that of Cary Grant, who played the male lead. Did she mean her dialogs were not as horror inducing as that of the Hero?
- The man to be hanged is white (even if trash) and he had shot a colored cop. Not vice versa, which would be much more likely given the demographic and other statistics.
- The fact that I mentioned earlier. That this movie is considered to be a screwball comedy. Not even a black comedy.
- The corollary to the fact mentioned above. That horror can be mistaken for fun and enjoyed accordingly.
I won’t accuse the director for giving us some escapist fare. Not even of making a feel good movie.
Nor of making a comedy.