Mark Overanalyses Film

His Girl Friday

July 04, 2023 Season 3 Episode 10
His Girl Friday
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
His Girl Friday
Jul 04, 2023 Season 3 Episode 10

Mark's no suburban bridge-player, he's an overanalyser as he tries to figure out what makes His Girl Friday so exciting, how its two plots relate to each other, and what Albany ever did to deserve this.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark's no suburban bridge-player, he's an overanalyser as he tries to figure out what makes His Girl Friday so exciting, how its two plots relate to each other, and what Albany ever did to deserve this.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, I’ll be looking at 1940’s His Girl Friday. 

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for story coaching and reading at

The screenplay for His Girl Friday was written by Charles Lederer, adapted from the stage play “The Front Page”, which was written by the genius Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was also directed by the legendary Howard Hawks. Into the bargain, it starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. So, it’s safe to say, we’re in good hands here.  

Now, I decided to do His Girl Friday since I thought this season has been a bit light on female protagonists so far and Hildy Johnson is one of my all-time favourite protagonists full stop. But also, His Girl Friday is a screwball romantic comedy, which is arguably my favourite genre. And that’s at least partly because I love a good romcom, and there are so few really good modern romcoms. Most people would still default to When Harry Met Sally as an example, and that was, at this point, 34 years ago. To put that in context, that would be the equivalent of someone in 1989, the year of that film’s release, giving a film from 1955 as an example of a good film from the genre, and no offence to Gentlemen Prefer Brunettes, but it feels like the genre should have produced more in the meantime. But in the 30s and 40s, we had It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, The Shop Around The Corner, The Lady Eve, You Can’t Take It With You, My Man Godfrey, Woman of The Year, A Matter of Life and Death (!), the list goes on and on and on. So why is that? Why were romcoms so good back then? And what is it about His Girl Friday that makes it still, in my view, so much better than 95% of the romcoms that followed in its wake?

Well, with all that in mind, first I’ll look at the fundamental features of the protagonist, and then I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences of the film. Then, I’ll talk about the main things I learned along the way. 

So, let’s begin with the 5 Questions about the protagonist.

The 5 Questions

Question 1: Whose story is it?

Or, who is the protagonist? Like so many people to this day, Hildy Johnson decides around the age of 30 that the media is a cut-throat business bleeding her dry, so she’s decided to leave it for pastures quieter. Now all she has to do is tell her old boss and ex-husband that she’s marrying another man, so that should be straightforward enough.

Question 2: What is their life dream? 

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the film begins and the story has yet to properly start. His Girl Friday is 91 minutes long, and it is packed tight. So, Hildy’s life dream is explained to us right out the gate. She’s getting married, moving to Albany, and leaving the newspaper business behind her.

Question 3: What is their Want?

Want here is what the character is trying to achieve in Act II of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. The whole point of this is really to give the character something to do and to give shape to the story. As such, the Want is a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. Now, it’s not always like this, but it tends to work really well when the Want and the life dream are really in tension with each other. And so it is here. Hildy wants to get out of the game, but at minute 23 her old boss Walter manages to bribe her into covering one last story for the paper in exchange for taking out an expensive insurance policy with her fiance Bruce. It’s a classic One Last Job setup.  

Question 4: What is his Need? 

Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the character lacks at the beginning of the story. And whatever about the life dream and the Want being in tension, this is a classic character setup. The protagonist believes one thing at the beginning of the story, and comes to believe something else entirely at the end. Hildy’s Need is to realise that she is, in her own words, a Newspaper Man through and through. Hers is not a life to be lived in Albany. 

Question 5: Does she get what she Wants and/or what she Needs?

There’s a great line in the movie Moonstruck, where Nicolas Cage’s character tells Cher’s: “I'm a wolf? You run to the wolf in me, that don't make you no lamb!”. What makes His Girl Friday so rewarding at the end is that it holds and holds and holds on the final reveal until right at the end, when it’s revealed to just what extent Hildy is right where she wants to be, and she has indeed gotten what she wants and embraced what she needs. But, we’ll get to that.  

Ok, now that I’ve attempted to answer the 5 key questions, let’s have a look at His Girl Friday’s sequences. 


The Sequences

There are normally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I:

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. So, straight off the bat, we see Hildy and Bruce march into the office and we learn that Hildy is to tell her ex-husband and former boss Walter Burns that she’s getting married tomorrow. But no sooner has she arrived in Walter’s office than we have, in minute 2, His Girl Friday’s Inciting incident: or, the event without which our story as it is would not happen. Walter learns that the governor has not signed a reprieve for someone called Earl Williams, and Walter is most displeased. And again, I love just about everything Walter does here, from suggesting that the idea that divorce is for life is old-fashioned, to proposing that if they can’t work together anymore they can always just get married again. But Hildy isn’t biting, so he pretends that Sweeney is suddenly unavailable and tries to incite Hildy to cover the story. So, eventually, in order to stop him, Hildy has to break the news. She’s not only getting married, she’s getting married tomorrow. And for the first time in what we imagine must be a long time, Walter is lost for words. But he’s never down for long, so he discovers that Bruce is outside, and before you know it, he’s bringing the couple out for lunch. We now have our first real tension as we wonder: “Can Walter find a way to keep Hildy in his orbit for a bit?”, and so, at minute 14, we enter sequence II.

Now, His Girl Friday is clearly adapted from a play, so we can see here that many of the sequences are actually just one long scene, or at least dominated by one. And so it is here, as this entire sequence is one scene in a restaurant. Walter attempts to convince Hildy that Sweeney has just had twins and that if she doesn’t cover the story for him, she’ll have Earl Williams’ blood on her hands. And then Hildy recalls that Sweeney only got married 4 months ago. Quickly changing tack, Walter then offers to bribe the new couple. He’ll take out a huge insurance policy with Bruce if Hildy will write the story. Of course, because Bruce is the total opposite of Walter, he would never use Hildy for financial gain. But Hildy is all about the idea of helping her betrothed. Now, it might be worth stopping for a second to point out just what a classic, textbook example of personifying an argument His Girl Friday is. We have Walter, who represents Hildy’s need, and Bruce, who represents her original life dream and, debatably, her flaw. To paraphrase Maverick in Top Gun, a journalist isn’t what Hildy is, it’s who she is. But at this point, she hasn’t embraced that and she feels the siren call of a different kind of life. Her relationship with these two men will show her relationship to this argument within herself. It is simple, but there’s nothing harder than doing the simple stuff well. Anyways, she’s just about to engage on the adventure that will show this. At minute 23, Hildy decides to cover the Earl Williams story in exchange for the insurance policy. We have our big question now: “Will Hildy be able to cover the story and still escape?” And so, at that, we end Act I and we enter Act II. 

Act II

Act II begins with sequence III, the first attempts to solve the problem. Now, sequence III always begins with a “What’s the plan?” scene so that the audience knows what they can expect from the long Act II about to unfold. And so, Hildy immediately arrives in the press room of the criminal courts building, which is full of other journalists, and is overshadowed by the gallows just outside the window. This is what our second act is all about. At the same time, we see the Walter and Bruce subplot set up. Bruce is clearly out of his element as Walter gets his medical and sets Bruce up for getting pickpocketed. But, most importantly, sequence III always has this dynamic where the protagonist refuses the call to their need during the sequence, before accepting the call at the end of the sequence. And so, the first thing Hildy does is insist to the other journalists that she’s getting married tomorrow and leaving all this behind. Then, when an alarm goes off, she can’t help but get fired up, but then immediately tries to downplay her reaction. But then, 6 minutes later, Hildy accepts the call, or you could also say: she makes her first UNconscious move towards her Need. At minute 32, Hildy interviews Earl Williams, and there can be no doubt that this is what she’s born to do. [] Now, the tension of this sequence was really something like “Will Hildy find out what the story is?”, and in interviewing Earl Williams, she has. So, we have a new tension: “Will Hildy write the story?” Therefore, at minute 34, we enter sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem.

And goddamn, this is a great sequence. Sequence IV ups the ante across the board, but what is so great about His Girl Friday’s 4th sequence is that it presents in full throat both the arguments for and against Hildy’s Need. Lots of people struggle to warm to His Girl Friday because they argue it celebrates some pretty dodgy behaviour and, frankly, Hildy and Walter might be terrible people. But His Girl Friday does not attempt to sugarcoat the media, or hide the negatives of the choice that Hildy makes. Whether or not Hildy’s eventual choice is a good one or a bad one, it’s the one that Hildy needs to make. That’s what makes her a great character. That’s what’s genuinely exciting about the story. And so, sequence IV begins with a real counterargument. The other journalists are frankly pathetic. They’re sitting around playing cards, waiting for a man to die. Their dreams extend so far as having a buxom blonde for a secretary. Far worse, when a troubled, emotional young woman, Molly, walks in, all they do is mock her for having the nerve to feel some kind of anything for the victim. Eventually, Hildy leads Molly out of the room. When Molly says the others aren’t human, she responds that she knows, they’re newspapermen. But then, we see what’s really going on. The room goes quiet and they stop playing cards. These desensitised men are ashamed of themselves. Once she returns, Hildy gets a call to learn that Bruce has been arrested for apparently pickpocketing. She picks him and up insists that he stay in a taxi cab downstairs for 3 minutes while she finish up. She is so close to being out. But of course, we are now approaching our midpoint, so the protagonist has actually been experimenting with her Need. While watching these other newshounds use and abuse a young woman, Hildy not only sees the need for herself in this role, but she’s also been writing one hell of a story. So, she comes back full of piss and vinegar, calls Walter and tells him that their deal is done. She tears up the story, and so we apparently have an answer to our sequence tension. But right as she’s about to leave, the incredibly self-involved and corrupt officials running the joint allow Earl Williams to escape. The alarm goes up and, well Hildy Johnson can’t resist. [] At minute 46 into a 91 minute runtime, almost exactly halfway, we have His Girl Friday’s midpoint. Hildy has gone chasing the story, and left Bruce to wait on her downstairs. Hildy has now made her first conscious move towards her need, and so we enter sequence V: the Honeymoon sequence.  

The honeymoon sequence is so called because the protagonist has just acted in accordance with their Need, and so, generally, things start to go well for them. And so it is here. Hildy gets a massive scoop — that the idiotic, vain, corrupt sheriff was the one who gave Earl the gun that he shot his way out with. But again, we have a short term tension to keep Hildy here. In order to get the story, she had to spend Bruce’s money. So now, in the honeymoon sequence, we’re wondering “Will Hildy get the money from Walter?”. Of course, while she’s doing so, in a foreshadowing of the climactic action, she encounters the Mayor. And the mayor is the personification of the corrupt, dealing kind of official that the 4th estate is there to out. She also learns that Bruce has been arrested — again — through Walter’s nefarious means. But this time, she can’t come down immediately because she’s waiting on Bruce’s money that she spent from Walter. And, while things are going well, the Mayor and the sheriff are caught in a further bind. Process server Pettibone, who met his wife 19 years ago y’know, arrives with a reprieve for Earl Williams from the Governor. This is a real mess for the Mayor and the sheriff, so they decide to pretend it never happened and send Pettibone away with a nice new job in the city. Which doesn’t seem like the most airtight plan. But things have been going well for quite a while now, so it’s time for the honeymoon sequence to come to an end. Walter’s henchman Louis arrives with the now counterfeit money that Hildy owes Bruce, and so the sequence tension is answered. Kinda, at least. And so, Hildy is about to make a call and finally escape. Fortunately or unfortunately for Hildy though, Earl Williams comes through the window with a gun that very moment. We ask “Will Hildy be able to hand Earl over to the newspaper?”, and so we enter sequence VI: the bridge from the honeymoon to the low point. 

 Now, we’re racing to a climax at the end of Act II, so we can see that the pressure is building on all sides for Hildy. She needs to protect Earl within the press room, but also needs to get the story, but also needs to keep Bruce onside. And we can see how torn she is as she talks to both men in her life at the same time over the phone. Now, I don’t know if this is a coincidence, but I’m inclined to think probably not considering the rest of the film. There’s a rule of thumb that when things are going well for the protagonist, they are moving from left to right on the screen, and vice versa. Here, Hildy has two phones: Walter on the right and Bruce on the left. Also, I have to point this out somewhere, cos it’s such a standout feature of the film. Hildy can carry on two conversations at once because 1) she’s brilliant, but also 2) His Girl Friday broke the record for fastest dialogue in a film at 240 words per minute, almost 100 words per minute more than the average! It’s pretty remarkable to see in action. Anyways, if she weren’t under enough pressure, Molly then enters and discovers that Earl is there, and she’s soon followed by the other journalists. Hildy hides Earl in a roll top desk. Now, there’s a lot of pressure on Hildy to be a journalist right now, and Bruce is in prison. So it is at this juncture that His Girl Friday introduces Mrs Baldwin, Hildy’s soon to be mother-in-law to balance things out. Hildy is now confronted with what she’s been doing, and her mother-in-law gives the game away. Now, His Girl Friday has a few genuinely shocking moments in amongst the comedy, but perhaps none more so than this. A desperate Molly throws herself out the window in order to distract the jackal-like other journalists. As they chase after her, Walter arrives. And now, there’s an argument to be made that the moment he does, we enter Act III, but I’m inclined to think it’s a little later. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, as the overall shape of the story — and the thematic argument — remains clear. Anyways, Walter has Mrs Baldwin, ah, ‘escorted’ out of the room and gets busy scheming. It’s pretty clear he is in the ascendancy now. But Hildy isn’t quite ready to accept it. She laments what Walter has done to her, until Walter spins her a yarn. Right at the end of act II, Walter tells Hildy this isn’t just a story: it’s a revolution. It’s not just a newspaper story. It is — crucially — a career. And Hildy once again cannot resist. She gets to work and the two are really flying. Bruce then enters, having been bailed out by Albany, wondering where his mother has gone, and rightfully pretty annoyed that Hildy has been working rather than, y’know, bailing him out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Again, there are such strong arguments both for and against what Hildy is doing here. And so, act II ends as it so often does: the protagonist no longer believes the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. In a haze of the rush of the scoop, Hildy goes into an almost trance state and pays little heed to Bruce and his imploring to come with him. As he walks out the door, he offers a kind of ultimatum. Hildy, only half paying attention, responds more to herself than anyone. [] Hildy no longer believes that she can be a suburban housewife, but nor has she consciously given up on Bruce. She no longer believes the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. And so, at minute 71, with a jam-packed 20 minutes left, we end Act II and we enter Act III.


Act III contains the false resolution and the true resolution. And so, when Hildy  sees Walter work poor Benzinger the terrible poet out of his own job, she recalls what a doublecrossing snake he is. And then she snaps out of her fugue writing state and recalls what Bruce said. He’s not coming back, he’s getting the 9 o’clock train. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Louis comes back all banged up and reveals that he’s been in a car accident with some policemen. And he reckons that Bruce’s mother might just have died in the accident. This is the lowest of the low. Hildy has recalled what a two-faced liar Walter is and now feels responsible for the death of Bruce’s mother. So, while Walter is still trying to figure out a way to remove the roll top desk, Hildy starts calling around the hospitals looking for Mrs Baldwin. Eventually, when neither have any luck, Hildy decides to leave. It really looks like she’s walking out that door and this might be it. And so, at minute 78, with 13 minutes left, we enter His Girl Friday’s true resolution.

Hildy opens the door only to be rushed by all the other journalists and the sheriff. They know something’s up and they refuse to let her go. Things are looking tight, and then Mrs Baldwin turns up, looking rather worse for wear, and reveals that Walter had her kidnapped and that they’ve been harbouring a fugitive. And Walter, moving so fast that even he can’t keep up, accidentally gives the game away. And there’s a small but important moment here I think. The cops take out their guns and train them on the roll top desk, about to shoot an unarmed man, and Mrs Baldwin runs off in a tizzy. Say what you want about Hildy and her choices, but she’s got guts. Of course, this is immediately counterbalanced by the fact that every single journalist immediately lies about what is happening. They then go chasing Mrs Baldwin for the story, leaving Walter and Hildy with the sheriff and the mayor. They’re to be arrested, and it’s looking like 10 years a piece. But then, of course, as foreshadowed in our honeymoon sequence, Mr Pettibone comes shambling in, having spoken to his wife don’t you know, and reveals that Earl Williams has been pardoned and that the mayor and the sheriff tried to bribe him. And suddenly the shoe is on the other foot entirely. Everyone leaves and with 4 minutes left, we’ve got one question left, our first question, our main question: is Hildy going to escape? And, ingeniously, Hildy now clearly wants to stay but Walter is sending her away. He’s telling her all the right stuff: this is a bad business, she’d be better off out of it, Bruce can give her all the things that he can’t. Crestfallen, Hildy once again starts to walk out the door, only to be called back once again by a phone call. It turns out Bruce has been arrested for a 3rd time. This time for having counterfeit cash, which Hildy gave him, which Hildy had because Walter gave it to her, which he had the opportunity to do because Hildy spent Bruce’s original money on getting a story from the warden. At that, Hildy breaks down crying. And Walter appears to be actually sorry now that it appears he’s actually hurt her. And then, one of the all time great last minute twists. Hildy admits that she’s not crying because of Bruce, she’s crying because she thought Walter was actually letting her go. [] At that, she says they have to go down, get Bruce out of prison, and pack him off to Albany where he belongs. Walter gets on the phone to Duffy and declares that Hildy is rejoining the paper, that they’re getting remarried, and this time they’re definitely going to have an actual honeymoon: two whole weeks in Niag… what’s that? There’s been a strike? In Albany?  



God, I love this movie! I wish everyone in Hollywood would watch it and really, genuinely think about it. It’s 91 minutes long and absolutely packed with story, jokes, and memorable characters. The majority of the film takes place in one room, and it is never boring. And it’s hilarious and compelling, not because we like Hildy and Walter, but because we love them. 

So, this is arguably my favourite romcom, and I was wondering why so many of my favourites are in this time period and this genre. And I think I have an idea why. His Girl Friday is a perfect example of a subgenre of the 30s and 40s called comedies of remarriage. The genre was a successful attempt to evade censorship, wherein the protagonists could divorce, and flirt with and kiss strangers, but then end up back together, thus reinforcing the idea of family and commitment. But as is so often the case, the limitations created some of the best art. Perhaps the ultimate example of the comedy of remarriage genre is The Philadelphia Story, but the genre also produced It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, and loads of other classics. And again, I think I know why. Or at least I have a theory. Well, maybe two theories. First of all, when I covered my favourite modern romcom, When Harry Met Sally, I quoted the writer and producer Steve Kaplan, who said that bad romcoms are about how two people can ‘get’ together, while good romcoms are about how two people can ‘stay’ together. If you start your story with two people who have been divorced, you can’t mess around with lazy misunderstandings. These people have not only been married, they’ve been divorced! They know every bad facet of each other. And so, if they are to decide to get back together, or to ‘stay’ together, they really have to be in love with each other and they really have to go through something together. At no point does Hildy not understand fundamentally who Walter really is. At no point in The Philadelphia Story does Tracy Lord not understand fundamentally who Dexter is. And so, to take Hildy or Tracy from hating these men to remarrying them, it has to be a real journey. Which also means that this genre has really good female protagonists, because you cannot half ass someone who needs to change this much. There’s something in a character who knows everything at the start, but who changes what they believe in by the end anyways. That’s a real character, not like some Richard Curtis BS where the two main characteristics of the female lead are that she’s beautiful AND American. Not that that matters, because all Richard Curtis are really about how English people secretly hate their friends.

Secondly though, this era had one other big advantage: Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve and so many others were based on short stories, but His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story and many others were based on stage plays. And stage plays live and die on their characters and how those characters relate to each other. On stage, you cannot rely on a music cue and a montage to say “look at these two people falling in love”. You have to show these two people in a room together for extended periods of time, and these two people being in a room together for extended periods of time has to be interesting. It’s the exact same principle as When Harry Met Sally. Harry and Sally, Tracy and Dexter, and especially Hildy and Walter have so much energy within their dynamic. They are all drawn to each other, but also have a natural conflict within the relationship itself. That’s what makes a good romcom in my view, and that’s why so many of the screwball romcoms are the best of the genre. 

But there’s one other thing that I should talk about here before I leave His Girl Friday, and that is the relationship between the A story and the B story, and how it may or may not relate to the fact that Hildy Johnson is arguably the first famous case of a gender-swap role. Now, I wouldn’t take any of this too seriously or anything, and I’m definitely not the most qualified to talk about this, but I do think it’s interesting so I’ll mention it. First of all, there is that old line that all comedies are ended by a marriage, and consistently throughout the story there is a connection between marriage and death. Hildy is asked to come back to work to save Earl’s life. Earl is going to die on the same day as Hildy gets married. Earl’s escape is Hildy’s first conscious move towards her need. Earl’s reprieve arrives first as Hildy is in her honeymoon period and when Bruce is in jail. And Earl’s final reprieve comes right before Hildy’s own reprieve from marriage. But, perhaps most interestingly, Hildy is constantly pivoting between, in her own words, wanting to be treated like a woman and being a newspaperman. And when she talks to Earl, at her first unconscious move towards her Need, they discuss the idea of production for use. Right before her first conscious move, the journalists read her story, where she talks about the gallows as the state’s production for use plan. And there’s a question that Hildy has to answer: what is she for? Does she want to spend her time, in her own words, peeking through keyholes and running after fire engines, or giving her babies cod liver oil and watching their teeth grow? Again, I love the fact that this film doesn’t sugar coat or condemn either option. But, a gun doesn’t have to be fired. A gallows doesn’t have to be used. And a woman doesn’t have to have babies and become a homemaker in Albany. And what still makes His Girl Friday feel so fresh over 80 years later is that the film doesn’t shy away either from Hildy’s conflicting desires or from Hildy’s eventual decision. She has a genuine interest in being treated like a woman and having a home, and Walter hasn’t changed. He’s not blinded like Rochester, or chastened in just about any way like most male leads are in a romcom. He tells her in their final scene exactly what he can’t provide, the newspaper game is shown for all its highs and lows, and just as he did in sequence I, he doesn’t take his hat off for a lady and he does not wait for her as he walks out the door. And it remains Hildy’s choice, and Hildy chooses a career and a life with Walter anyways. It’s so refreshing, cos it takes guts for a story to do that. And guts is something that Hildy Johnson has in spades. 

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film. Next time, I will be looking at… well, probably the greatest film of all time. If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.