His Girl Friday (1940)
A newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying.
Having been away for four months, Hildy Johnson walks into the offices of the New York City based The Morning Post, where she is a star reporter, to tell her boss, editor Walter Burns, that she is quitting. The reason for her absence was among other things to get a Reno divorce, from, of all people, Walter, who admits he was a bad husband. Hildy divorced Walter largely because she wanted more of a home life, whereas Walter saw her more as a driven hard-boiled reporter than subservient homemaker. Hildy has also come to tell Walter that she is taking the afternoon train to Albany, where she will be getting married tomorrow to staid straight-laced insurance agent, Bruce Baldwin, with whose mother they will live, at least for the first year. Walter doesn't want to lose Hildy, either as a reporter or a wife, and if he does, doesn't believe Bruce is worthy of her. Walter does whatever he can at least to delay Hildy and Bruce's trip, long enough to persuade Hildy to stay for good. His plan includes doing whatever he can to place Bruce in a bad light, while dangling a big story under her nose, namely covering what the newspaper believes is the unfair imminent execution of convicted cop killer, Earl Williams. Hildy doesn't trust Walter in dealing with her and Bruce in an above board manner, but the lure of what potentially may become the biggest story in years, which includes true love, a bumbling sheriff and a corrupt mayor, the latter's actions largely in light of an upcoming election, may prove to be too much for Hildy to resist, especially if it ends up being an exclusive. Regardless of the story outcome, Hildy will have to decide if the thrill of the chase was worth the anguish on her personal life.
When newspaper editor Walter Burns learns that his ex-wife and top reporter Hildy Johnson is quitting to marry Bruce Baldwin, he pulls out all of the stops to get her to stay. The newspaper has been championing the cause of a man on death row, Earl Williams, was convicted of killing a policeman and Walter convinces her to write a story on his case. Williams insists that the shooting was an accident and he's not crazy, as some believe. While Hildy pursues the story, Burns has her fiancé arrested - multiple times. When Hildy gets the scoop of the year - Williams escapes from prison on the eve of his planned execution - she hides him in the police station and mayhem ensues. It also gives her a chance to decide just what she wants in the future.
Four months after her resignation journalist Hildy Johnson returns to The Morning Post - just to tell her former boss and husband Walter Burns to stop bombarding her with telegrams, because she won't come back to him, and anyway, she is going to marry insurance agent Bruce Baldwin the next day. When Walter learns that Hildy and Bruce are going to Albany already in two hours, he has to act very quickly. He immediately starts a series of clever schemes to get Bruce out of the way and Hildy back to journalism. He knows that Hildy cannot resist an enticing commission. Earl Williams is a confused man, who is going to be executed the following day, if not The Morning Post succeeds in convincing the governor to pardon him. Hildy sees the possibilities to get a scoop by interviewing Williams, and postpones her departure some hours. She gets more and more entangled in the case, and even helps Williams to hide, when he has run away from prison. Soon she and Walter work feverishly side by side, and her fiancé Bruce just annoys her.
In the next two hours, the Morning Post's unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns, is about to lose Hildy Johnson: his former wife and still the newspaper's best reporter. Intent on moving to Albany with her meek insurance agent fiancée, Bruce Baldwin, Hildy is bent on forsaking journalism to live a normal life with someone who will never take her for granted; however, as always, the manipulative editor-in-chief has to have the final word. Now, to win back both his top journalist and the love of his life, Walter has to act fast and try every trick in the book to talk Hildy into accepting one last story she won't be able to resist--the impending execution of the convicted murderer, Earl Williams. Is Hildy prepared to renounce her passion for journalism, and Walter, the exciting man who never stopped loving her?
Walter Burns, editor of a major Chicago newspaper, is about to lose his ace reporter and former wife, Hildy Johnson, to insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin, but not without a fight! The crafty editor uses every trick in his fedora to get Hildy to write one last big story, about murderer Earl Williams and the inept Sheriff Hartwell. The comedy snowballs as William's friend, Molly Malloy, the crooked Mayor, and Bruce's mother all get tied up in Walter's web.
- Newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) visits her former workplace, the busy office of New York City's Morning Post. She's there to tell her former boss, editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) -- who's also her former husband -- that he needs to stop sending her letters and telegrams, and that she won't be coming back to work because she's getting married again.
While she's in Walter's office, City Editor Duffy (Frank Orth) comes in to tell Walter that the governor hasn't signed the expected reprieve for a murderer, so the man will be executed in the morning. This will apparently make the paper look bad, so Walter tells Duffy to call the governor and push for the reprieve, offering in exchange the Morning Post's endorsement when the governor makes his expected run for the senate. Then Walter gets a call about the reporter who's supposed to be covering the murderer -- he's unavailable -- so Walter tries to convince Hildy to write one last story. She's having none of it. Her wedding is tomorrow, which comes as a shock to Walter, who claims he wants to remarry Hildy himself.
Walter spends the rest of the movie, which all takes place in one day, trying to lure Hildy back into the life they shared. It's not immediately clear why Hildy would be interested; though they have an obvious connection and Walter does seem fond of her, he omits the courtesies most men paid to women in 1940: he doesn't light Hildy's cigarette, take off his hat in her presence, or hold the door for her. He insinuates himself into her lunch date with her fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), where he learns that Hildy and Bruce plan to live in Albany with Bruce's mother, and that the three of them are taking the 4 o'clock train to Albany.
Hildy, Bruce, and Walter discuss the murder case over lunch. The policeman who was murdered was "colored," which makes the case politically tricky for the sheriff and the mayor. Apparently they need the colored vote to win the upcoming election, and they don't think they'll get it if they don't execute the murderer. Walter gets Hildy excited about how to present the story to sway public opinion. Bruce says they can take the 6 o'clock train if she wants to do one last interview. Hildy backs off, but Walter goes to work on Bruce:
"You argue with her! Otherwise you're going on a honeymoon with blood on your hands. How can you have any happiness after that?" Walter proposes a deal: he'll buy a life insurance policy from Bruce (Hildy bids him up from $25,000 to $100,000) if Hildy writes a story on Earl Williams, the murderer. Hildy and Bruce accept. Bruce and Walter go back to Walter's office, where Bruce will have a doctor examine Walter to make sure he qualifies for the policy, while Hildy heads for the criminal courts building where Williams is being held. First, she makes Bruce hand over the cash he's carrying -- $500, "all we have in the world" -- because she's afraid Walter will somehow swindle him out of it or lure him into a craps game or something.
The press room at the criminal courts building, where much of the movie takes place, is full of reporters -- Murphy (Porter Hall), Roy V. Bensinger (Ernest Truex), Endicott (Cliff Edwards), McCue (Roscoe Karns), Wilson (Frank Jenks), and Sanders (Regis Toomey). Some of the newsmen are playing poker while others work the phones. A couple are calling in updates to the Earl Williams story. One concerns the "alienist" -- a psychiatrist or psychologist -- who's due to see Williams that afternoon. (The law requires that an alienist interview Williams and declare him of sound mind before he can be executed.) There's a full range of political opinion represented in the room and not much love lost among them, but when Hildy walks in, it's clear she's well liked -- all the reporters are delighted to see her. When she tells them she's moving to Albany and getting married, they all laugh at the idea of Hildy singing lullabies.
In Walter's office, the doctor pronounces him fit and when Bruce asks who should be the beneficiary of the policy, Walter names Hildy. Bruce isn't too happy about that -- "I feel I should take care of her" -- but Walter says this is a debt of honor for him, because he was such a bad husband and because he wants to make sure she's provided for in her old age. Duffy comes in with a certified check for $2500 to pay for the policy and Walter puts Bruce on the phone to Hildy, who advises him to put the check in the lining of his hat (she's afraid Walter will swipe it back). As Bruce is leaving, Walter points him out to Louie Peluso (Abner Biberman), an ostensibly reformed criminal who's been hanging around the office. Walter and Louie seem to have some kind of understanding.
Back at the courts building, Hildy scores an interview with the condemned man. The warden, Cooley (Pat West), tells her the sheriff says no more interviews, but she bribes Cooley to let her in ($20) and promises she won't be long.
Earl Williams (John Qualen) tells Hildy he couldn't plead insanity because he's "just as sane as anybody else" -- but he didn't mean to shoot the policeman he was convicted of killing. Hildy asks him about the enthusiasts in the park who make speeches on soapboxes; Williams spent time in the park before the killing because he'd lost his job. He remembers a man who talked about production for use: the idea that nothing should be manufactured that isn't useful, and that every object should be used for its intended purpose. And what's a gun for? "Why, to shoot, of course!" Hildy convinces Williams that he was thinking about production for use when he fired the gun that killed the policeman. As she leaves, she asks about the roses in Williams' cell; he says they're from Mollie Malloy, whose picture is on the wall. He describes her as beautiful and "a wonderful person," but it's not clear what their relationship is.
In the press room, the reporters wonder if Walter will really let Hildy go. "Remember what he did to Roger Fenton when he wanted to go to Hollywood? Had him thrown in jail for arson!"
"Forgery," says someone else.
They're bantering that Hildy's marriage won't last more than six months when Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) walks in. She's angry about how they've been writing about her ("I never said I loved Earl Williams and was willing to marry him on the gallows!"), but they're dismissive and tell her to leave them alone. Hildy comes in during this exchange. Mollie explains that she only met Williams once, the day before the shooting. He was walking around in the rain without a hat or coat, obviously distraught. He told her he'd been fired so she took him to her room to dry off and get warm. The reporters make cruel wisecracks (when she asks about a banging noise outside -- the executioners are testing the gallows -- someone says "they're fixing up a pain in the neck for your boyfriend!") and when she shames them, they try to throw her out. Hildy takes Mollie under her wing and they go out together.
Once they're gone, the men seem much more dejected about Williams' situation than they were letting on -- maybe they even feel a little sorry about how they treated Mollie. When Hildy comes back, she takes a call from Bruce and rushes out, running into Sheriff Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) as she leaves. The reporters, who don't let their finer feelings interfere with business, ask the sheriff to hang Williams at 5 in the morning instead of 7 so they can get the story into their city editions. (He refuses.) They also accuse him of reprieving Williams twice so the hanging will occur conveniently just before the election in which Hartwell is running on a law-and-order platform.
At the jail, Hildy learns that Bruce was arrested for stealing a watch. His accuser, of course, is Walter's friend Louie, who's known to the police as "the biggest crook in town." After Hildy bails him out, Bruce discovers in the taxi that his wallet is missing (though he still has Walter's check, having followed Hildy's advice to put it in his hat).
The reporters in the press room are relishing Hildy's unfinished draft of her Williams interview ("anybody who can write like that ain't gonna give it up permanent to sew socks for a guy in the insurance business") when she comes back, having left Bruce waiting in the cab. She calls Walter in a fury to tell him she's tearing up the story she wrote and getting on the train with his check; she won't give him the story because she knows he sent Louie to get Bruce arrested.
The sheriff joins Dr. Eggelhoffer (Edwin Maxwell), the alienist, in his final interview with Earl Williams. In the press room, Hildy is making a flowery farewell speech when she's interrupted by the sound of gunfire outside. All the reporters run to the window and hear from the cops below that Earl Williams has escaped. They scramble for the phones. Hildy can't resist calling the news in to Walter and running after the rest of the press corps to get the story. She spots Warden Cooley in the chaotic jailyard, chases him down (in high heels!), and tackles him to the ground.
In the press room, one reporter calls his office to report that Williams shot his way out of his interview with Eggelhoffer and the sheriff and escaped through a skylight; another reports that a tear bomb went off in the hands of the sheriff's bomb squad, and several deputies (all relatives of the sheriff, who seems to have a nepotism problem) have been hospitalized. The sheriff comes in in time to hear this and huffs indignantly but ineffectually ("after all I've done for you!"). Another newsman reports that a cleaning lady was shot in the leg by a deputy. They hear more shots outside. Someone speculates that the sheriff let Williams escape so Williams could vote for him; Hartwell leaves in disgust.
Upon hearing further shots all the reporters leave the press room just as Hildy comes in; she grabs a phone and calls Walter. She tells him with evident delight and in a whisper that she's got an exclusive on how Williams got the gun and escaped. She says she had to give Cooley $450 of Bruce's money to get the story. Walter, smirking, swears he'll reimburse her. On his mother's grave. She points out that his mother's still alive, but gives him the story anyway:
Dr. Eggelhoffer decided, as part of his examination, to re-enact the crime. This required a gun, which the sheriff supplied without thinking to remove the bullets first. Williams shot Egglehoffer "in the classified ad" and ran off. (Eggelhoffer wasn't badly hurt.) Hildy demands her $450 again and mentions that Bruce is waiting for her in a cab. Walter turns to Evangeline (Marion Martin), who's chatting with Louie, and sends her to meet Bruce; it's not clear what he expects her to do. Then he asks Louie to take $450 in counterfeit money to Hildy.
Soon Hildy takes another call from Bruce, who's been arrested again -- something to do with Evangeline. Hildy can't bail him out until the money comes from Walter, who isn't answering the phone.
The mayor (Clarence Kolb) walks in asking for the sheriff; the reporters try to pry a statement out of him. They throw around rumors about a Red (communist) uprising. Someone says the governor is calling out the militia and quotes the governor blaming the mayor and the sheriff for Williams' escape. The sheriff says they've located Williams and the rifle squad's about to recapture him; the reporters run off to see the fun. The mayor tells the sheriff he's pulling him off the ticket for the upcoming election. He scolds the sheriff for falsely accusing Williams of being a communist sympathizer and says they'll lose 200,000 votes if Williams doesn't hang. A man in a bowler hat comes in looking for Sheriff Hartwell; he's a messenger from the governor delivering a reprieve for Williams. He's interrupted by a call for the sheriff saying the rifle squad has Williams surrounded. The mayor tries to bribe the messenger, Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert), offering him a cushy job in the city sealer's office if he'll say he wasn't able to deliver the reprieve. Pettibone doesn't think his wife will like it, but the mayor offers further inducements while shooing Pettibone out the door. Then the mayor tells the sheriff to order the rifle squad to shoot to kill -- and offers a $500 reward for killing Williams.
Louie comes into the press room, where Hildy dresses him down for what he did to Bruce. He gives her the counterfeit $450 and, when she insists, Bruce's wallet. She picks up the phone after locking the door behind him but is interrupted by Earl Williams, who climbs in through the window with a revolver. She reminds him that she's a friend. He's very agitated and shoots at the window shade when it startles him by rolling itself up. Hildy takes his gun away and has a busy few minutes calming Earl and juggling Bruce and Walter on the phone while someone knocks at the press room door. Bruce is apparently demanding that she come out; she tells him she's caught the murderer and can't leave. She tells Walter she needs him there. It's Mollie at the door. She and Earl have a brief reunion but there's another knock on the (still locked) door -- the reporters want back in. Hildy hides Williams in a roll-top desk and plants Mollie in the chair in front of the desk, pretending to feel faint. When she lets them in, the reporters speculate that Williams could still be in the building. Hildy tries to get them to do a floor-by-floor search. They accuse her of trying to get rid of them (which she is); she retorts that they're too lazy to go after the story.
They're interrupted by the entrance of a well-dressed woman looking for Hildy, or more precisely, for Bruce's $450. She's Mrs. Baldwin (Alma Kruger), Bruce's mother, and she wants to know which of the reporters is the murderer Hildy told Bruce she caught. Hildy's conciliatory at first, but she realizes that if the reporters find Earl, he's toast. She denies telling Bruce that she caught the murderer, which leaves Mrs. Baldwin gasping with indignation. The reporters gang up on Hildy, but suddenly Mollie says she's the only one who knows where Earl is. Mollie is nearly hysterical and berates the reporters when they ask her to talk because they wouldn't listen to her before. Saying she'll give them a story, she jumps out the window just as Walter comes in with Louie. The reporters lean out the window, looking down at Mollie and the people trying to help her (someone thinks she moved, so she might not be dead). Hildy quietly tells Walter that Earl's in the desk. Walter peeks in. Earl wants out, but Walter tells him to stay put. Unfortunately Mrs. Baldwin is still in the room and wants to know what's in the desk. Hildy presents Walter to Mrs. Baldwin. Walter -- rude, as usual -- immediately tells Louie to take her away, which he does, introducing himself politely before lifting her right off the ground and walking off with her. Hildy, angry and tearful, wants to go after them, but Walter convinces her this is too good a story to walk out on. He says they can change the outcome of the election if they spin the story right, and she's caught up in it again.
Walter decides they'll have to move the roll-top desk Earl is hiding in to the Morning Post office. Hildy starts typing another draft while Walter calls Duffy and tells him about the story -- "Earl Williams captured by the Morning Post, exclusive! Tear out the whole front page! Never mind the European war, we've got something a whole lot bigger than that!" He asks Duffy to send over some wrestlers they know to help with the desk. As he talks, Bruce tiptoes into the room. Hildy talks to him absent-mindedly as she types. He takes his counterfeit money, his check, and his wallet -- which he's surprised to find in her possession -- tries to convince her to come with him, and repeats several times that he's leaving on the 9 o'clock train. During this conversation, Walter's still talking to Duffy about the stories they have to cut or move to make way for Hildy's exclusive, with occasional rude asides to Bruce. Bruce leaves, saying bitterly to Hildy (who's not listening) that she never loved him, and Walter locks the door behind him.
Earl opens the desk but closes it in a hurry when Walter says "get back in there, you Mock Turtle!" Hildy's still writing for all she's worth. She asks Walter where Bruce went and Walter lies that Bruce will be back. Soon a reporter knocks on the door: Roy Bensinger of the Tribune. He's a problem because Williams is hiding in his desk. Walter throws up a smokescreen of flattery, offers Bensinger a job at the Morning Post, and gives him an assignment. Then he calls Duffy and tells him to keep Bensinger busy for a few hours, then toss him down the stairs.
Hildy realizes that Bruce isn't coming back because (she finally remembers) he's taking the 9 o'clock train. Walter says dismissively that it's already too late to catch him and measures the desk with his hands, deciding that it's too big to fit through the window. Louie comes back, very beaten up. He reports that the cab he and Mrs. Baldwin were riding in ran into a carload of cops driving on the wrong side of the street. Louie didn't wait around to see how the old lady was; Hildy fears she's dead and feels responsible. She starts calling hospitals while Walter takes a call from Butch the wrestler, who's having trouble getting away from his girlfriend. Walter sends Louie out to find some other muscle to move the desk. Hildy tries to leave to find Mrs. Baldwin but she's swept back into the press room by the returning press corps and the sheriff.
They crowd around Hildy, insisting she tell them where Williams is. In the scuffle, the revolver falls off the table and the sheriff recognizes it. Walter claims to have given Hildy the gun to protect herself from Williams, but the sheriff says this is the gun Williams used to escape and the sheriff knows because it's his gun. The reporters are delighted because the sheriff has foolishly confirmed the story about how Williams got hold of a gun. The sheriff gives Hildy three minutes to tell him where Williams is. He threatens to arrest both Hildy and Walter and fine the Morning Post $10,000. Walter, unimpressed, calls him names. Then Hartwell says he'll impound the Post's property, so Walter dares him to move the roll-top desk out of the building. Hartwell's instructing his goons to do it when two policemen come in with a disheveled Mrs. Baldwin, who accuses Walter of having her kidnapped. This is music to the sheriff's ears, but Walter denies it and accuses Mrs. Baldwin of being drunk and going joy-riding. She retorts that Walter had her kidnapped because she knows they're hiding the murderer in the press room. Walter emphasizes his denial by pounding on the roll-top desk, to which Earl unfortunately responds by pounding back. The sheriff and deputies pull their guns on the desk. Mrs. Baldwin runs from the room, straight into the arms of her son. Hildy tells the sheriff that shooting the desk is murder, so he has his deputies raise the roll top. Williams says "go ahead, shoot me!" and can barely stand when they pull him out.
Reporters all over the room are calling in the story as it happens. Walter gets Duffy on the line and says "the Morning Post turned Williams over to the sheriff!" as the cops handcuff him to Hildy. Suddenly the other reporters decide they need to talk to Mrs. Baldwin and rush out, leaving Hildy, Walter, the sheriff, and one cop in the room when the mayor walks in. He congratulates the sheriff on catching Hildy and Walter obstructing justice and tells them they'll get ten years apiece. As the mayor and the sheriff gloat, the governor's messenger, Mr. Pettibone, comes back. His wife seems to have explained to him that the city sealer job is a bribe, and he rejects it, with explicit details, in the presence of Walter and Hildy who understand all the implications. The mayor tries to deny it, but gets nowhere. Bowing to the inevitable, the mayor professes to be delighted that it won't be necessary to execute Williams and has the sheriff release Walter and Hildy from the handcuffs. The two sides trade threats: from the Morning Post team, an exposé followed by a recall of the mayor, and "a thumping big libel suit" from the mayor. Hildy maliciously speculates that the mayor and the sheriff will get ten years apiece.
The mayor and the sheriff depart with Pettibone and Walter gets back on the phone with Duffy. Hildy reminisces about a long-ago case where she and Walter stole a dead woman's stomach to prove she'd been poisoned, then had to hide out for a week in a hotel (which appears to be how they got together). He tries to send her off to Albany after Bruce, and seems to mean it this time, but she isn't sure she wants to go -- and she really wants to finish the story. The phone rings as she walks out the door and she comes back find that it's Bruce calling, once again, from the police station -- he's been arrested for trying the pass the counterfeit money she gave him. Hildy hangs up and breaks down sobbing. Walter tries to comfort her; he's worried because she's never cried before. She finally chokes out "I thought you were really sending me away with Bruce. I didn't know you had him locked up. I though you didn't love me!" Within moments they're planning to get married again and take a two-week honeymoon in Niagara Falls -- which quickly becomes a working trip to Albany, because Duffy reports there's a strike there. As they leave the press room Walter wonders if Bruce can put them up in Albany. He tells Hildy she should carry the suitcase she's clutching in her arms by the handle but true to form, doesn't offer to carry it for her.