Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
His Girl Friday (1940)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

With increasingly exasperated looks and the first of many kicks (under the table), Hildy tries to silence Walter's asides about their past and his disguised insults directed at Bruce:

Walter: Well Bruce, how is business up there? Any better?
Bruce: Well, Albany's a mighty good insurance town. Most people there take it out pretty early in life.
Walter: Yeah, well I can see why they would. (Hildy kicks him again beneath the table, causing him to flinch.)

Bruce begins his sales pitch for the value of an insurance policy:

Bruce: I figure I'm in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don't help you much while you're alive, but afterward - that's what counts!
Walter: Sure. (He laughs) I don't get it. (Hildy administers another kick, but misses Walter's shins and squarely hits the waiter's shins instead.) Nice going.

Hildy announces their plans to leave only two hours later - at four o'clock - on the night train to Albany with a wedding the following day. Immediately, Walter tries to figure out a way to delay Hildy's departure and ultimately prevent their marital hitching - he pre-arranges for the waiter to call him away for a phone call while insinuating smutty thoughts about their sleeping arrangement on the train:

Walter: Listen, Bruce, I, uh, let me get that straight, I must have misunderstood you. You mean you're taking the sleeper today and then getting married tomorrow?
Bruce: Oh, well, it's not like that.
Walter: Well, what is it like?
Hildy: Oh poor Walter. He'll toss and turn all night. Perhaps we better tell him Mother's coming along, too.
Walter: (To Hildy) Mother? Why, your mother kicked the bucket!
Bruce: No, my mother, my mother.
Walter (sarcastically): Oh, your mother. Oh, well, that relieves my mind.
Hildy: (To Walter) It was cruel to let you suffer that way. (To Bruce) Isn't Walter sweet? Always wanting to protect me.
Walter: Well, I admit I wasn't much of a husband, but you can always count on me, Hildy.

When Walter excuses himself briefly for a phone call, Bruce, totally clueless to Walter's intentions, tells Hildy about his newfound admiration for her ex-husband:

Bruce: You know, Hildy, he's not such a bad fellow.
Hildy: No, he should make some girl real happy.
Bruce: Uh-huh.
Hildy: (To herself) Slap-happy.
Bruce: He's not the man for you. I can see that. But I sort of like him. He's got a lot of charm.
Hildy: Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake.

Walter returns to the table with the "lowdown" on the Earl Williams case - a case that the newspaper is championing. Williams is "...a poor little dope who lost his job and went beserk and shot a cop who was coming after him to quiet him down. Now they're gonna hang him tomorrow...It happened to be a colored policeman and you know what that means Hildy." Hildy describes the inherent racism of the case: "The colored vote's very important in this town." She notes that with an election coming up in three or four days: "that Mayor - he'd hang his own grandmother to be re-elected." Bruce thinks that it might be easy to show that the deluded, insane man wasn't criminally responsible for his crime and then 'put him away' in an institution rather than hang him. An additional medical expert, Dr. Egelhoffer (Edwin Maxwell), who will examine Williams before he is hanged, may declare him sane (and therefore punishable by death).

Ex-journalist Hildy with the news-hound in her blood (and with Walter's encouragement) shows an irresistible, intense desire to become involved in the case, to make the news exciting for the readership, and to prove Williams' disturbed mental state:

Walter: Well, he'll (Egelhoffer) say the same as all the rest.
Hildy: Suppose he does.
Walter: Well, what's the scheme, Hildy?
Hildy: Look Walter, you get the interview with Earl Williams. Print Egelhoffer's statement. And right alongside of it - you know, double column - run your interview. (She gestures to show the placement of the two columns side by side) Alienist [a physician who treats mental disorders and specializes in legal matters] says he's sane. Interview shows he's goofy.
Walter: Aw Hildy, you can do it. You could save that poor devil's life.

Even Bruce, now feeling sentimental about the convicted criminal, is cajoled and willing to spare a few hours - and supportive of Hildy's death-row interview with Williams:

Bruce: How long would the interview take?
Walter: Oh, about an hour for the interview. Another hour to write it. That's about all.
Bruce: Hildy, we could take the six o'clock train if it'd save a man's life.
Hildy: No, Bruce. (To Walter) If you want to save Earl Williams' life, you write the interview yourself. You're still a good reporter.
Walter: Aw, Hildy. You know I can't write that kind of thing. It takes a woman's touch. It needs that heart, that...
Hildy: Now don't get poetic, Walter. Get Sweeney. He's the best man you've got on the paper for that sob-sister stuff.

Walter explains that Sweeney is not to be found because he is out celebrating the birth of twins: "So Sweeney has twins, and Earl Williams gets hanged tomorrow." Walter intimidates Hildy's gullible husband, claiming that if she doesn't interview Earl Williams, and through her interview convince the governor to grant Williams a last-minute reprieve before his execution at dawn, that Bruce will ultimately be responsible for an unjust death:

Well you argue with her. You argue with her. Otherwise, you're going on a honeymoon with blood on your hands. How can you have any happiness after that? All through the years, you'll remember that a man went to the gallows because she was too selfish to wait two hours. I tell ya, Bruce, Earl Williams' face will come between you on the train tonight and at the preacher's tomorrow, and all the rest of your lives.

Hildy exposes Walter's deceitful "act" - "I just remembered. Sweeney was only married four months ago." Walter admits defeat: "All right, Hildy, you win. I'm licked." In a final, desperate move to delay her departure, he offers Bruce a "business proposition" to purchase some life insurance:

You persuade Hildy to do the story and you can write out a nice fat insurance policy for me.

Although Bruce refuses to use his wife "for business purposes," Hildy is actually pleased to take Walter's money. She persuades Bruce to accept Walter's offer to buy a $100,000 life insurance policy - greedy for the $1,000 commission they will earn:

Hildy: We could use that money, Bruce. How long would it take to get him examined?
Bruce: Well, I could get a company doctor here in twenty minutes.
Hildy: Alright Bruce, suppose you have Mr. Burns examined over in his office and see what they'll allow on that old carcass of his...
Walter: Say, I'm better than I ever was. How do ya like...
Hildy: There was never anything to brag about. Now look, Bruce. I'll go back and change and dress. And after you get the check, you phone me. I'll be in the press-room of the Criminal Courts Building. Oh Walter!
Walter: What?
Hildy: By the way, I think you'd better make that a certified check.
Walter: What do you think I am, a crook?
Hildy: Yes. No certified check, no story. Get me?
Walter: It'll be certified. Want my fingerprints?
Hildy: No thanks. I've still got those.

Most of the remainder of the film is set in the busy press-room of the Criminal Courts Building, where frequent penny-ante poker card games entertain the newshawk-journalists who are hungry for news - and await the gallows hanging of Earl Williams. The room is littered with hot-line telephones to each of the newspapers (frequently used to call in hot tips from police stations, hospitals, etc.), tables, and one large rolltop desk. Roy Bensinger (Ernest Truex) of the Morning Tribune calls in a story:

A new lead on the hanging - This alienist from New York, Dr. Max J. Egelhoffer, Egelhoffer, yeah, he's gonna interview with him in about half an hour in the Sheriff's office...Here's the situation on the eve of the hanging...A double guard is being thrown around the jail, the Municipal Buildings, railroad terminals, and elevated stations to prepare for the expected general uprising of radicals at the hour of execution.

Murphy (Porter Hall), another reporter, sees a case of political corruption: "The Sheriff has just put two hundred more relatives on the payroll to protect the city from the Red Army which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes."

Hildy enters the familiar press-room (of her working past) and is affectionately greeted by the other reporters. Now on her way out but making a "farewell appearance," she tells them of her marriage and six o'clock train departure-to-Albany plans:

I'm going into business for myself...I'm getting married tomorrow...It's gonna be all right. I'm gonna settle down. I'm through with the newspaper business.

They can't imagine her becoming domesticated: "singing lullabies" and "beating rugs." From the direction of the jail, they hear the loud sounds of officials testing the gallows for the hanging. Hildy tells them she made a deal to cover one final event before settling down:

Hildy: I have to do a yarn on Williams. Did he know what he was doing when he fired that gun?
Murphy: If you ask us, 'No.' If you ask the state alienist, the answer is 'Yes.'
Hildy: Who is he [Williams]? What's he do?
Jake McCue (Roscoe Karns): He was a bookkeeper. He starts out at twenty dollars a week and after fourteen years, he gradually works himself up to seventeen fifty...Plus the company goes out of business and Williams loses his job...
Ernie: So he starts hangin' around the park, listenin' to a lot of soapbox spellbinders makin' phony speeches and begins to believe 'em.
Endicott (Cliff Edwards): And makes some of his own.

After a physical exam by the insurance doctor in his newspaper office, Walter is determined to be in great health and not a bad risk for an insurance policy. As a "debt of honor" for being "a bad husband" to Hildy, he chooses her as his "beneficiary" on the life insurance policy that is being written out by Bruce. Walter speculates that he may be "good for" at least twenty-five years, after which his death and insurance pay-out may benefit his beneficiary - his ex-wife. His theatrical emoting causes Bruce to become choked up:

Walter: Well, by that time, you'll probably have made enough so that the money won't mean anything to you. But suppose you haven't made good Bruce? What about Hildy's old age? Think of Hildy. Ah - I can see her now. White-haired. Lavender and old lace. Can't you see her, Bruce?
Bruce (dreamily): Yes. Yes I can.
Walter: She's old, isn't she? Now Bruce, don't you think that Hildy is entitled to spend her last remaining years without worries of money? Of course you do, Bruce.
Bruce: Of course, if you put it that way.
Walter: And remember, I love her too.
Bruce: Yes, I'm beginning to realize that.
Walter: And the beauty of it is, she'll never have to know until I've passed on. Oh well, maybe she'll think kindly of me after I'm gone. (He wipes an imagined tear.)
Bruce: Gee! (Bruce blows his nose into a handkerchief.) You make me feel like a heel comin' between ya.
Walter: No, no Bruce. You didn't come between us. It was all over for her before you came on the scene. For'll never be.

By phone from the press room, Hildy advises her naively-innocent fiancee to put Walter's certified check (payment for the insurance policy) in the lining of his hat, so that her crafty ex-husband won't find a way to get it back. As Bruce leaves the offices, Diamond Louis is put on his trail.

Hildy bribes the jail warden Cooley (Pat West) with a twenty-dollar bill - a $20 dollar bill conveniently falls out of her purse to the floor and she asks him: "Say, is this your money?" She is granted an interview with the doomed prisoner Earl Williams in his caged jail cell. The interview scene is introduced with a sharply-angled shot high above the cell. She pulls up a chair next to the cage to speak to him, mostly in soft and hushed tones to emphasize her sensitivity to the doomed man's plight.

Williams claims he can't plead insane because he's "just as sane as anybody else" and that the shooting of the black policeman was clearly an accident: "I'm not guilty. It's - it's just the world." Williams remembers some of the soap-box speeches in the park he listened to when he was unemployed, recalling one fellow who talked about an economic theory called "production for use." She hands him a lit cigarette ("sorry about the lipstick, Earl"), but he declines because he doesn't smoke and gives it back. She only fiddles with the cigarette for the rest of their conversation, ironically not using the cigarette for the purpose it was produced. To prove herself as a "great newspaperman," Hildy decides to use the economic theory to explain the motive for Earl's murder of the cop:

Williams: He [the soap-box speaker] said everything should be made use of.
Hildy: It makes quite a bit of sense, doesn't it?...Now look, Earl, when you found yourself with that gun in your hand, and that policeman coming at you, what did you think about?...You must have thought of something...Could it have been, uh, 'production for use'?...What's a gun for Earl?
Williams: A gun?...Why to shoot, of course.
Hildy: Oh. Maybe that's why you used it.
Williams: Maybe.
Hildy: Seems reasonable?
Williams: Yes, yes it is. You see, I've never had a gun in my hand before. That's what a gun's for, isn't it? Maybe that's why.
Hildy: Sure it is.
Williams: Yes, that's what I thought of. Production for use. Why, it's simple isn't it?
Hildy: Very simple.
Williams: There's nothing crazy about that, is there?
Hildy: Nope. Nothing at all.
Williams: You'll write about that in your paper, won't you?
Hildy: You bet I will.

The interview ends with Earl thanking Hildy for being a caring person: "I liked talking to you."

Back at the press room, the newsmen are playing cards when Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), a Clark Street prostitute who sympathetically befriended "cuckoo" Earl and sent him roses, walks in. They callously greet her ("How's tricks?") and she likewise has a low opinion of the 'wise guys': "I've been lookin' for you tramps." She is disturbed by the press' salacious insults and the "swell story" they gave her when alleging she was Earl's "girlfriend":

I came to tell ya what I think of ya, all of ya...You crumbs have been makin' a fool out of me long enough. I never said I loved Earl Williams and was willing to marry him on the gallows. You made that up, and about my being a soul-mate and having a love-nest with him...I met Mr. Williams just once in my life when he was wandering around in the rain without his hat and coat on like a sick dog the day before the shooting. I went up to him like any human being would and I asked him what was the matter. And - and he told me about being fired after being on the same job for fourteen years. And I brought him up to my room because it was warm there...Aw listen to me, please. I tell ya, he just sat there talking to me all night. He never once laid a hand on me. And - and in the morning, he went away. And I never saw him again till that day of the trial. Sure I was his witness!...That's why you're persecuting me, because Earl Williams treated me decent and not like an animal, and I said so!...It's a wonder a bolt of lightning don't come down and strike you all dead!

During Mollie's tirade with them, Hildy has returned and begun typing her interview with Earl, while listening to their brutish treatment of the sensitive street-walker. At the sound of the gallows being tested again, Mollie is bereft and hysterical: "A poor little fella that never meant nobody no harm. Sitting there this minute with the Angel of Death beside him, and you cracking jokes!" Hildy accompanies Mollie from the press room and closes the door behind them to shut out their world:

Mollie: Aren't they inhuman?
Hildy: I know. They're newspapermen.
Mollie: All they've been doing is lying. All they've been doing is writing lies...Why won't they listen to me?

Suddenly, an intense quiet and silence settles onto the room for a long while - the press men realize that they have indeed been unduly harsh and "inhuman." The telephone rings to break the stillness - a call for Hildy. After more ponderous silence, Hildy slowly re-enters the door and stands to face them and to critically address and condemn them with an ironic description: "Gentlemen of the Press!" Hildy races from the press room after answering the phone - a distress-call from Bruce. Her fiancee is calling from jail - and she rushes away to bail him out.

Sheriff Peter B. ('Pinky') Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) arrives to distribute tickets to the early morning hanging, insisting that he had nothing to do with the scheduling or timing of the hanging:

Murphy: Why can't you hang this guy at five o'clock instead of seven?
Bensinger: Sure, it won't hurt you, and we'd make the city edition.
Sheriff: Oh well now, that's, that's kind of raw, Roy. After all, I can't hang a man in his sleep just to please the newspaper.
Newsman: No, but you can reprieve him twice so the hanging's three days before election, can't ya?
Endicott: You can run on a law and order ticket. You can do that all right.
Sheriff: Honest boys, I had absolutely nothing to do with those reprieves.

Even the Sheriff claims that Earl Williams is a sane man: "He's just as sane as I am."

In the jailhouse, Bruce has been detained for stealing a watch from Diamond Louis (Bruce's mishap was set up by Walter). Hildy rescues Bruce from jail by threatening the jailer that she will write up the incident in the newspaper ("Well, perhaps you'd better read the Post in the morning"). During their taxi ride, Bruce realizes his wallet is mysteriously missing (pickpocketed by Louis to hopefully retrieve the certified check)! As she leaves the taxi in the front of the press room, she promises: "I'll be down in three minutes. We're taking the next train."

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