It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

“You’re wonderful,” she tells him, wrapped up by that rakish striped coat and the jaunty hat, her brown tresses flowing rudely down both sides of her face. “In a loathsome sort of way.”

As much could be said about Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, a sparkling, acid whirlwind of a screwball comedy, starring a he (Cary Grant) and a she (Rosalind Russell) who’ve rarely been better. Though surely not as madcap — or as winning — as Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (let’s face it, Rosalind Russell ain’t Katharine Hepburn), it does squeeze in a lot of twists and turns: Grant is Walter Burns, the ruthless, raffish editor of a big city paper, Russell is his ex-wife and the paper’s ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, and Ralph Bellamy is the dull straight man, Bruce Baldwin, with whom Hildy hopes to settle down and become “a human being” (read, a “real” woman) again. All’s fair in love and yellow journalism, so as Walter undermines Bruce and Hildy’s marriage plans at every turn, hoping to win her back, she chases down a final scoop, about an innocent man condemned to death. The battle is, in the best moments, joyously raucous: “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you,” Hildy tells Walter after a particularly embarrassing ploy, “if they were just lighting it up.”

Watching the movie again, though, I was struck not by the speed of the verbal sparring or Grant and Russell’s fiery sexual tension, but by the harsh cynicism of a city seeming to spin out of control. Filled with gallows humor (literally — the periodic thunderclap of hangmen testing the gallows resounds throughout the film) and the press’ desperation to get the story, it often feels less like a comedy than a drama that’s curdled into sarcasm. The good guys of the movie — the accused killer Earl Williams and Bruce himself — are the ones who suffer, all while their callous counterparts gallivant around forgetting everybody but themselves. The dizzying layers of corruption, lies and general carelessness leave, as Earl suggests, a sickly taste in the mouth. “I’m not guilty,” he tells Hildy. “It’s just the world.”

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