It’s a fact of fiction that the ways things worked in the past are always more attractive than the present.
Long before television auteur Aaron Sorkin began waxing nostalgic for a lost golden age of American journalism on HBO’s The Newsroom, however, playwrights and filmmakers were looking back at the “dark ages” of the trade with equal longing.
The two masterpieces that romanticized the bad old days of the newspaper business are The Front Page, the 1928 play by reformed Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and His Girl Friday, the 1940 Howard Hawks film that transformed the same story into a screwball comedy.
American playwright John Guare’s stage adaptation of the latter – which mixes together elements the original play with Charles Lederer’s screenplay – hits the stage at the Shaw Festival this Saturday.
Returning to His Girl Friday and The Front Page in advance of this Canadian premiere, it’s a surprise to find that not only are these two farces much more fun than Sorkin’s new series, but, despite being created more than 70 years ago, they feel much more in tune with the reality of the changing journalism landscape circa 2012.
In the much-heralded rant that opens The Newsroom, fictional anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels) harkens back to a time when, he believes, America reached for the stars and was the greatest country in the world.
“We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed, by great men, men who were revered,” he says, conjuring up the image of broadcasters like Edward R Murrow and president-toppling newspaper hacks Woodward and Bernstein. His Girl Friday begins with a similar harkening back, but it’s ironic. “It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper games – when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder,” reads a title displayed at the top of the film. “Incidentally, you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”
The classic screwball comedy then introduces us to two screen journalists to whom many writers and reporter still look for tips on style and (lack of) grace.
Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is the star reporter who is leaving her notepad and pin-striped suits behind to marry an insurance salesman and play house in Albany, N.Y. Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, is her ex-husband, a manipulative and conniving, but also connected and charming editor who tries to get her to stay on staff and come back to him – though it’s hard to tell which of those goals is his primary one.
Hildy’s view of what she does is the idealistic one propagated by the well-educated, civic-minded television producers in Sorkin’s Newsroom.
“I know all about reporters, Walter,” Hildy says in her own iconic rant early on in the movie. “A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.”
His Girl Friday – in which Hildy and Walter stop an injust execution almost by accident in between fights with each other – has the same high-speed walking-and-talking banter of a Sorkin series, just without any high-minded lectures to act as speed bumps.
While this is a familiar style now, filming a newsroom with candlestick telephones ringing off the hook (they actually had hooks then) was groundbreaking at the time. Russell, as she wrote in her memoir, worried that “all this noisiness and newsroom high spirits might seem too chaotic to a watcher,” and the overlapping dialogue was a real challenge for Hawks and his technicians.
Made before the invention of multitrack recording, His Girl Friday’s sound had to be mixed live on the set with overhead microphones turned on and off as many as 35 times in a single scene to capture the hustle and bustle.
In addition to lines borrowed whole hog from Hecht and MacArthur, and Lederer’s revisions for the screenplay, His Girl Friday also captures numerous improvisations, particularly by Grant, which is what gives the film much of its unbridled energy.