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.
“Apparently, Rosalind Russell finally got fed up with Cary Grant and brought in her own writer, so that she could zing him with some zingers once in a while too,” says Jim Mezon, who is directing Guare’s stage adaptation at the Shaw Festival.
Putting this newsroom chaos back on stage without being able to edit or shift the viewers’ focus is tricky, acknowledge Mezon and his cast.
Nicole Underhay, who is playing Hildy, says that Mezon started her and her co-stars off slowly, “like we were racehorses,” and then gradually built the speed up over the course of rehearsals.
“Now, we’re running,” Underhay says. “And it’s 180 pages of script, so we have to run or nobody’s ever going to go home.” (Usually, a page in a play translates into about one and half minutes of stage time; His Girl Friday is clocking in at under three hours with an intermission.)
Adds longtime Shaw Festival star Benedict Campbell, who is playing Walter Burns: “There are sections that go like the clappers and if there’s just a minor brain fart you feel like you’re stranded in the Sahara Desert.”
From 2012, we seem to think our fast-paced world is a new phenomenon and – like Sorkin – fondly recall a time when news was slower and more considered, digested in a single newspaper or a news-hour telecast.
But His Girl Friday – with its gaggle of dishelleved court-house pressroom reporters writing for morning and evening papers in Chicago, all of which printed multiple editions – feels not far off from the modern cycle of 24-hour channels and newspapers, where early versions of stories are rushed online and then updated throughout the day. (Every time she cracks a quip, you get the feeling that Hildy would still be an ace on Twitter.)
The reporters in the movie are always make the choice is between being first or being right – and, like CNN, which was pilloried last week for getting a Supreme Court ruling wrong – often choosing to be first.
Underhay says: “I think about terms that we use now, like when something goes viral on the Internet – this actual newsroom itself is kind of viral …
“One person them will have an idea, and then the rest of them will just pick up their phones and phone in the same story that they just overheard without actually doing any work on it or any research.” (Online aggregation, anyone?)
What’s also notable is that His Girl Friday and The Front Page’s journalists – even Walter and Hildy (who’s a man in the original play) – aren’t motivated by high-minded goals, or if they are, they keep it to themselves, unlike the blowhards in The Newsroom.
Hildy is as motivated as much by an addiction to the adrenaline of chasing a story as anything, while Walter’s motivations are as diverse as selling more newspapers, currying political favour and, of course, winning back the girl (or guy).
Burns certainly fits the current portrait of what many skeptical of the “mainstream media” imagine an editor to be. “I think the newspaper business is going back to what it was: writing scandalous stories and anything to get people interested in buying papers,” Campbell says. “It’s the same on television, too, isn’t it?”
And yet, unlike in completely cynical recent portrayal of the news business (say, Ken Finkleman’s CBC satire The Newsroom or David Simon’s dark version of The Baltimore Sun in The Wire), there’s still plenty of romance surrounding journalism in His Girl Friday – and the truth does get out in the end.
As George W. Hilton writes in an introduction to an annotated version of The Front Page, “For all of Walter Burns’s preoccupation with circulation and contempt for intellectual honesty, his Examiner has prevented an unspeakable act of political corruption and brought to imminent judgment as contemptible a politician as the nation has ever produced.”
That’s another thing Sorkin doesn’t quite get right in The Newsroom that His Girl Friday does: Self-interest and the public interest aren’t always at odds when it comes to journalism.
Note to readers: Jeff Daniels is the actor who plays Will MacAvoy on HBO's The Newsroom. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.
“GET ME A REWRITE”: THE VARIOUS EDITIONS OF THE FRONT PAGE
THEATRE: The Front Page (1928)
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the original version of this fast-paced farce based on their times working on newspapers in Chicago during the Prohibition era. “It’s the ‘only’ American comedy of the 1920s in the way that The Importance [of Being Earnest] is the ‘only’ English comedy of the 1890s,” wrote Tom Stoppard, himself a newspaperman turned playwright.
FILM: The Front Page (1931)
Lewis Milestone directed this first, faithful movie of Hecht and MacArthur’s play. Adolphe Menjou, playing editor Walter Burns, was nominated for an Oscar; Pat O’Brien played ace reporter Hildy Johnson (still a man).
FILM: His Girl Friday (1940)
According to Hollywood legend, director Howard Hawks’s secretary read the part of Hildy Johnson during auditions for a straight remake of The Front Page (photo above) and that’s how the idea of making the character a woman first popped into his head. However, Rosalind Russell only got the part opposite Cary Grant’s Walter after six other actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, turned it down.
FILM: The Front Page (1974)
Billy Wilder’s screen farces include Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but his remake of The Front Page is not remembered as the best of the bunch. Odd Couple stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon reunited to play Walter and Hildy, while Susan Sarandon was long-suffering fiancée Peggy.
THEATRE: Windy City (1982)
This musical, with lyrics by Dick Vosburgh and music by Tony Macaulay, ran for 250 performances in the West End, but never really cracked North America. “Is it supposed to be a spoof? An affectionate recreation?” asked New York Times critic Alvin Klein.
FILM: Switching Channels (1988)
The 1980s were not so kind to The Front Page, as this complete overhaul directed by Canada’s Ted Kotcheff (and partially filmed in Montreal and Toronto) showed. Burt Reynolds played a cable TV mogul; Kathleen Turner was his ex-wife ace reporter.
THEATRE: His Girl Friday (2003)
John Guare (Six Degress of Separation) completed the loop by adapting His Girl Friday for Britain’s National Theatre in 2003. Zoë Wannamaker was Hildy to Alex Jennings’s Walter. The Shaw Festival’s production is a recently revised version of this script, moved a decade later, to 1939.