With public opinion polls showing that the public’s estimation of journalists is at an all-time low and our ethical practices are being aired like dirty laundry again with this week’s expose of Jonah Leher’s quote fabrications you could imagine that a comedy about journalism would be simple: just turn all this negativity on its ear and depict journalists as squeaky clean, virtuous, truth-seeking heroes who pursue stories to upend evil and renew the public’s faith in democracy. Comedy is all about inverting our beliefs to see how they look upside down.
So, it’s interesting to see how a revised production of His Girl Friday, on stage at the Shaw Festival until October, presents journalism in 2012. While it’s set in 1939, audiences could see it as an historical representation of the press, though one that is still relevant as a bracing critique of the media. But there’s so much awfulness pushed onto the audience about how reporters supposedly operated that it allows us to reflect on how much has changed.
His Girl Friday is a new, heavily re-written production of two extremely popular treatments of journalism: The Front Page (play 1928, film 1931) and its gender-bending rewrite His Girl Friday (film 1940). This is the Canadian debut of U.S. playwright, John Guare's, 2002 production.
Guare seems to have a deep belief in the value of reporters — a belief that is up against the writers and directors of the original two works who seemed to bleed cynicism about our profession (and the playwrights, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, were reporters in Chicago before fleeing for Hollywood).
The Front Page, often referred to in journalism texts as “the best known critique and cliché of American journalism,” introduced us to the irascible, whiskey-stained, cynical reporters who work (and play cards, pull pranks and drink) in the press room at the Chicago court house. These scribes instantly became the stock characters in films, according to Alex Barris, a former Canadian newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter who documented some of the earliest newspaper films in his 1976 book, “Stop the Presses!”
Before the drive to professionalize journalism, these working-class scoundrels were as good as the business got. The Front Page revealed to a skeptical public how horribly some reporters operated. They were both so lazy that they’d steal each other’s ideas and words and — facts be damned — so vainglorious they would lie, cheat, steal and injure for a scoop.
Any ambivalence was chased away by this self-loathing diatribe against reporters and readers, delivered by star reporter Hildy Johnson:
Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy, buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ will know what’s going on?
In the 2012 Shaw production, the antics of the newsroom seem even more farcical. The press room is a dump: there’s garbage on the floor and after tear gas is sprayed into the area, one remarks that it “freshens up the place.” They work in a dirty place and they do dirty work.
The pack mentality of the reporters is represented by their chirping together in a chorus. They seem less hungry to hunt for the truth, less eager for a scoop. They feel powerless: “We write what our bosses tell us to.” When they flee the press room to hit the streets, they aren’t looking for a story, but to find the escaped prisoner – so they can claim the $10,000 reward offered by the sheriff. In short, they abandon their professional responsibilities for cash that would have taken years to earn.
It’s uncomfortable to have this pack of scumbags representing journalism, and somewhat confusing given that John Guare claims to be a “news junkie who (has) learned new respect for this hopeless, joyous, endless addiction” that motivates reporters to do their jobs well (Shaw Magazine 2012). Perhaps it’s that they are such caricatures, so farcical, that they remind the audience that for all of the failings of the contemporary news media, they are far from this bunch of hard-boiled cynics. The life of a newspaper reporter is the dramatic equivalent of farce.
Guare bases much of his production on The Front Page but added the spiciness of romance from His Girl Friday. That was a creation of director Howard Hawks in 1940 when he transformed the male reporter, Hildy Johnson, into a woman (played by Rosalind Russell), who had recently divorced her editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant).
Her post-divorce epiphany is she wants a ‘real life’ – a stable, bucolic, domestic setting with children – a life that everyone agrees is incompatible with the journalistic life.
The screwball comedy sealed the idea that ‘real reporters’ are married to the newspaper with that tension playing out through their ‘can’t live with him/her, can’t live without them’ battle-of-the-sexes relationship.
The hilarity is intended to come from using a female reporter — an absurd notion in 1940, when few women worked in newsrooms. And Hildy Johnson was a star. While her colleagues sat around playing cards instead of digging up stories, she demonstrated she was a superb reporter: finding facts, thinking up new angles, and dropping everything – including running away with her new fiancé – to get the big scoop.
‘Ms.’ Hildy Johnson has been much admired by critics such as Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 1974) for blazing trails: Hildy’s blending of traditional notions of beauty and feminine vulnerability with masculine traits such as toughness and competence.
At the same time, while I’m not suggesting the female Hildy in the film is literally transgendered, she is actually operating as a man. She calls herself a “newspaperman” and her colleagues agree she is performing a man’s job in competition with other men and doing it much better.
So, since 1940, the hilarity of the film was gender confusion at the sheer absurdity that a woman could be an accomplished journalist.
Certainly this presented John Guare with a challenge in the 21st century, since most newsrooms in the Western world are packed with successful female journalists and even more in journalism schools. The absurdity of a female Hildy wasn’t going to provoke a comedic reaction. The Shaw’s Hildy (Nicole Underhay) slyly insinuates herself into the press room with little ambiguity. Her femininity goes almost unnoticed although much of the script from the original productions remains.
Much of the comedic tension in the original film derives from the crisp and rollicking cut and parry between Hildy and her now ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-boss, Walter Burns: a despicable master manipulator with an intoxicating ruthlessness.
In 1940, Cary Grant exhalted the role of the newspaper editor. But at the Shaw (played by Benedict Campbell) we can’t swoon over Grant’s charm, so the character’s power has been reduced. The implication is that the power of the press, once enjoyed by so few and only those in control at the top, has dissipated, too, in this great democratization of communication.
The rapture and sexual energy between Hildy and Walter that captivated audiences in 1940 is less focused as well. While the film celebrated a damaging relationship as a happy union, the fact that it fizzles on stage in 2012 suggests that dynamic no longer works for journalism either.
Barris, Alex. Stop the Presses! The newspaperman in American Films. Cranbury, New York:A.S. Barnes &Co., 1976.
Fetherling, Doug. The Five Lives of Ben Hecht. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Ltd, 1977.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
Shaw Magazine, Shaw Festival for Memebers), Spring 2012, Niagara-on-the-Lake