Thursday, November 17, 2011

Journalistic time capsule: His Girl Friday

In researching my current work-in-progress, which takes place in the late 1930s and includes a scene in a newsroom, I checked out "His Girl Friday" from the library and watched it last night. Fantastic movie. I loved it, even while I was appalled at some of the journalistic practices that the characters took as commonplace.

I don't know whether the portrayal of newspapers is accurate for 1940. It might be as accurate as, say, "Never Been Kissed" was to the 1990s. (A copy editor has a private office? And a personal assistant? And she wants to be promoted to being a reporter? Give me a break!) But seeing as I was not alive in 1940 and don't know anyone personally who worked in newspapers in 1940, I'm using this as source material.

A few things that stuck out:

1. Technology, or lack thereof. They use candlestick telephones, and there are two ladies who work a newsroom switchboard. To call someone is sometimes referred to as "sending a wire." Whenever a character picks up a phone, he/she tells an operator how to direct the call. The reporters all write on unwieldy typewriters. The newsroom is plastered with actual paper, everywhere. Nowadays, there's little paper involved in putting out a newspaper; it's all done on computers.

2. Ethics? What's that? The two main characters Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy (Rosalind Russell) work for a newspaper with a democratic leaning. Today, that would mean the editorial pages take a political slant. Back then, it meant the newsroom did, too. Editor in chief Walter advocates for the state's governor and is determined to force the city's mayor out of office. No one even pays lip service to what is a critical part of the profession today: that journalists are neutral observers. Then there's Hildy, who bribes her way to every scoop she gets. Talk about a corrupt system.

3. Treatment of women. To be fair, the men in this movie treat Hildy pretty much the same as they treat one another. She is referred to as a "newspaper man" over and over. It's Hildy herself who sells herself short. She wants to leave the newspaper business, get married, settle down and pop out some babies - what she calls a "normal life." I know, I know. This was the norm for women during that era. But I still grind my teeth over the idea that a man can have a career and a family, but a woman cannot. She has to choose one or the other.

This movie seriously feels like a cinematic time capsule, but that's what I was after and so watching it was a good use of my time. Plus, it was just darn entertaining.

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