We see the busy office of a newspaper. A man and a woman emerge from the elevator, and a boy at the front desk enthusiastically greets the woman as “Hildy.” Hildy approaches two receptionists and sarcastically asks them if “the lord of the universe” is in. When they tell her that he is in a bad mood, she tells them that she’ll let herself in, and goes back to tell her companion, a man named Bruce, to wait for her there. “Even 10 minutes is a long time to be away from you,” he tells her bashfully, and she smiles at him and tells him that he spoils her. “The gentleman I’m about to see didn’t spoil me much,” she says to him. When Bruce offers to go with her, she tells him she’ll be alright on her own and leaves Bruce behind to wait for her. Hildy walks through the office, where she is greeted enthusiastically by most everyone. She goes into an office, where a man is shaving his face and another man sits on his desk. “Your ex-wife is here, do you want to see her?” Hildy asks. Turning around, the man greets her, and she says hello back to him—his name is Walter. She also greets Louie, the man sitting on the desk, and asks him about his gambling luck. Another man, Duffy, enters the office and tells Walter that a governor lifted a reprieve. When Walter asks Duffy to get the governor on the phone and tell him that the paper will support the governor’s run for the Senate, Duffy protests, arguing, “We’ve been a Democrat paper for over 20 years!” Walter assures him that once they get the reprieve, they will become a Democratic paper once again.
Duffy and Louie leave, and Hildy asks Walter for a cigarette. Walter asks her how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, and she figures it’s been about 4 months. They engage in some back-and-forth repartee. Each teasingly accuses the other of missing the relationship that they once had. Hildy recalls something that Walter said to her on the night he proposed, and informs him that if she remembered what he had said that night she wouldn’t have divorced him. Walter tells her that he wishes she hadn’t divorced him, that “it makes a fellow lose all faith in himself…almost gives him a feeling he wasn’t wanted." “That’s what divorces are for!” she insists, and Walter jokes that she has an “old-fashioned idea of divorce,” that it’s meant to last “till death do us part.” When Walter tells Hildy, “we’ve got something between us nothing can change,” Hildy agrees with him in a deadpan manner and tells him, “I am fond of you, you know…I only wish you weren’t such a stinker.” She then confronts him about the fact that he promised not to resist the divorce, yet has tried to bar it from happening since it became official. She recalls that he had an airplane write in the sky, “Hildy, don’t be hasty, remember my dimple, Walter.” When he resists, she reminds him of their failed honeymoon, that he had to follow a new story about a collapsed coal mine instead of spending time with her.
Walter resists, insisting that their newspaper beat the whole country to the news story about the coal mine, with Hildy telling him, “That isn’t what I got married for!” Hildy then becomes serious, asking Walter to stop calling her and sending her dozens of telegrams everyday. He offers her her job back at the paper, telling her, “If we find we can’t get along in a friendly fashion, we’ll get married again!” This odd logic stops Hildy, who gets increasingly angry, before announcing that she has moved on, that Walter is no longer her husband or boss, that she is not coming back to work at the paper. He glibly jokes that she worked at the paper for 2 years, before proposing to him one night when he was intoxicated. Infuriated, Hildy throws her purse at Walter, but he ducks in time to pick up a phone call coming through. “Sweeney, what can I do for you?” he says, but the man on the other end is not Sweeney at all, but the harried employee, Duffy. Walter makes a big show of talking to “Sweeney” for Hildy’s benefit, while a confused Duffy listens on the other end of the line.
Walter hangs up abruptly, feigning disappointment, and as Hildy fixes her makeup in a personal mirror, she asks him what’s wrong. He lies and tells her that Sweeney isn’t able to complete a writing project because his wife is having a baby. When Hildy asks him if he has anyone else on the paper who can cover for Sweeney, he assures her that he doesn’t and that it could really hurt the paper, unless…Hildy becomes immediately indignant, realizing that Walter is trying to get her to work for the paper again. When he insists more, telling her to do it for the love of the paper and offering her a salary raise, she comes out with the news that she is engaged to someone new. Walter is astonished to see the engagement ring on Hildy’s finger, as she tells him that she plans to get “…far away from the newspaper business.” Walter accepts that she is entitled to get married if she wants, but he does not accept her intentions to quit the newspaper business, reminding her that she cares too much about journalism to simply leave it behind. “You’re a newspaper man!” he tells her, to which she responds, “That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go somewhere where I can be a woman.” Walter will not take no for an answer, and insists to Hildy that she is a journalist. Hildy becomes incensed, telling Walter that the life of a journalist is not a respectable life, and that she has to leave the chaotic and underpaid life of a journalist behind.
“Where’d you meet this man?” he asks her. She tells him that they met in Bermuda and that her new finance works in insurance. Walter demeans the fact that she is with someone with such a dull job, but Hildy insists that he is good to her and that he pays attention to her, unlike Walter, who treated her like “an errand boy.” “He wants a home and children,” Hildy tells Walter, to which Walter responds, “Sounds like a guy I ought to marry.” She tells Walter that his name is Bruce Baldwin and that they are marrying the following day. Walter is disturbed to hear that the wedding is so soon, as Hildy wishes him goodbye and starts to leave the office. Before she can go, Walter stops her and wishes her well, before asking to meet Bruce Baldwin, who she tells him is waiting for her in the hall. Hildy is uncomfortable with the idea, but Walter insists, donning a fedora, and going out into the hall to meet Bruce. Walter goes and greets a much older gentleman as Bruce. As the real Bruce goes over to introduce himself to Walter, Walter ignores him until Bruce tells him firmly that he is the man Walter is looking for. Dismissing the older man, Walter introduces himself to Bruce, shaking his hand and apologizing for the mix-up. He tells Bruce (and Hildy) that Hildy made it sound as though she was marrying a much older man. Hildy looks unamused, as Walter points out Bruce’s umbrella (in spite of the nice weather) and mock-admires the man’s pragmatism. Walter then announces to Bruce and Hildy that he is going to take them both to lunch. “Wasting your time, won’t do a bit of good,” Hildy says to Walter under her breath as they leave the newspaper office.
They arrive at lunch, where Hildy greets the waiter, whom she knows, and they take their seats. They all order lunch and Walter asks Bruce how he feels about marrying Hildy. As Bruce details his admiration for Hildy, and his love of her unpredictability and intelligence, Walter informs him that he’s not only getting a great wife, but a “great newspaper man.” Bruce asks Hildy if she is sure she wants to quit the newspaper business, before remembering that Hildy told him that she looks forward to being treated like a “human being.” When Walter asks where the couple will be living, Bruce informs him that they are going to move to Albany, where they will live with his mother for the first year. Laughing hysterically, Walter recalls a visit the couple took to Albany years back, awkwardly detailing their former love affair in front of Bruce. Bruce goes on to tell him that Albany is a good insurance town, where people take out insurance early, to which Walter quips, “Well I can see why they would.” As Walter obliquely makes fun of the insurance business, Hildy’s kicks him under the table. Gus, the waiter, asks if anyone would like rum in their coffee. Hildy and Walter take him up on it, but Bruce insists that he doesn’t want any. Hildy then tells Walter that they are leaving at 4PM for Albany.
From the start His Girl Friday is packed to the gills with witty and fast-paced dialogue. True to its designation as a “screwball comedy,” the film wastes no time in setting its relentless pace. The setting, a newspaper, is naturally buzzing with activity and a plucky atmosphere of hard work and ingenuity. Receptionists answer calls, writers scramble to get their stories, and editors make cutthroat decisions. The two central characters, Hildy and Walter, are each exceptionally quick-witted and fast-talking, delivering zingers and one-liners at an impressive speed. Walter is a man who knows what he wants from his paper, telling Duffy to support a Republican candidate in order to get financial support in spite of the paper having Democratic leanings. He knows what it takes to be a successful paper, and he is not above doing whatever it takes to stay on top. Likewise, Hildy is a woman who knows how to get things done. She is strong-willed and competent, clearly well-respected and well-liked around the office.
In spite of their recent divorce, the couple seems overwhelmingly compatible, each firing off jokes and witty retorts without skipping a beat. One can easily see why they were married, and perhaps just as easily see why they divorced. Each are strong-willed and somewhat combative, stubborn in their convictions and stalwart in their pursuit of success and victory. Perhaps what makes them such compatible mates is also what drove them apart: their desire for a worthy adversary and their personal belief in their own rightness. Their discussion of divorce is particularly amusing, with Walter framing it as a sort of temporary inconvenience, rather than a permanent reality. He tells her that it “almost gives him a feeling he wasn’t wanted.” Indeed, divorce is precisely about no longer wanting the relationship in question and about abandonment. Walter hides his hurt through a witty joke, almost physically unable to feel the emotions that the divorce has made him feel. He goes on to jokingly characterize divorce much in the same way that people typically characterize marriage. He tells Hildy that by divorcing him and feeling sure about it, she is treating divorce in a rather “old-fashioned” way. He accuses her of wanting to be divorced from him “till death do us part,” a turn of phrase that is usually applied to marriage itself. Their playfulness and clear enjoyment of each other, even in their discussion of divorce, is testament to their compatibility.
The difficulty of their marriage had to do with Walter tendency to overworking, his desire to follow a hot news story in favor of spending romantic time with Hildy. In His Girl Friday, marriage is at odds with work, and a successful marriage cannot be de-prioritized for the good of the paper. Walter is determined to break the most important news stories in real time, but as we learn in this portion of the film, in the past that has come at the expense of such momentous occasions as his own honeymoon. Walter is a man addicted to work, and it often left Hildy nonplussed. Not only that, but their entire relationship seems as though it was wrapped up in the work that they did together. Walter admires Hildy’s work ethic and competence, and it was these very qualities that led him to fall in love with her in the first place. These competing circumstances—his admiration for her as a journalist, and his neglect for her as a wife—took a toll on their relationship. He wanted a business partner more than he wanted a wife, which only weakened their connection.
From the start, a major theme of His Girl Friday is gender. As is typical of the romantic comedy genre, men and women are presented as both complementary and at odds in this film. Walter’s workaholism drove Hildy away, and Hildy’s frustration with the working world has only made her want to become a wife all the more. Walter’s attraction to Hildy lies in what he perceives to be her ambition and her ability to keep up with him in the male-dominated working world. He even goes so far as to call her a “newspaperman.” Walter feels as though he has power over Hildy because he knows how much she loves to work at the newspaper, and her enjoyment of the newspaper makes her more or less male in his eyes. Hildy responds, “That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go somewhere where I can be a woman.” In the world of His Girl Friday, the working world is made for men, while a domestic life is for women. Hildy and Walter’s love-hate relationship is indicative of this simultaneously repellant and attractive relationship between the two genders and the two spheres of life. Walter believes in Hildy as a working woman, insisting that she is a journalist, in spite of her desire to leave the newspaper business, but she struggles to see this calling for herself, and perceives his professional attitudes towards her as revealing his perception of her as less than a woman.
Hildy wants respectability. Her idea of being treated respectfully as a woman is essentially the desire to be treated with respect and delicacy, to be shown a certain amount of chivalrous regard, to be waited for and doted after with care. As we learn when the trio goes to lunch, Hildy sees the opportunity to settle down and become a wife as the opportunity to actually be a “human being.” In her eyes, being a working woman is not only not fun because Walter doesn’t treat her with much care, but it also is somewhat dehumanizing. The opportunity to live at home and to be a doting wife to an equally doting husband is the complete opposite of her life as a “newspaperman.” Her desire to be Bruce’s wife, however uncreative and dull he may be in comparison to Walter, is connected to her desire for a more dignified existence. Her equation of womanhood with domesticity and chivalry strikes a contrast with the feminism of later years, in which women fought tirelessly to be treated equally to men in the workplace.