In Praise of Hildy and HIS GIRL FRIDAY
A raven-haired beauty. She’s a tall drink of water and commands the room with her confidence and radiance, with a wit as sharp as her perfectly slanted hat and Kalloch suit. Only Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson could go toe-to-toe with Cary Grant as charismatic Walter in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940).
His Girl Friday (1940) stands out amongst the crowd pleasers of the screwball comedy classics. As a reminder, here are some of the signature elements of the subgenre of Screwball Comedy:
- plots involving courtship, marriage or remarriage
- love triangles
- fast-paced action, dialogue and/or repartee
- chase or escapist themes
- farcical, if not ridiculous, situations (often caught in a jam/tight spot)
- elements of slapstick, origins in physical comedy
- parody of the romantic comedy
- quirky character actors
- social class struggles/differences
- female is usually upper-class socialite or heiress
- male is less dominant, frustrated
- both male and female in the couple are frequently eccentric
- hints of reversal of stereotypical gender roles
- mistaken identification, mix-ups
- and most of all, overall tone of confusion and chaos
As you can see from the above list, this film doesn’t check a few boxes, but a majority will do. We’ll forgive Hildy for not being a scatterbrained heiress as typical in screwballs because this more empowered female role, accompanied with lightning speed dialogue and constant laughs, is absolutely brilliant.
Hawks frames the newspaper world via a love triangle of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), his ex and once star reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), and her new beau Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). The madcap pace begins when Hildy arrives at the paper to persuade her ex to finally sign their divorce agreement. Hildy is motivated – she’s now engaged to sweetly gullible and somewhat slow-witted Bruce. He’s stable, dull and naïve so he’s the very opposite to clever, cunning and exciting Walter.
Wrapped in the guise of a funny take on remarriage, this film is very much a bluntly cynical look into the newspaper game. Written by Charles Lederer, based on the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the script packs a punch in every scene. To infuse more humor into the final draft, Hawks called in Morrie Ryskind to finesse the dialogue. According to imdb: Morrie “gave the film another ending, in which Burns and Hildy are married in the newsroom then immediately start fighting, leading one of the guests to comment “I think it’s going to turn out all right this time.” Unfortunately, Ryskind revealed this ending to other writers at the studio, and before the film could go into production, another picture was shot with the same ending.” Hildy gives her biting retort on the downside on the lifestyle of an ace reporter as she announces her departure:
“Next time you see me, I should be riding in a Rolls Royce giving interviews on success…So long you wage-slaves…When you’re crawling up fire escapes and getting kicked out of front doors, and eating Christmas dinners in one-armed joints, don’t forget your pal, Hildy Johnson!”
Pay close attention, because from the get-go, you almost miss hilarious snaps of fast-paced zingers. In addition to the spectacular performances, it’s the writing that makes this film particularly memorable. Here’s a fun sampling…
Walter Burns: “There’s been a light burning in the window for you!”
Hildy Johnson: “I jumped out that window a long time ago, Walter.”
Upon more than one occasion, the writing goes nearly campy as the actors are called out by their real names: Walter: [describing Bruce] He looks like, uh, that fellow in the movies, you know, uh, Ralph Bellamy.”
There’s also a reference to a ‘mock turtle’ which was the role of Cary Grant in Alice in Wonderland (1933) and he even recalls a fella named “Archie Leach” (Grant’s real name).
Early on, the chemistry of their sparring ignites with crisp wit and unrelentless charm. We know immediately that dullard Bruce could never compete with Walter. More importantly, Hildy could never settle.
Walter pulls Hildy back into the fray of her former career with an exciting scoop – a man who faces the gallows and a jail break. Her quick-on-her-feet thinking may lead to saving this man’s life. But will her instinctive nose for news be too strong to save her engagement?
There’s a physicality to this romantic comedy that appeals to slapstick fans, which fits perfectly with Grant and Russell as our sparring duo lashes out turbo tongues of dialogue. While a typical conversation on film would deliver 100 words per minute, His Girl Friday clocks in at 240 words per minute. It remains one of the most notable examples of the best overtalking in celluloid history. Their chemistry is authentic as an old married couple, and we root for them because it’s undeniable that Hildy and Walter are cut from the same cloth.
Will Hildy find true love by choosing Walter over Bruce? That’s debatable. No doubt Bruce is not up to her speed and Walter is. But I like to believe that Hildy is smarter and more talented than all of them and perhaps being a writer – as a single, career woman who can create her own destiny – is actually the best outcome for our Hildy Johnson. At least, that’s how I enjoy fantasizing an alternate plot twist.
Hildy Johnson is a powerhouse of a character for female empowerment, especially for a 1940 cinematic landscape. A female star reporter was a rare sight in that male-dominated industry of that time, where few women worked outside the home beyond domestic workers. To this day, she remains one of my personal favorites for women role models in the movies.
I’ll leave you with an example of how Hildy holds her own (as she debates what future she will decide for herself):
“Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee! There ain’t gonna be any interview and there ain’t gonna be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. And if I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong! [she tears up her story] Do you hear that? That’s the story I just wrote. Yes, yes, I know we had a bargain. I just said I’d write it. I didn’t say I wouldn’t tear it up. It’s all in little pieces now, Walter, and I hope to do the same for you some day. [to newsroom] And that my friends, is my farewell to the newspaper game. I’m gonna be a woman, not a news-getting machine. I’m gonna have babies and take care of them. Give ’em cod liver oil and watch their teeth grow.”
Give ‘em hell, Hildy!
If you’d like to watch His Girl Friday for free, you can do so at the Classic Movie Hub Channel at Best Classics Ever. Every month, we’ll be curating our own selection of classics that fans can watch for free. No need to do a 7-day trial, just hit play and enjoy! This is part of our long-term partnership with BCE.
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).
Stream His Girl Friday for free here, just hit play and enjoy. No need for 7-day trial.