After receiving rave reviews for her lightning fast, electric performance in the screwball comedy His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell had established herself as one of film’s best comediennes. She was on top of the world and although she resented being “everyone’s fifteenth choice” when she was chosen for His Girl Friday, she was becoming first choice for the popular “career woman” comedies. The downside of this is that she would be typecast in the same type of role throughout the 1940s. Fortunately for movie fans, she enjoyed doing these comedies, even if she didn’t share the same ideals with her career woman counterpart. She wrote in an article in the Los Angeles Times, 1957: “It is simply to keep the goal of marriage and family always ahead of the job.” She’s speaking about the way a career woman can be happy, have a great career, and keep love in her life. Rosalind was incredibly ambitious in her career, but she was never as big a star as some others (Joan Crawford is a great example) partly because she made sacrifices to keep her home life happy and enduring. She started to freelance after she was married because she didn’t want to “belong” to the studio day and night.
She could pick her own films when they came her way and figure out for herself if it was a good idea to take on the project, her husband (and eventually child) always first on her mind. No matter how she felt about these career women she played, she played them damn well. From her first role as a career woman (Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday) to her next ten or so similar roles in her career, she characterized them perfectly. The careers of these women may have varied in the fields in which they worked, but the films almost always started with “My career is the only thing that matters. I don’t have time for love” to ending with “Oh, I love you, darling” as she looks at the man with doe eyes, now wearing a lacy negligee.
In her second such role, the job of her character didn’t seem so important (a secretary), but as the audience observes how fantastically she controls every facet of her boss’s life, it is obvious how important she is. Hired Wife was also the first time Rosalind Russell was teamed with Brian Aherne, and most exciting of all, it was the first time since making Craig’s Wife in 1936 that Rosalind was billed above her leading man. It is a shame that it took this long for her to get this recognition, but at last it had come! She was a star, a star on fire.
When Hired Wife commences, we first see Rosalind (as Kendal Browning) jauntily walking down the street to her job, looking free as a bird. Suddenly, the first voice you hear is coming from a friend of hers from Argentina, José. As he graciously asks her if he can “lift her” (give her a lift), she hops inside the car and you can see right away they have a fun relationship. But as the film progresses, Kendal seems to have a fun relationship with everyone, talking freely to all. As José explains that he’s lost another rich girlfriend, she asks him, “What happened, according to you?” As he tells her that she didn’t want to spoil their beautiful friendship, Kendal laughs, calling him by his full name Señor Don José Antonio de Fragoza de Briganza. He confesses that he has “catch a cold in the feet.” Kendal, who is in love with her boss, Stephen Dexter, explains that José was born with a flower in his buttonhole, but when Stephen starts feeling all romantic, usually falling for some blonde, she can’t stand to watch it. In this very first scene, it is amazing to watch Rosalind closely as she involuntarily (I am so sure of this at this point) widens and narrows her eyes in reaction to what her partner is saying. Rosalind was born to do comedy. She had been practicing it ever since she crossed her eyes as a child to get attention.
Kendal arrives at work and as she crosses the room to get to the back office, it is very reminiscent of the first scene of His Girl Friday. I couldn’t help but think of her newspaperwoman role as she passes everyone, saying hello, making small talk with them as she goes. As she enters her office, she passes her own secretary, a timid little man named William (Hobart Cavanaugh). Yes, Roz towers over him, as she does many of the characters actors in her films. Kendal is a bit apprehensive because it is about springtime and she knows it is around this time that Stephen starts humming the song “Juanita” and looking for a new blonde to go ga-ga over. As she goes into Stephen’s office with her pad and pencil, she first asks William if Stephen is wearing anything (meaning a flower in the buttonhole), but William just stares back at her, confused. Now we meet Stephen Dexter, played by Brian Aherne, whom I always thought was physically a great match for Roz because of his 6 feet 3 inches. His trademark characteristics include his British accent and his mustache. As the film progresses, it is wonderful to see how well Brian’s straight man persona bounces off Rosalind’s hilarious antics. Considering this is their first teaming (of four), I think they mesh together quite well. Immediately, Kendal is controlling everything Stephen does, and we, the audience, get the feeling that this is what she does every day. She tells him everything he will do today and at what time.
He asks her, “Then can I go home?” She replies, “Yes, after you’ve had a haircut.” She’s beaming because he’s acting like his usual self. So far, so good. Unfortunately, when he needs a pin to attach the flower to his buttonhole, she knows it’s trouble. She takes a pin from William, who is cooing over a bird on the windowsill.
William: Tweet, tweet, tweet. Tweet, tweet, tweet!
Kendal: Ah, shut up!
When Kendal comes back, Stephen is gazing at a billboard across the way with a beautiful blonde on it while humming “Juanita.” Oh, no, the time has come. For the advertising campaign for his company, Dexter Cement, Stephen suddenly has girls on his mind as he decides to change everything. He wants to use a girl in the ad, something feminine that doesn’t even seem to match his product. However, that’s what he wants. As Kendal keeps interjecting with suggestions, he ignores her and wants to find a girl right away. He wants the girl on the billboard he was staring at. He orders Kendal to find her, and Kendal is less than happy in doing so.
Stephen: (talking about the new campaign) It must be warm and it must be human.
Kendal: The cement you love to touch!
Stephen: Kendal, who is that girl?
Kendal: Well… I don’t know her name, but her face is on the canned tomatoes I use.
Next thing you know, Kendal is at Phyllis Walden’s (Virginia Bruce) door, wanting her for a posing job. Acting like someone who is too important to bother with anything Kendal says, she says, “Phone me sometime next week, but not before 11.” She asks if it will be a big campaign, and as Kendal looks Phyllis up and down, she responds, “I think it’ll be one of his biggest.” The hostility between Kendal and Phyllis is immediate and strong. Phyllis can tell what kind of woman Kendal is, so she secretly has lunch with Stephen the next day without Kendal’s knowledge.
Kendal: William… back to the keys!
Phyllis and Stephen like each other right away and it’s apparent that Phyllis will be Stephen’s Spring Blonde. A laugh-out-loud moment occurs when he explains to Phyllis that his secretary suggested using an elephant as a symbol of strength for his advertising campaign. “Strength doesn’t appeal to men. Now take me. I’m a man. Well, here’s a picture of you (holds out his left palm toward her) and here’s an elephant! (holds out his right palm near an overweight man at the next table, who stares at him in disbelief) Oh, sorry, I was just illustrating a point.” And the comedy doesn’t stop there. Kendal calls Phyllis up and the phone is given to her. Kendal informs her that the posing job is off, that Stephen changed his mind, and too bad. He left for Chicago this morning and there’s no way he will change his mind again. Not knowing that Stephen is sitting next to Phyllis, she has no idea she’s being laughed at. Phyllis squeezes the phone between her and Stephen so they can both listen to Kendal as she explains exactly what Stephen said to her:
Kendal: He said, “You call up Miss Goofy Face and tell her she can’t peddle her pan to Steve Dexter.” It’s just that women are things to him. He said, “Listen, kid, scrap that ‘girl on the bag’ idea.”
Phyllis: The cad! Are those his exact words?
Kendal: Oh, I never quote Mr. D’s exact words. I had such bitter notes from the telephone company.
In order to get back at Kendal for what she did to him, Stephen returns to the office, speaking little snippets of Kendal’s exact words on the phone: “Sorry, kid.” “Oh, I suppose they were flying to Chicago, too.” “That ‘girl on the bag’ stuff is out. She can’t peddle her pan to Steve Dexter. Eh, kid?” As soon as he utters that last line, Kendal knows exactly what’s going on and closes her eyes painfully, making a face. They get into a shouting argument, Kendal angry that he “dated her behind my back!” Finally, she gives up and says she’ll let him do whatever he wants. She doesn’t care. She leaves his office and this funny exchange happens:
Kendal: I won’t stop you. I’m through!
Stephen: That’s better.
Kendal: For me, not for you. Close it, butch!
Meanwhile, some men from a big company with big bucks are trying to buy Stephen out. Both companies had put a bid in on a subway job and Stephen won the bid fair and square. The bigwigs want to file an injunction and eventually bankrupt Dexter Cement. They threaten that they will tie up everything he owns and knowing they’re fighting dirty, Stephen makes a speech, proclaiming, “I’m going to be foolish and fight [you men].” As he gives this speech, it is evident how much Kendal loves him. Anyone can see it in her eyes. Later in the office, Kendal, Stephen, and his lawyer Roger Van Horn (Robert Benchley) start kicking around ideas to get out of this mess. They finally get an idea when William comes in, mentioning that his wife makes him put everything he owns in her name. They all decide Stephen has to get married right away. And who else would Stephen pick but Phyllis? Kendal is upset because she doesn’t want Stephen to marry a woman who doesn’t love him. Once Stephen marries, they will put everything he owns in his wife’s name in order to escape trouble from the opposing company.
Kendal: (About marrying in New York) No use. You have to wait three days in New York.
Roger: The law says 72 hours.
Kendal: My mistake.
As Kendal objects to Stephen marrying Phyllis, he shouts out to her, “You know how to talk to a woman!” Sadly, she says, “Yes…” But immediately her face lights up, getting a bright idea: “Yes!”
Kendal (Talking about Phyllis) Well, I can’t drag her here by her phony eyelashes!
When Kendal visits Phyllis to tell her Stephen needs a wife for business purposes, she subtly hints that Stephen is basically buying her as a wife and it is purely a business arrangement. Phyllis begins to believe Kendal is making up ridiculous stories and gets angry: “Silly-looking, aren’t you?” “Uh-huh!” “Oh, I love your lies. They’re not very good, but they’re very, very funny.” She tells her she intends to marry Stephen eventually, but not now.
Phyllis: You were born to be a cop, and the only way you’ll ever get a man is by arresting him!
Once Kendal arrives at the airport without Phyllis, Roger and Stephen suddenly get the idea that Stephen should marry Kendal. They can trust her and she’s a woman. That’s all they need. When they get to South Carolina to marry, they watch a young couple in love being married before them. Kendal’s eyes fill with tears at the magical, happy scene before her, and at the same time, her tears are for her and Stephen because their marriage will be a sham—one without love on both sides.
Nevertheless, they do get married and when they arrive at Stephen’s house, he signs some papers that Roger has ready for him. Roger, who keeps falling asleep mumbling nonsense and snoring, is sent home by Kendal, who promises to take a taxi home. As Stephen goes into the kitchen to get Kendal and himself glasses of buttermilk, Kendal lights a cigarette, looking around the room. Suddenly, she feels the wedding ring on her left hand and frowns, wondering what she got herself into. As Stephen and Kendal sip their buttermilk, which they both loathe, they laugh and pour it into the dirt of a potted plant. Now that he is married to her, Stephen thinks they can do anything a married couple would do. He kisses her, but as he leans in close to her face again, she stops him, telling him that she is a liar and she didn’t become his wife honestly. He now knows how Kendal manipulated Phyllis and he gets angry. As she walks into the living room, she shouts, “Besides, I don’t like being kissed by a man who keeps his eyes closed!” “Well, they’re open now!” As she makes her way to the front door, he tells her she’s fired. She says, “Yes, Stephen,” turns, and leaves.
Fortunately for Kendal, she knows that Stephen can’t possibly get on without her. Predictably, he comes to her home the next morning as she hums happily, making popovers in the kitchen. They go back to the office, but not before Kendal takes a hat off the refrigerator, puts it on her head, unzips her dress to reveal a “work” dress underneath, and informs him that he’s coming with her. And he utters that repeated line: “Oh, Kendal, what am I gonna do about you?” They look in the paper for their marriage announcement, which they discover is on the sports page. Stephen plans to keep dating Phyllis in spite of his marital status and Kendal just laughs about it because he hasn’t told Phyllis yet (“She isn’t conscious before 11”) and he isn’t single (legally) anymore. Right before they arrive at work, he says to her, “I wish I could afford to strangle you.” No words are necessary. She simply smiles at him with a funny giggle in her throat. It is funny, adorable, and perfect.
Kendal: (reading the marriage announcement) Oh, the fools! Don’t they read the proof? I’m not 92!
Kendal: (talking about Stephen and Phyllis) You two are going to have cozy evening, chatting about your bachelor days.
Kendal: (talking about Phyllis) I’m sure she doesn’t read anything but the cold cream ads… IF she can read.
In the office, the employees have arranged a celebration of their marriage with flowers abound. Phyllis arrives, wanting to see Stephen. She doesn’t know about the recent marriage and when Stephen goes out to see her, he tries to hide the celebration from her. But when she sees rice come off him, she stomps into the office. Kendal sees her and for Phyllis’ benefit, she mentions Stephen as her husband twice. Another visitor comes into the office. This time it’s José, Kendal’s friend. He mistakes two men for Kendal’s new husband, even kissing Roger on the forehead, which he doesn’t seem to like. Kendal and Roger are sure the marriage will be found out to be a fake, so they decide Kendal should move in with Stephen. Roger also moves in as a sort of “chaperon” for Kendal. Kendal moves into Stephen’s bedroom and he moves in with Roger in the other bedroom. Roger plays a little ukulele and starts singing “Little Brown Jug” as Stephen moves all his clothes and things into the other bedroom. Stephen joins in at the “HA, HA, HA!” parts, which is amusing.
The next evening, Stephen takes Phyllis out. Kendal makes sure to show up, inviting José along. They intrude on Stephen and Phyllis and sit at their table.
José: Is she a blonde?
Kendal: This year.
José: Is she a very blonde blonde?
Kendal: She’s almost invisible.
As Stephen dances with Phyllis on the dance floor, José and Kendal concoct a plan for José to seduce Phyllis to get her out of the picture. Kendal will supply all the money to José to woo her and it would be a secret between them. When Kendal and Stephen start dancing, they have to smile and keep up appearances, even though they are saying insulting things to each other. What follows is a tender, sad scene. Kendal may be all fun and games, wisecracking all day, but when she gets home at night, she cries herself to sleep. You can’t help but feel sorry for her!
And so the love triangle starts between Stephen, Phyllis, and José as they both battle to woo her almost every day. Meanwhile, Kendal is writing checks for all of José expenses. One night, she is doing this and Stephen comes home. She puts a check in his hand and pretends José was leaving anyway. He leaves Kendal and Stephen alone in the house.
Kendal: But José, $75 for one bird?
José: It talks.
Kendal: Well, for that amount of money, it ought to read, write, and vote.
Stephen tells Kendal that the big guys backed down and he wants a divorce now. He is nice about it. He gives her a check and a plane ticket to go take a vacation. She responds by ripping them up, not intending to do anything of the sort. She likes being Mrs. Stephen Dexter. She runs out on the terrace, bangs on the table loudly, shouting “Yoo-hoooooo, yoo-hoooo!” She wakes up Roger and Stephen tells him he wants a divorce, but Kendal isn’t willing to give him one. After Roger tells him if Kendal fights, the divorce may take years, Stephen gets angry. “Oh, you like being Mrs. Stephen Dexter, eh?” He backs her straight into a bench and they fall down on it hard. He violently kisses her all over, not letting go of her. She screams, “Mother!” as if her mother could come whisking by and save her. He even knocks an earring out in the process and Stephen yells out to Roger: “How can I get rid of this woman?” “Not that way.” Roger says he will testify to an annulment, that there never really was a marriage in the first place.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t go well for Stephen. Kendal leaves that night for her home, but Roger is not aware of this. However, he does see Stephen leave their bedroom for his own that was once occupied by Kendal. As he watches him sneak in there, he assumes he’s going in there to sleep with Kendal. The next morning, Stephen is happy as a clam and Roger is very suspicious of him. Kendal comes back, running up the stairs to get her clothes. Neither of the men know she is there. She listens in on Roger’s suspicions from the upstairs window and gets an idea. She lets a handkerchief fall out of the window down into Roger’s lap and he knows something’s up. When Kendal comes down for breakfast in a nightgown, Stephen knows he’s in trouble. “I already said good night to Stevie.”
The next day back at the office, Stephen and Kendal are deciding which men should be sent to different locations around the country.
Kendal: He’d be glad to get away from Denver and that little redhead.
Stephen: Oh, is she his secretary, too?
Kendal: Yeah, I see what you mean.
Kendal believes Stephen really loves her and won’t let him go.
Stephen: I promise you until I have a beard down here, I’ll never lay a hand on you… except maybe in anger.
Suddenly, Kendal is in trouble when the judge who married them in South Carolina arrives and tells them that his license expired four years ago. That means their marriage is not legal. Stephen is happy about this, but Kendal is not. After the judge leaves and Kendal realizes she’s been licked, she gets angry and before she leaves Stephen’s office, she gives his rear end a good, swift kick.
José and Phyllis arrive at the office, ready to go away to be married. José told Phyllis a tiny bit of the truth about himself, but not all. However, she does learn the truth as Roger brings in a bunch of checks made out to José. So Stephen and Phyllis try to usher José and Kendal out, knowing they both double-crossed them. Kendal tells Phyllis to just tell her two more words, pointing her two fingers at her as if to poke her eyes out. She almost does when Phyllis says emphatically: You’re pathetic!
When José and Kendal leave, Phyllis and Stephen suddenly have two conversations at once. Phyllis goes on and on about José, while Stephen does the same about Kendal. They suddenly realize they are with the wrong mate and go after José and Kendal. They find them on a double-decker bus and Stephen climbs on the bus, while José goes down into the car on the street. Stephen smiles at Kendal, glad to be with her.
Kendal: Darling… did you remember to put Kelly in Kansas City?
Stephen: Oh, Kendal, what am I going to do about you?!
A clip from the movie: