Wearing an outrageous, wacky suit with matching hat, the pattern zig zag, while holding her head high as she marches matter-of-factly into the “news room” was Rosalind Russell in the opening scene of the quintessential screwball comedy His Girl Friday. Her character, Hildy Johnson, is a woman that both men and women are wont to like. To women, she is that strong woman who is smarter, wittier, and more talented than the men around her, and that’s a woman to admire!
To men, besides her intelligence and wit, she is also an incredibly beautiful woman who can keep up with anything a man does. Even though in 1940, this might be deemed as a threat to men, I think it is ridiculous to believe all men would be threatened by a woman like Hildy Johnson, much less the actress who plays her, who was very much like her in many ways. His Girl Friday paved the way for other “career women” roles in the 1940s, which was a character that Rosalind Russell in particular perfected to the point of being typecast.
It was announced that Rosalind Russell would play the part of Hildy Johnson, who was actually a man in the original play, but the character was now a woman in this version. However, when Miss Russell first discovered she’d been chosen, but after many other actresses had turned it down for various reasons, that sassiness in her came out. She was angry that she “was everybody’s fifteenth choice,” as she put it, so she took a dip in her pool the first day of work and walked right into the studio with her hair and clothes completely soaked. Even though her next movie job had started off with some bad behavior on Rosalind’s part, after her breakout role in The Women, His Girl Friday further cemented her place as a brilliant comedienne.
Even though she was typecast as a career woman, I cannot think of any other classic actress better at this type of role, and Hildy Johnson is arguably her best one. Tell me, can anyone possibly think of anyone but Rosalind Russell in the part? I certainly cannot. It was fate that she should land this role after so many top actresses turned it down.
Sassy Roz aside, she had a ball working with Cary Grant for the first time (and sadly the only time) because they were both very adept at ad libbing and extremely talented in the art of comedy. Many Rosalind Russell fans know this story, but I will briefly mention it: Cary Grant played matchmaker in Rosalind’s life as well. He had a friend, Danish-born Frederick Brisson, who was dying to meet Roz after he heard that Cary would be working with her. Although it took a long time for him to get that coveted date and Rosalind played rather hard to get during much of their courtship, they did fall in love and get married. And who was best man at their wedding? Nobody but Cary Grant, of course! And so a 37-year-long friendship blossomed between Rosalind and Cary.
When the film opens, we (the viewers) see a barrage of reporters in the offices of the Morning Post, where Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is editor. The way the writers talk all at once, constantly overlapping each other, sets the scene for the entire movie. Rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue is a very important element of His Girl Friday and it goes on from beginning to end. I find this kind of movie to be awe-inspiring and absolutely brilliant, the two leads being the source of most of this brilliance. In fact, the film is so saturated with dialogue that there is only time and space for music during the opening and closing credits!
The first important character that makes her appearance is the one and only Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), who enters in her ziggety-zaggety suit, which I expect would be even more insane in color. She comes in with Bruce Baldwin (played by Ralph Bellamy), her fiancé. She is about to go in to talk to Walter, who is also her ex-husband besides being her boss. She saunters through the office, talking to everyone she passes. Everyone is happy to see her, cheerily saying “hello!” to her. One woman starts walking with her and informs her that her cat just had kittens again. Hildy’s response? “It’s your own fault.” Finally, she arrives at Walter’s office and knocks on the door. Grumpy, he barks at whoever is there: “What do you want?”
When he looks up and sees it’s Hildy, he changes his tone and my favorite scene has begun. As she stands there, Walter discusses with Duffy (Frank Orth), one of the men who works for him, about what they will do for the Earl Williams story in the paper. We can all see that he will do anything for a great story, even double-cross people in the process. As Duffy leaves, Hildy smirks and says, “Well, Walter, I see you’re still at it.” She tells him she needs to talk to him, but first she wants to sit down. The very subtle sexual tension and romantic chemistry becomes unmistakable as Walter pats his lap, motioning her over, and says, “There’s been a lamp burning in the window for you, honey. Here.” She barely glances at him before responding, “Oh, I jumped out that window a long time ago, Walter.” It is fun to watch as Hildy and Walter hurl insults at each other during this entire scene without Hildy able to tell him the news she intended.
Hildy: I am fond of you, you know. I often wish you weren’t such a stinker!
Hildy: Big, fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write, “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter”
It is evident that Walter was not a model husband, not even showing up for their honeymoon because his work always comes first. But even so, I think many women can understand why Hildy would fall in love with him… he looks like Cary Grant! As Walter continues to rattle off words, not allowing Hildy to get to the point, she utters a very famous line and my favorite in the film: “Oh, Walter, you’re wonderful in a loathsome sort of way.”
And that chemistry intensifies as he approaches her, touching her arms, trying to get her to stay on the paper with him. “Will you take your hands off me? What are you playing, osteopath?” “Temper, temper!” At one point, he mocks her, putting his hand on his hip effeminately, saying she kept making goo-goo eyes at him for two years in order to make him marry her. This causes a fun ad lib to erupt: Hildy throws her bag at him, which was an ad lib on Roz’s part; very quick on his feet, Cary immediately ducks and says “You’re losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that!”
There are so many elements of this beautiful first scene that make the movie. It has just the right amount of back-and-forth witty repartee, romantic chemistry, and even the more subtle dramatic reactions as Hildy shoves her engagement ring in his face and he suddenly has to think of a plan to get her not to marry this fellow, which goes to show that he still loves her.
Hildy: Scram, Svengali.
After Walter is going on and on and won’t stop talking, Hildy hits the desk with the palm of her hand, mumbles something incoherently, and cries out, “Sold, American!” a reference to a “tobacco auction,” advertising the cigarettes Lucky Strike, which always ended with this phrase being yelled out.
Hildy: Listen to me, you great, big, bubble-headed baboon!
And at this point, he is informed of her engagement and he walks out with her, intent on meeting the man. In one of those “so funny, it just about cracks your ribs” moments, Walter walks right up to an old man who may even be missing some teeth, taking him for Bruce Baldwin. The man is confused, trying to tell him his name is Pete Davis. The real Bruce Baldwin taps him on the shoulder and tells him he has the wrong man.
And with a couple hilarious lines, Cary Grant has me clutching my sides: “Who are you?” “Well, I’m Pete Davis.” “Well, Mr. Davis, is this any concern of yours? From now on, I’ll thank you to keep your nose out of my affairs!” He immediately turns around and shakes Bruce’s umbrella instead of his hand and says, “Oh, that’s wrong, isn’t it?” What a funny man he is!
Right away, Walter invites them to lunch and off they go. As they get on the elevator, Hildy talks expertly out of the corner of her mouth: “You’re wasting your time, Walter. It won’t do you a bit of good.” They eat lunch at a favorite place of Hildy’s and Walter’s, but the funny thing is that Bruce is the only one who really gets any eating done. Hildy and Walter are too busy talking their heads off to satisfy their hunger. Walter keeps trying to get Hildy to stay at least a few hours in town to write an article on Earl Williams, a timid man who shot a cop dead. Both Hildy and Walter do little things directed at each other to show the kind of relationship they have. When Hildy tries to light her cigarette, Walter immediately grabs her hand and lights his own cigarette before she gets a chance.
Something else that needs no words and that I just love: she has one fist up against her mouth and her right hand, she lays next to the fist and opens her fingers, thumbing her nose at Walter in a way. It’s perfect! But this wasn’t an ad lib she came up with on her own. Just like in The Women, she did something she shouldn’t have and she mentioned that she never did it again. She secretly hired a writer from her brother-in-law’s advertising firm to help her punch up the script.
Walter gets an idea, so he pretends to spill water on himself. He gets up, has Gus (Irving Bacon), the proprietor, help clean him up, and tells him to call him to the telephone when he gets back to the table. Once he is in the telephone booth, he speaks to Duffy and tries to think of an idea to get Hildy to stay. As Walter is talking on the telephone, at the table, Bruce, just sweet as pie, tells Hildy that Walter seems nice, to which Hildy responds, “Yeah, he ought to make some girl real happy,” then under her breath, “Slap happy.” (That was an addition by Rosalind’s hired writer).
Bruce also mentions that Walter has a lot of charm. “Yeah, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake.” When Walter comes back to the table, he tells Hildy about the Earl Williams story and how he needs “a woman’s touch” for the interview. The Morning Post is on Earl Williams’ side and also in opposition to the politicians, who keep reprieving Earl Williams for no reason other than to make his hanging closer to election time. As Hildy says about the mayor, “He’d hang his own grandmother to get re-elected.” Walter tries a few ploys to get Hildy to write the interview, but she refuses. But suddenly, she gets an idea that if she writes the interview, Walter will take out a life insurance policy with Bruce, who is an insurance salesman. “See what they’ll allow on that old carcass of his.” “Say! I’m better than I ever was.” “That was never anything to brag about.”
Next scene, while Walter is off getting a physical for the insurance policy, Hildy enters the press room at the criminal courts building, which will be pretty much the only place she will be for the rest of the film. She has on a new outfit, but still decked out in stripes with a not-so-crazy hat. This is the second and last outfit she wears in the film. Some men are outside, testing the hanging contraption for Earl Williams’ execution. One of the reporters, McCue (Roscoe Karns) tells them to keep it down because they’re all trying to work up there. A man shouts, “Ah, shut up!” Hildy’s reaction is “Very little respect for the press around here.” She gets the lowdown on Earl Williams so she has a bit of a backstory to work with before going to interview him. Bruce calls up, saying he has the check from Walter.
It is always obvious when Hildy is on the phone with Bruce because although she often speaks in a hard-boiled way, her tone changes to sugary sweet when she is talking to Bruce. Not trusting Walter at all, she tells Bruce to put the check in the lining of his hat because she knows exactly what Walter would do. Then she is off to the jail to talk to Earl Williams (played by John Qualen). After bribing the warden, Cooley (Pat West), with $20, she takes a seat next to Earl’s cell and starts to talk to him. While in other scenes, we can hardly keep up with Hildy and what she’s saying, this is by far her most toned down scene. She speaks quietly, methodically, softly.
Earl Williams is the timid sort of fellow who might be easily scared. She starts talking to him about “production for use,” which was something a person was speaking of in the park that Earl frequents. She asks him, “What’s a gun for, Earl?” “Why, to shoot, of course.” “Maybe that’s why you used it. It seems reasonable.” “That’s what a gun’s for. Maybe that’s why! Production for use!” Hildy only talks like this for Earl, for with anyone else, she speaks in her usual manner. It is a short interview, but she has her story.
When Hildy comes back to the press room to start typing up her interview, Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) is there, trying to give the reporters a piece of her mind. They have been making up stories, lying about her having a “love nest” with Earl when all she did was be nice to him. As the “typical reporter” is painted in this scene, they don’t pay her any mind and keep on with their card game. When Mollie starts crying and yells out, “They ain’t human!” Hildy helps her out of the room while saying, “I know. They’re newspapermen.” In one of the only silent moments in the film, the reporters hang their heads in shame until Hildy comes back, simply addressing them as “Gentlemen of the press” in disgust.
When she gets a call from Bruce that he’s been arrested for stealing a man’s wallet (and the man is the shady little Louie [Abner Biberman] who works for Walter, of course), she suddenly bolts out the door with all the force she has, running right into Peter B. Hartwell, the sheriff (Gene Lockhart), causing him to cry out in pain.
The newspapermen read Hildy’s story and realize she can’t leave the newspaper game—she’s just too talented. As they start making bets how long her marriage will last, an angry Hildy comes back into the room, telling them she’ll take that bet. “It’s getting so a girl can’t leave the room without being discussed by a bunch of old ladies.” She immediately gets on the phone, emphatic about leaving the newspaper business and getting married and having babies.
She asks for Walter and as soon as she is connected, she starts in on him: “Now get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee. There ain’t gonna be any interview and there ain’t gonna be any story. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up!” She puts the phone down, grabs her story out fresh out of the typewriter, and rips the pages up into little pieces within earshot of the phone. “Hear that? That’s the story I just wrote. I just said I’d write it. I didn’t say I wouldn’t tear it up!”
With that, she hangs up and gets ready to leave, expressing her pity for the other reporters in the room. The phone starts ringing again and mad as hell at this point, she uses all her strength to pull the phone right out of the wall. She speaks into the receiver: “And another thing, I… Oh!” Realizing she just pulled it out, she is a little frazzled. Just as she is about to leave, there are loud noises of gunshots across the street. Earl Williams has shot his way out and escaped! What is Hildy to do as her fellow reporters scramble around her, trying to get the scoop? Her newspaperwoman instincts kick in, of course, and out the door she goes.
She runs out of the building and yells at the top of her lungs at Cooley, who is running away: “Hey, Cooley! Hey!” As she struggles to run across the street as scads of motorcycle cops and other cars zoom down the street, she runs after Cooley, finally tackling him to the ground, wanting to get the story straight from his mouth. When she comes back with the story in her memory, she calls up Walter. She makes him promise to send $450 down because it’s Bruce’s money that she used to get the story from Cooley. He assures her, “I swear it on my mother’s grave.” She responds, “Wait a minute, your mother’s alive.” “On my grandmother’s grave. Don’t be technical, Hildy.” She informs him that when the doctor was examining Earl Williams, he wanted to re-enact the crime scene, and Sheriff Pete B. (B for Brains) Hartwell stupidly handed over his gun to Earl.
Earl shot the doctor with said gun and escaped. Their conversation over, Walter gets another of his minions to go over and delay Hildy by getting Bruce arrested again. He sends over Evangeline (Marion Martin), a tall blonde, to get him in trouble for “mashing.” When she asks Walter what Bruce looks like, Cary’s ad libbing skills once again come in handy: “He looks like, you know, that fella in the movies… Ralph Bellamy.” “Oh, him?” When Bruce calls up Hildy once again to tell her what happened, she knows exactly who is behind it (again). She tries to get a hold of Walter, but they can’t locate him.
Meanwhile, the mayor and the sheriff are discussing the Earl Williams escape when a man comes in to deliver a reprieve, Mr. Pettibone (played to brilliant perfection by Billy Gilbert). The man constantly brings up his wife, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. He is one of the most memorable characters with a smaller role in the film. The mayor (Clarence Kolb) tries to bribe him into a fancy job so he won’t deliver the reprieve. As he leaves, the mayor asks him, “What’s your name?” “Pettibone.” “Pettibone?” Mistaking the mayor for saying his name is also Pettibone, he grins and shakes his hand, “Not really!”
In the press room, Hildy is suddenly surprised by Earl Williams coming into the room, pointing a gun at her. Shocked, she puts on her low, soothing voice again, only reserved for Mr. Williams. She tells him, “You don’t want to kill anybody.” The man is a little mentally disturbed and nervous and when he hears a noise, he shoots at the window. She immediately takes the gun from him and tells him to sit down. After she locks the door, she calls up Walter, and at the same time, Bruce calls her, wondering what will be done with him. She wants to help him, but more importantly, she wants to get on this story of the escape. In one of Rosalind Russell’s most dazzling comedic moments, she expertly talks to Bruce on one phone in her right ear and then switches to talking to Walter on another phone with her left ear.
It is amazing to watch her go back and forth between phones without missing a beat. When someone starts knocking on the door, she ends the call with Bruce with so much gusto that she knocks the telephone over. At first, she tries to keep Mollie from knowing that Earl is in there, but he calls out for her. Hildy rolls her eyes and allows her inside. However, when the writers are back, wanting inside the press room, they have to hide Earl in the desk in the back of the room. Mrs. Baldwin (Alma Kruger), Bruce’s mother, comes into the room and mentions that Hildy said there was a murderer locked up in there. Hildy tries to reassure the reporters that she was only looking for the murderer, not that she was trying to scoop them. The men start ganging up on her until Mollie comes to her rescue by stating she’s the only one who knows anything. She starts acting hysterical and right after she screams, she jumps out of the window.
Walter finally makes another appearance (this film really belongs to Rosalind) and has Louie pick up Mrs. Baldwin over his shoulder and carry her out of the room, screaming. Walter starts trying to persuade Hildy to get to what she should be doing—writing—by backing her into a corner, calling her all sorts of odd names (“drooling idiot,” “brain of a pancake”) and telling her that if she writes this story, there will be billboards of her everywhere. He stops when she tells him to stop acting, which he is really doing throughout the entire film (over-the-top, hammy, which is how it should be).
As Hildy starts pounding out a story on the typewriter, Bruce suddenly comes in and tries to get Hildy to go back with him. However, she’s so invested in her story that she barely notices him there. This is another scene of note because it contains two different conversations between three people occurring at the same time. At one point, Walter even says, “I’m trying to concentrate!” (You’re telling me, Walter!). Eventually, Bruce leaves the room, telling her he will be taking that 9 o’clock train.
Bruce: I’m taking the 9 o’clock train!
Hildy: The 9 o’clock… Oh, Bruce, I put it in here! (She snaps the papers out of the typewriter and starts over again)
Hildy doesn’t even realize he’s leaving as she shouts out, “You have to take me as I am. I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaperman!” It doesn’t take long for Hildy to notice that Bruce is gone without her and that Walter has got her again.
Walter: (on the phone) Diabetes! I ought to know better than to hire anybody with a disease!
Hildy gets ready to leave again when all of a sudden, all the reporters, as well as the sheriff, grab her, preventing her from going anywhere. They know she knows something. She says to Hartwell: “What do you want me to say?” “What do you know about Williams?” “’What do you know about Williams?’” “Now we’re getting somewhere!” But he doesn’t get anywhere with her and Walter goes on to call him an “insignificant, square-toed, pimple-headed spy.” Unfortunately, Walter makes a mistake when he calls Mrs. Baldwin, who has come back to spill everything, a “cock-eyed liar!” and on each syllable, he bangs on the desk.
Knowing that Walter’s three taps on the desk is his signal, Earl taps three times back. As Earl is taken away, the reporters, true to form, immediately start exaggerating their stories on their telephones. Hildy and Walter get handcuffed together for hiding a convict. But when Pettibone comes back in with the reprieve, accusing the mayor and sheriff of bribery, Hildy and Walter suddenly have something to laugh about. It is absolutely indisputable how much fun both Cary and Rosalind are having with this scene. They can’t help smiling, no matter what is said. Knowing what trouble he will be in if this gets out, the mayor makes Sheriff Hartwell take the handcuffs off.
Walter: Out of the mouths of babes!
Pettibone: Hi, babe!
What happens then is something that happened with most of Rosalind Russell’s “career woman” characters after this as well. She has gone from tough and businesslike to sweet and gaga for the man in the room. She has fallen for Walter again and wants to stay with him, not giving Bruce a second thought.
But he urges her to go back to Bruce and gives her one kiss… the only kiss in the entire film, but somehow a powerful one at that. When she is told that Bruce has been arrested again because of Walter’s doing, she just breaks down in tears, having almost believed Walter was being noble for once. But he really does love her and they decide to get married again.
Hildy is excited to finally go on a real honeymoon when suddenly, Walter gets the call that there is a strike in Albany and he must cover it. Work comes first! As Hildy goes out the door, carrying all her bags with no help from the “gentleman” beside her, he says, “Albany… what a coincidence! Wonder if Bruce can put us up? Why don’t you carry that with your hand?”
The entire film for your viewing pleasure!