His Girl Friday (1940) is definitely one of the most iconic classic films today. The lightning-fast dialogue; the searing political commentary; the colorful characters and the excellent cast that brings them to life… This film is probably one of the most well-known old movies out there, in part because of its fall into the public domain, making it easily accessible. Clocking in at a perfect 92 minutes, His Girl Friday packs a lot into its runtime. Most of its entertainment derives from the devious scheming of Walter Burns, Cary Grant’s manipulative newspaper editor. Unwilling to lose his star reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), Walter creates all sorts of chaos, slowly enticing Hildy away from her boring future in the suburbs with fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy).
The movie is based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. Director Howard Hawks smartly changed the role of Hildy by making the character female and Walter’s ex. As a film fan, I adore Hildy because she is simply one of the funniest, sharpest characters you’ll meet. As a woman, I love Hildy because she is such an accurate portrayal of womanhood: fierce, clever, sensitive, hilarious, tough… She embodies one of the most difficult juxtapositions people have, something that doesn’t always appear in cinematic female characters — the ability to have and express emotions without sacrificing strength, confidence, and capability.
Although Walter’s morals are pretty questionable, Hildy’s aren’t. Sure, she savors a good headline and she has no problem tackling a guy to help her story, but I’ve always had the feeling that her actions stem from her sense of justice more than they do from her love of a juicy story. Don’t get me wrong — it is clear that Hildy thrives on sensational news. The tragic story of convict Earl Williams (John Qualen) is like catnip to her, but just watch her in their scenes together. When she first visits Earl at the jail, she listens. Her rat-a-tat-tat banter becomes slower. She thoughtfully lights and offers him a cigarette. She wants to help him. She believes Earl was done wrong, and it becomes obvious that corrupt government officials are to blame. Hildy doesn’t want to exploit Earl, unlike the other headline-hungry reporters. This is especially noticeable when it comes to Mollie (Helen Mack), a woman who befriended Earl and found herself being mocked for it in the press. To the cynical reporters, Mollie’s kindness is something to be twisted in order to sell more papers. Hildy, however, takes pity on the poor girl and she tries to look out for her.
Hildy readily states what she thinks and sticks to her guns. She can also match Walter quip for quip and trick for trick. Not much gets past our gal Hildy, which is essential for her to succeed in such a male-dominated world as the newspaper business. She is nothing if not courageous. While Cary Grant certainly leaves an imprint on your memory as Walter (one of his best performances, for sure), Rosalind Russell isn’t bound to be forgotten, either. In her hands, Hildy is wily and brilliant, and her scenes with Grant are electrifying. (There’s a reason His Girl Friday ranked #2 on Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the 50 sexiest films of all time.) Whenever someone tries to say that classic films are boring or sexist, this movie is my go-to example of just how misinformed they are.
I have never met a woman who watched His Girl Friday and didn’t feel inspired by Hildy. On top of all of the things that I’ve already mentioned, Hildy is also a woman who is respected. The other reporters see her as a friend and colleague. She has two wildly different men in love with her, proving that her brains and her boldness are admirable traits that don’t isolate her from romance. Women are often told that being too brash or too smart is unattractive, that it scares off potential partners. It’s insulting and for some reason it can be taken as fact… until you see Hildy strut into the Morning Post‘s offices, her striped suit like a body of armor. From the moment she walks into that newsroom, she has the audience enraptured — and, like Walter, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.