This summer the film world was temporarily rocked by, of all things, a new Ghostbusters film. For many people it was a long overdue win for better representation in film, and a chance to see that rarest of things: a female-dominated, blockbuster action-comedy. For the other side of the world’s ongoing cultural schism, the quite well-reviewed Ghostbusters remake was a sign of the PC leftwing Feminazi apocalypse.
As identity politics have finally become mainstream knowledge enough that entire world orders can be shifted in apparent backlash, it is amazing to go back to 1940 and rewatch perhaps the earliest example of this new cause célèbre, the “gender-swapped remake”. As His Girl Friday gets its turn under the Criterion Collection spotlight, what can it teach us about representation in the social media, false news age?
His Girl Friday is often known as one of the key examples of Screwball Comedy, along with It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Its fast-paced dialogue zings and swings with quip after quip after put-down after put-down; its central romantic couple bicker for 90 minutes then realise they’re perfect for each other; marriage is centralised, but the female protagonist is strong and defined enough that this almost doesn’t matter. A less well-known His Girl Friday fact, however, is that in the original play – The Front Page, by revered screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – Rosalind Russell’s character Hildy was actually a man.
In The Front Page, a Broadway smash in 1928 and first filmed in 1931, star reporter Hildy Johnson is making his final rounds in the Chicago jailhouse press room as his new fiancée waits outside, the car running so they can elope and start a new life in New York. What Hildy didn’t contend with was the immense scoop waiting for him in the form of an escaped death-row prisoner – and, more importantly, the ever-present figure of his manipulative, bullish heavyweight of an editor, Walter Burns.
It goes without saying this remains one of the classic farces; that it has the confidence to go incredibly dark, and even serious, at certain points, is only to its credit. But in making Hildy a woman, and making her Walter’s ex-wife, Hawks and his team improved the play immeasurably, and cemented its all-time status.
Aside from the extra frisson added with these details, Hildy 2.0 – and indeed Walter 2.0, de-aged here from a short-tempered old-schooler to, well, Cary Grant – leaps off the screen as her own fully-formed icon. As with Lewis Milestone’s previous filmed version, much of the story’s hilarity comes from sheer force of personality; but again, through the restructuring and re-characterisation of His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks allows his cast to hit the comedic high-points much earlier, and keep the energy up throughout. The result, all in all, is a machine-gun symphony of silliness.
As an aside, things are also helped greatly by the casting of Ralph Bellamy as Hildy’s put-upon spouse-to-be. While in The Front Page Hildy’s female fiancée got very little to do besides appear near the end to encourage her man and his journalistic dreams, His Girl Friday‘s Bruce Baldwin – straight-arrow insurance man! – is a constant presence and anchor to the real world. Again, like the gender-swapped Hildy, Bruce is both interesting as a reversal of traditional gender roles and, at the level of pure form, as a fantastically well-conceived counterweight to the two leads.
But enough about Bruce. Back to Hildy; she’s the centre of this story, and of her world. Hildegaard Johnson strides in right at the beginning, the first focal point – and the entire office are saying hello to her. Bruce, of course, is already a drip; earnest and sentimental, waiting at the office entrance as she hands in her notice. Hildy talks to the secretaries, banters with the male reporters, and keeps getting one-up on Walter – who, it turns out, she divorced.
That’s right: Hildy divorced Walter, and not even (or so it is presented) for a simple traditional reason. And he laments that, right down to the film’s final moments. And, naturally, she calls the stakes around here – but unlike other strong women of the period she never gets ‘punished’ for it.
If traditional femmes fatale going into and continuing through the 1940s were a source of tantalising danger – but ultimately to be punished, made a cautionary tale – Hildy as played by Russell is what every femme fatale in cinema history has aspired to: a woman who upends the social mores of her time and place, becomes entirely equal with the men around her, and – like any normal man – doesn’t have to ‘pay’ for it.
There is an element of punishment towards the end, as her (quite wholehearted) vision of a perfect child-rearing Albany-dwelling future with Bruce breaks down, but the story of His Girl Friday still ends on a note of optimism as she runs away with her ex for a less traditional, but no doubt more thrilling, future. That’s a hell of a lot more generous than varied fates meted out to other untraditional women during the period.
In fact, ‘untraditional’ barely covers it. Hildy is constantly described as a “newspaperman”, both by Walter and the assembled hacks making up her competition. She faces the same dilemma as male-Hildy: as Walter points out, “I know what would happen to you if you were to quit: it’d kill ya!” At one point, she chases after, leaps on and pins down a medical examiner, all part of her search for justice (or at least a big scoop).
Towards the end, as she and Walter conspire to hide the escapee from the police so they can use his story later, the other reporters smell a rat and actually grab Hildy by the lapels, the scene visually identical to the 1931 version. If it wasn’t already clear by this point, Hildy is literally just a rugged unscrupulous newspaperman trapped in the fabulous, glamorous body of Rosalind Russell.
The gender essentialism endemic to the times is reconfigured and played against itself. To talk of masculine traits vs. a feminine body seems insanely outdated – because in many ways that’s exactly what it is. Hawks and Lederer could have kept the story and changed the dynamics; instead, they realise the best results can come from acknowledging that someone like female-Hildy can exist. This character can be fast-talking, earthy, harried, unsexy, tough and authoritative, and be a woman – one who embodies all of this, without ever seeming matronly or unlikable, without ever getting cosmically punished for it, and who can be the main character with the majority of screentime.
Then there’s the other side of this essentialist blurring: Hildy’s not just a woman with a series of classically ‘masculine’ traits; she has the whole package. She shows sensitivity around the halfway point as things start to heat up, sympathising with and caring for the prisoner’s lover, in a manner so genuine (as opposed to the cynical, false empathy shown often in the film) that it actually chastens and hushes the yapping pressroom ensemble.
This is what we meant by “fully-formed”; despite much of Hildy’s character being simply retained from the male version (and the dialogue becomes increasingly verbatim from The Front Page as original plotting takes over from the Screwball stuff), care is taken to keep redefining her throughout. She is willing to settle down – she does want to marry Bruce and get out of the game. She does not have to totally reject tradition in order to live her life; she can pick and choose. She can have it both ways.
This was not otherwise explored in mainstream Hollywood with such positivity until nearly 30 years later, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show hit screens. Russell at the time complained of being Hawks’ “fifth choice”, but she translates this alien dialectic with virtuoso clarity. What kind of woman, ultimately, is Hildy Johnson? How does she compare to other leading ladies of the late ’30s and early ’40s? That’s the brilliance: she is simply Hildy Johnson.
So of course its relevance these days isn’t merely because of the gender-swapping aspects. Few people would sit down with His Girl Friday knowing the minutiae of its context. Instead, all of these wonderful representational positives came about because of that one choice during pre-production. The revolution of His Girl Friday is not gender-swapping qua gender-swapping – a cursory type of tokenism, the sort that any sensible person can easily question – but to adapt the story, to adapt the situations, and simply, unselfconsciously, create for the sake of a good film. Someone like Hildy Johnson can exist because the filmmakers actually allow her to, rather than transcribing the existing character.
Russell’s Hildy wouldn’t be half as effective if His Girl Friday was as limp as much of The Front Page; but luckily, she is made the anchor of a film so perkily sardonic it’s essentially her own little universe. This film starts with Hildy Johnson, ends with Hildy Johnson, and like its leading lady thinks fast and talks fast, a clusterbomb of wit and passion that embodies a type of ‘choice’ and individualism far more modern than one would think.
It’s a real model for what could be, and what, to a large extent, Ghostbusters managed. And it’s a great riposte to anyone complaining about Hollywood and its dearth of ideas and its oh-so-lefty capitulation to the Black Lives Matter Feminazis leading the PC brigade (is that the phrasing?). Guess what? They were doing this in the 1940s, when men were men and Ed Wood was wearing stockings under his war uniform. At the end of it all, simply put: why can’t we rewrite stories for different purposes, different focuses? Sometimes when we push the boat out, it brings back a classic.