Important Classic Masquerades as Screwball Comedy: Read all about it!
Did you know the title of Howard Hanks’ 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday, takes its name thanks to a real ‘gal Friday’? There’s a mystery woman who inspired the film’s romantic comedy angle, but first, you’ll have to know a little about how the classic film came to be.
In 1920s Chicago, reporter Charles MacArthur struck up a friendship and writing partnership with Ben Hecht, and the two moved to New York to pursue careers as playwrights. MacArthur, who had fled a large, Evangelical family, had been a journalist at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, while Jewish Ben Hecht had been stationed in Berlin during World War I and its revolutionary aftermath as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. Their first play, however, would mainly take inspiration from MacArthur’s time in the newsroom of the City News Bureau of Chicago. Covering everything from the courthouses, to Cook County jail, to the coroner's offices, in the gangster era of the Windy City, CNB was the hands-on trenches for young reporters unafraid to get deep in the grit.
MacArthur and Brecht’s comedy The Front Page premiered as a success on Broadway in 1928 and was soon adapted into a 1931 film produced by legendary eccentric Howard Hughes. The story followed reporter Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson and his editor, Walter Burns, covering the case of a white political activist charged with the murder of a Black police officer (a strange, fictional dynamic for contemporary audiences to take in).
A decade later, another Howard — Howard Hawks — was set to direct another, straightforward adaptation of the play. Hawks had begun in silent film, but as the “talkies” took over Hollywood, he had a solid career through the 1930s as a pioneering American director of screwball comedies, delivering hits like Twentieth Century (1934) starring John Barrymore (grandfather to Drew, of course), It Happened One Night (1934) with Clark Gable, and Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Grant was immediately attached to Hawks’ new Front Page, but something happened in the audition process.
Gene D. Phillips, a prolific biographer of filmmakers, wrote of an interview he had with Hawks on the subject:
“Hawks said that one day after Cary Grant was set to play Walter Burns, “I had a secretary read through one of the scenes of The Front Page with me. I realized that Hildy Johnson's lines were better when they were read by a woman. I called Hecht and he agreed, so the part of the reporter was rewritten for Rosalind Russell."
The name of the secretary is, not with some irony, lost to the memory of the men involved, but she did inspire the reshaping of the entire film, turning the buddy comedy into a romantic one. In the original play, Walter and Hildy are both men, with Hildy set to leave journalism for a more respectable 9-to-5, New York advertising job as he settles down into married life. In His Girl Friday, Hildy is Walter’s ex-wife, leaving her career to become a housewife after her planned wedding to an insurance salesman.
Phillips writes in his biography of romantic comedy director Billy Wilder, that not everyone agreed with the decision:
“[Billy] Wilder, who had co-scripted Ball of Fire for Hawks, much admired him. But he did not agree with Hawks's changing Hildy's gender. In his opinion, it placed too much emphasis on Walter's winning back his ex-wife, rather than his ace reporter.”
The Front Page and His Girl Friday, made only 10 years apart, are separated by two radically different eras of filmmaking. With the introduction of the studio-mandated, self-censorship Hays Code implemented in 1934, The Front Page’s bawdy script was almost entirely rewritten, with strict parameters around what implications (almost none) were permissible around the sexual romance of Grant and Russell’s characters.
Yet for all its tip-toeing around sex, gender is at the forefront of this 80-year-old film, which brought audiences a dimensional, dynamic, and funny female lead in Hildy Johnson. Hawks’ gender-flipped version presents us with a fast-talking, hard-hitting woman the audience roots for to continue her career instead of retiring to middle-class married life, and remains one of Hollywood’s few depictions of a female print journalist at the center of the story. Over the decades we’ve had comic book icon Lois Lane, and TV news producers like Mary Tyler Moore on her titular sitcom or Holly Hunter's lead character in James L. Brooks’ comedy Broadcast News (1987). When it comes to print, perhaps the most recognizable female newspaper contributor of the modern era is still fictional Sex and The City columnist Carrie Bradshaw.
Hildy Johnson, spouting streams of lightspeed dialogue long before Aaron Sorkin’s signature mile-a-minute, quick-talking style, may have been an accidental twist on an old story, but she remains a modern and important part of the history of career-driven women on the screen.
Alexander Wilburn is on the Fundraising & Development team for the Lakeville Journal Foundation’s 125th Anniversary Events. He acts as the senior associate editor for The Lakeville Journal, and his film essays and interviews with directors and writers have appeared in Compass Arts & Entertainment.