"I'm going to walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours until it rings like a Chinese gong!" - Hildy (Rosalind Russell)
Howard Hawks thought Ben Hecht’s 1928 play The Front Page had some of the best dialogue ever written, and he was determined to bring it to the screen. The result was His Girl Friday (1940), one of Hollywood’s most remembered screwball comedies -- a genre Hawks' titles like His Girl Friday helped to create.
The story goes that when Hawks was holding readings for the parts, he was short-handed an actor and instructed his secretary to read one of the roles. He loved the dynamic so much that he had the play re-written with a male and female, Walter (Cary Grant) and Hildy, as the central characters.
Hecht approved the alteration and Charles Lederer, the film’s screenwriter, suggested the story focus not just on a male and female lead, but on a man and his ex-wife who begins the picture by informing her ex-lover he’s also about to become her ex-editor. She’s quitting the business and quitting him, settling down to marry a regular insurance salesman the very next day. It drives the screwball professional narrative into romantic comedy territory and builds a brand new dynamic on which the film builds its success.
Hildy isn’t shy about calling herself a "newspaper man." As far as the context of the film goes, she’s a better man than her fiancé, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), whose complacent normalcy Hildy pretends to be in love with. But she is an equal to her male counterpart in Walter. Hildy was an unprecedented character creation for a leading lady in 1940, and although she may be “his” Girl Friday, Walter is just as much “hers” for the bulk of the picture. From the first moment Walter finds out Hildy intends to quit the business and run off to Albany to be a homemaker, it’s obvious he will use his cunning and deception to win her back by the end of the film. But that inevitable victory doesn’t come without effort, and Hildy makes every attempt to assert herself along the way. Walter is endlessly looking for the upper hand, while Hildy repeatedly thwarts his movements. There’s a battle of masculinity that eats away at suggestions of effeminacy. During the banter, even Bruce finds Walter charming, but he is lost in the gale of the storm of verbal power that rages between Walter and Hildy.
Jump Cut says, “His Girl Friday suggests that new possibilities lie in the roles of the sexes. The film offers the alluring mirage of a sexual relationship based on equality rather than exploitation, with a woman achieving political-sexual parity through her intelligence, creative energy and economic independence. Despite the perversity of the title, 'his girl Friday' turns out to be a strong-willed, sharp-minded and talented woman reporter. The reporter's boss (and ex-husband) satirizes the romanticized violent image of men. He is equally zealous about his profession and the fanatical pursuit of his ex-wife, and his blending of the two pursuits results in humor and irony. The film as a whole presents a more open and tolerant range of sexual values than one might expect.”
The Cine-Files describes Hildy’s character and the importance of switching the play's original role to a female, saying, “Though Hildy remains uncomfortable with her conflicted and aleatory gender position, the film seems to delight in both the paradox she embodies and the resulting confusion in her choices. She is, in the film’s terms, both woman and man: she is the best 'newspaper man' in the room precisely because she can give her stories a 'woman’s touch'—stories which, according to Walter, need 'heart.' The fact that Hildy so often frustrates the binary systems offered by the film suggests that she functions as an agent of aporia. If we understand 'aporia' to mean a point of doubt or instability within a seemingly natural and logical system of meaning, we can understand Hildy’s embodiment of both male and female, both masculinity and femininity, as an instance of it. In fact, Hildy’s aporetic function goes beyond deconstructing gender binaries. As the film articulates each of its ideological systems, Hildy exposes their workings, effectively deconstructing them by occupying multiple positions within them. She calls her fellow newspaper men 'chumps' even as she herself is manipulated again and again by Walter’s machinations. She wants a life of seclusion and domesticity, yet she proudly asserts her expectation that she will one day ride in a 'Rolls Royce' and give 'interviews on success.' She decries the corruption of the newspaper business and the state, yet she unethically bribes officials and feeds Earl Williams a narrative she invents to write a compelling news story. There is hardly a binary opposition articulated in the film that Hildy cannot destabilize by occupying each side.”
Part of what makes His Girl Friday so interesting on a comedic level is that, for long stretches of the film, its romantic players are separate from one another. Walter is apart from Hildy for half the picture, and he also keeps finding ways to have Bruce thrown in jail on bogus charges so that he stays on the fringe of the narrative. A great scene late in the picture shows Hildy with a phone up to each ear, one connected to Walter and one connected to Bruce, as she battles back and forth between the domestic life she claims she wants and the newspaper life she knows she loves. Of course, what she’s really doing is connecting the film’s love triangle in a direct and literal way.
Marilyn Fabe writes in her book Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Technique, “The character of Hildy is an ideal Hawksian heroine. She has the outward beauty of a Hollywood movie star with the interior characteristics of a tough-minded male. For all her feminine beauty, Hildy does not have a maternal bone in her body. Near the beginning of the film, when Beatrice, the advice to the lovelorn columnist, announces to her proudly that ‘My cat just had kittens again,’ Hildy retorts, ‘It’s her own fault.’”
Throughout the picture, the audience roots for Hildy to realize her unconventional love for Walter and resume her position as a newspaper man. It’s a subversive challenge to gender ideology of 1940, but it doesn’t exist completely as a position of power for Hildy. When she breaks down at the end of the film and reveals all her behavior has been her means of challenging Walter to rescue her from what could have been a devastating marriage, it suggests that the power was in Walter’s hands all along. In the film’s final shot, as they run out of the building (with Hildy carrying all the gear and Walter strutting behind), she does become “his” girl Friday. She changes, while he remains the same. Still, it’s not a complete submission in that she doesn’t settle for a stereotypical image or give up herself to conformity; she merely continues to exist as she was before and as she truly wishes to be.
The legendary banter and energy carried by Grant and Russell wouldn't have been possible without Hawks' accidentally realizing the magic of changing the lead character into a woman. This choice is the heart of the piece. The guy on death row for shooting a cop? Nobody cares about that -- this is Walter's and Hildy's story.