Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

To understand my neurotic feminist dilemma with His Girl Friday, you must understand I’ve loved this movie since age twelve. Director Howard Hawks’s 1940 screwball comedy retelling of the Broadway hit “The Front Page” mostly sticks to the original story about shady newspaper editor Walter Johnson scheming to keep star reporter Hildy, who’s leaving the business to start a family with his soon-to-be wife. But in Hawks’s version, Hildy is a woman (played by Rosalind Russell) and Walter (Cary Grant) is both her editor and her recently divorced ex-husband.

Through adolescence and adulthood, Hildy has been one of my primary role models – brilliant, witty, tough, aggressive, a writer like me, but also a legend in her field. We never see her struggle with the kind of workplace sexism a woman would surely have encountered at the time (or now, for that matter), because every one of her peers knows she’s the best. In the opening scene, when she drops by the Morning Post office after a four month divorce/vacation hiatus, she breezes through this busy, buzzing newsroom as her colleagues pause their work to smile and wave at her. She owns the place. I’d never seen this kind of leading lady before, so confidently executing her power. Throughout the film she uses that power to harangue cops and politicians, gently press a prisoner for an interview, and firmly manage her naive, good-natured fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). But most of all, she draws upon that power to fight ex-husband Walter.

I’m going to reveal a spoiler about His Girl Friday that should be obvious to anyone who’s watched a romantic comedy, especially one starring the ridiculously smooth and dapper Cary Grant — Hildy ultimately ditches nice boy Bruce to reunite with Walter. And I’ve gotta admit, that outcome never sat completely right with me. As much as I’ve always adored this smart, fast-paced film and especially Hildy and Walter’s frenetic bickering, it made me sad to see my heroine go right back into this complicated relationship with a man who shows no signs of improvement. Walter is a ruthless, selfish, alpha go-getter. Even before he learns his ex-wife is marrying another man (he assumes she’s taken a job with another paper), he’s scheming to keep her from getting away. First he enlists Bruce’s help guilt-tripping Hildy into interviewing Earl Williams, a gentle but mentally unstable death row convict who’s seeking a stay of execution. Once Walter has her back in the game, he spends the rest of the movie orchestrating tricks to keep Bruce and Hildy apart so they miss their train to Albany on the eve of their wedding. She sees exactly what Walter’s doing. But when Williams escapes from prison, she can’t resist reporting the ensuing manhunt. Walter and his henchmen get Bruce arrested multiple times and even kidnap his mom at one point. Still Hildy’s drawn to this man who represents everything she finds foul and repellent about the newspaper business. “Walter, you wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a halfway normal life,” she explains in the opening scene. So how can this self-assured woman with crystal clear moral judgment reunite with this slippery, chaotic cad?

I always wished Hildy could wind up with a character who’s a cross between Walter and Bruce, a love interest who matches her intellect but also exhibits the kind, sweet, and considerate behavior she seeks in a spouse. I guess I wanted her to be with someone like my husband – a wickedly funny, clever sociologist who is also affectionate and thoughtful. I could never see myself marrying a man like Walter, because my moral judgment precludes me from cohabiting with manipulators or mean spirits; I would literally rather live alone. How can Hildy settle for this jerk, and does her willingness to settle make her a flawed feminist figure?

I recently revisited His Girl Friday with fresh eyes, and a question I learned to ask myself when I reviewed TV episodes about abortion – does this character’s choice make sense? Framing the query that way, I came to the overwhelming conclusion that Hildy does indeed belong with Walter. Whether or not that outcome diminishes her feminist status isn’t that important to me once I accept that my role model’s attitudes toward love, sex, and writing are actually pretty different from mine.

To understand why Hildy is drawn to Walter, we need to examine exactly what makes her, as he says in the beginning of the film, “a great newspaperman.” On the one hand, she exhibits a maternal quality that sets her far apart from her peers. Walter himself notes this early on when he insists Hildy is the only one who can write the Earl Williams story because it needs “a woman’s touch”; he’s manipulating her, but he’s also correct. When Hildy gets her interview with Williams she subtly cajoles him into sharing the nonsense logic he had in mind when he shot and killed a police officer, which she uses to demonstrate his insanity (though the mayor’s handpicked medical examiner is eager to claim otherwise). Her thoughtful method stands in stark contrast to her fellow male reporters at the Criminal Courts Building, who spend most of the film lazily playing cards, cracking wise, chasing sirens, and stealing each others’ leads. There’s this incredible scene when Earl’s friend Mollie Malloy — a fragile, working class lady who testified in his defense — confronts these men in their office about all the lascivious lies they published about her. Hildy walks in to see them mocking Mollie as she becomes hysterical with rage. She calmly escorts the girl away from the room. When Mollie moans, “They’re not human,” Hildy replies, “I know, they’re newspapermen,” while throwing an extremely judgmental look over her shoulder. The men share an awkward silence until Hildy returns, stares them all down, and says, “Gentlemen of the press,” with a shake of her head – dismayed, but not surprised. It’s a gutting moment, and you sense that no other person could successfully shame this group. These unfeeling, misogynist jerks actually care what Hildy thinks of them.

But the reason they care is because she channels that maternal compassion into excellent writing. They even gossip about the piece she’s written on Williams when she’s called away to bail Bruce out of jail, saying there’s no chance her new marriage will last; someone as talented as herself could never give up journalism. As insensitive as this crew is, they quickly intuit  Bruce is more child than mate, hence their snarky remarks whenever Hildy has to save her fiancé from Walter’s shenanigans. (“Lioness rushes to defend cub.” “Man forgets hankie, mama goes to wipe nose.”) And they’re right. In pretty much every Bruce and Hildy scene, she’s shushing him or giving firm advice on protecting himself from Walter, even making up a little “newsroom superstition” fib about hiding his cash in his hat for good luck. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about this mother-son dynamic. It’s probably the worst use of that maternal quality which makes her writing so great. 

But there’s another characteristic that makes Hildy a great newspaperman, which has nothing to do with her compassion or maternal nature – her insatiable desire for the story. She’s no different from her ruthless peers in this regard, except smarter; instead of chasing sirens she tackles a prison guard to find out how Williams escaped his cell. No matter how many times Walter pulls some sneaky scheme to get Bruce in trouble, she can’t resist writing this story because she keeps getting the scoop on everyone else. And this, I finally realized, is the major difference between my fictional writer role model and me. I’m not a journalist. I write pop culture pieces and personal essays, the kind of content Hildy might reductively call “sob sister stuff.” She’s a reporter. She gets tired of hunting leads and chasing people down for quotes in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s really good at it. Rosalind Russell shines in this role. The gleaming eyes and conspiratorial whisper she uses when she calls Walter to tell him about her latest hot tip indicate early on that her colleagues are right – there’s no way Hildy can give up this game to marry some unsexy schlub.

And that leads us to the Walter and Hildy dynamic. Grant and Russell have an incredible chemistry that’s unlike any other dynamic I’ve seen on screen. It’s like a rollercoaster on repeat. In the first scene we see them bicker about the circumstances that led to their divorce. Before long they’re hollering and she’s throwing her purse at his head. Then he seems to relent. In the next scene, they’re bantering. He convinces her to do the interview. Everyone’s laughing. They’re collaborating. Then he eventually double crosses her (gets Bruce arrested for solicitation), and they’re back to hollering. I finally realized during my latest viewing that this is sex for them. Several years into the Hays Code era, Hollywood films couldn’t depict anything resembling sex on screen. So instead there’s this fantastic scene when Walter stops Hildy from running off to get Bruce out of jail. With machine gun delivery Walter badgers then flatters Hildy into sticking around to finish the story. “How can you worry about a man who’s resting in a nice quiet police station while this is going on?… Hildy, you’ve got the whole city by the seat of the pants… This isn’t just a story, this is a revolution!… They’ll be naming streets after you… There’ll be statues of you in the park.” They circle about the room as they speak. First she argues, then she agrees, then she gets dreamy eyed as she fantasizes about exposing their corrupt mayor. And when he starts blowing smoke up her ass about streets and statues, she tells him to shut up so they can get to work. It hits all the classic beats of a seduction scene, starting with friction and escalating to submission. But there’s little physical contact and it all centers around creative collaboration. Frankly, it’s incredibly hot.

So as shady and manipulative as Walter can be, I get why he’s the only one for Hildy. It’s not just that he’s her only match for wit. There’s something sweet and incredibly unusual in the fact that he refuses to see her give up her profession. I think of other films from this era that starred Barbara Stanwyck (my all-time favorite) as a smart, self-sufficient working woman – the magazine columnist from Christmas in Connecticut or the stripper from Ball of Fire. In these and many other films from that time, the working woman lead character ultimately trades her job (i.e. her financial independence and perhaps some self-fulfillment) for love. Her career ambition gets in the way of romance. For Hildy and Walter, it’s the opposite. Their romance isn’t always what she wants it to be, but it’s intense, passionate, and thrives upon the combined power of their professional talent. It isn’t the love story I would choose for myself, because it involves entirely too much fighting. But then I’m not the sort of fighter that my heroine Hildy Johnson is.

One thought on “Problematica: On Not Being Hildy Johnson

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