Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosalind Russell, one of Hollywood’s most sassy fast-talking leads in an age of clever and sassy independent women. Since the earliest days of women’s involvement in theater (which was much later than men’s), the prominent roles for female leads were either as the victim or the whore. The film industry continued this somewhat frustrating theater tradition until actresses like Rosalind Russell came along to prove there was yet another side to women.
She was not the only one, there was an elite corps of female troopers ready to give a punch as well as take it, mask uncertainty and face adversity with a lot of lip and a classy attitude. Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, a line of ladies who stood up for themselves and were funny to boot.
In her breezy and anecdotal autobiography, “Life is a Banquet,” (with Chris Chase, Random House, New York, 1977), Miss Russell insists she was not of the upper echelon of stars at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and even joked that she got Myrna Loy’s cast-off scripts, but when “The Women” (1939) came along, there was nobody who could do the part of busybody, troublemaking Mrs. Fowler like her. It pushed her into comedic roles after a lot of what she called “Lady Mary” roles.
One of her most memorable of these comedic films was “His Girl Friday,” (1940) a remake of the successful stage hit and film, “The Front Page.” Director Howard Hawks’ decision to change the character of Hildy to a female changed the scope and direction of the film, obviously, and took off some of the edge the original film in its biting commentary on cynical newsmen, crooked politicians, exploitation of race, and a circus of a police, crime and graft in order to slide in a romantic comedy in the middle of it all. But, there was still plenty of cynicism left, batted about like ballplayers practicing on the infield by a group of terrific character actors as the newshounds in the pressroom, including Regis Toomey, with Gene Lockhart as the smarmy Sheriff Hartwell, Helen Mack as the tragic Mollie Malloy, and John Qualen as the pitiful hangdog murderer on the lam. Billy Gilbert steals the scenes as Mr. Pettibone, the hapless, bumbling, just-doing-my-job messenger trying to deliver the governor’s pardon.
Rosalind Russell floats nicely between moods as Hildy. In her soft, intimate interrogation of John Qualen in the jail, speaking to him through a chain link pen, she lights him a cigarette from her own mouth, passes it to him and mutters, “Sorry about the lipstick, Earl,” as she softly continues her questioning. This is in contrast to her fast and furious bandying with Cary Grant, who slaps her word for word, shout for shout, goad for goad as her editor who is determined to wring one last assignment out of her and mess up her plans to marry the ever patient Ralph Bellamy. Noted for his regular guy roles, Grant even pokes fun at Bellamy by saying that his character, “looks like that fellow in the movies. Ralph Bellamy.”
In her autobiography, Russell claims that some of the script was ad libbed, and some doctored up by a writer she had hired on the side for jokes, but the lines flow together seamlessly with Charles Lederer’s script (based on the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), and make this a film that needs to be seen over again to catch all of them.
“Earl shot the professor in the classified ads,” she tells Cary Grant, and once she realizes her dream of marrying the stable Ralph Bellamy and his interfering mother is not for her, “I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaperman.” Newspaperman. In her pinstripe suit, she is one of the guys, and a better writer than all the other lying ambulance chasers barking on candlestick telephones around the table in the newsroom.
It is a great film to snag even a small part in, because everyone gets a piece of the pie as far as great lines are concerned. When Grant’s hired thug, Louie, kidnapping Hildy’s future mother-in-law gets into a car wreck with a couple of police cars, he returns shaken, moaning, “Can you imagine bumping into a load of cops? They come rolling out like oranges.”
In her book, Miss Russell recounts her famous description of acting as, “standing up naked and turning around very slowly.” There has been plenty written about the personal scandals and private lives of Hollywood stars, but not enough about how the everyday film work was accomplished. It is fortunate she documented a small part of her career for us, fortunate to have participants in Hollywood’s golden age give us the nuts and bolts of the work involved behind the magic. As always, she is a sensible and sassy voice, still.
Rosalind Russell Movies