Hildy Johnson: Rosalind Russell's Iconic Girl Friday

When the American Film Institute constructed their list of the 100 best heroes and villains in cinema, obviously they couldn't include everyone's favorites. However, in my opinion, they did have one glaring omission: Ms. Hildegarde "Hildy" Johnson from 1940's His Girl Friday. She wasn't even nominated!

As a film fan, I adore Hildy because she is simply one of the funniest, sharpest characters you'll meet. As a woman, I love Hildy because she is such an accurate portrayal of womanhood: fierce, clever, sensitive, hilarious, tough... She embodies one of the most difficult juxtapositions people have, something that doesn't always appear in cinematic female characters -- the ability to have and express emotions without sacrificing strength, confidence, and capability.

When making their selections, the AFI had a set of criteria to follow, criteria that I think Hildy certainly represents. Let's go down the list, shall we?

Feature-Length Fiction Film: The film must be in narrative format, typically more than 60 minutes in length.
Well, His Girl Friday clocks in at a perfect 92 minutes, so... check.

American Film: The film must be in the English language with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States.
Check!

Hero: For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.
"Extreme circumstances" is His Girl Friday's middle name. Most of the film's entertainment derives from the devious scheming of Walter Burns, Cary Grant's manipulative newspaper editor and Hildy's ex-husband. Unwilling to lose his star reporter and ex-wife, Walter creates all sorts of chaos, slowly enticing Hildy away from her boring future in the suburbs with Ralph Bellamy's
Bruce.

Although Walter's morals are pretty questionable, Hildy's aren't. Sure, she savors a good headline and she has no problem tackling a guy to help her story, but I've always had the feeling that her actions stem from her sense of justice more than they do from her love of a juicy story. Don't get me wrong -- it is clear that Hildy thrives on sensational news. The tragic story of convict Earl Williams (John Qualen) is like catnip to her, but just watch her in their scenes together. When she first visits Earl at the jail, she listens. Her rat-a-tat-tat banter becomes slower. She
thoughtfully lights and offers him a cigarette. She wants to help him. She believes Earl was done wrong, and it becomes obvious that corrupt government officials are to blame.

Hildy doesn't want to exploit Earl, unlike the other headline-hungry reporters. This is especially noticeable when it comes to Molly (Helen Mack), a woman who befriended Earl and found herself being mocked for it in the press. To the cynical reporters, Molly's kindness is something to be twisted in order to sell more papers. Hildy, however, takes pity on the poor girl and she tries to look out for her.

Hildy readily states what she thinks and sticks to her guns. She can also match Walter quip for quip and trick for trick. Not much gets past our gal Hildy, which is essential for her to succeed in such a male-dominated world as the newspaper business. She is nothing if not courageous.

Cultural Impact: Characters who have a made a mark on American society in matters of style and substance.
His Girl Friday is definitely one of the most iconic classic films today. The lightning-fast dialogue; the searing political commentary; the colorful characters and the excellent
cast that brings them to life... This film is probably one of the most well-known old movies out there, in part because of its fall into the public domain, making it easily accessible.

While Cary Grant certainly leaves an imprint on your memory as Walter (one of his best performances, for sure), Rosalind Russell isn't bound to be forgotten, either. In her hands, Hildy is wily and brilliant, and her scenes with Grant are electrifying. (There's a reason HGF ranked #2 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 sexiest films of all time.) Whenever someone tries to say that classic films are boring or sexist, HGF is my
     go-to example of just how misinformed they are.

Legacy: Characters who elicit strong reactions across time, enriching America's film heritage while continuing to inspire contemporary artists and audiences.

I have never met a woman who watched HGF and didn't feel inspired by Hildy. On top of all of the things that I've already mentioned, Hildy is also a woman who is respected. The other reporters see her as a friend and colleague. She has two wildly different men in love with her, proving that her brains and her boldness are admirable traits that don't isolate her from romance. Women are often told that being too brash or too smart is unattractive, that it scares off potential partners. It's insulting and for some reason it can be taken as fact... until you see Hildy strut into the Morning Post's offices, her striped suit like a body of armor.


Although I love the AFI's lists and generally agree with them, the exclusion of Hildy is just one mistake I can't tolerate. Is it time for an update yet?
__________________

This is my entry to the Inspirational Heroes Blogathon. Check out the cinematic figures that move and motivate other bloggers here!

Comments

  1. I've seen the story before. Just not this version. Good review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Funnily enough, I haven't seen any of the other versions of this story. Maybe that's something I'll finally do in 2018.

      Delete
  2. Somebody get AFI on the phone! You've developed a convincing case to get Hildy placed on their Heroes List. Like you pointed out, Hildy is smart and capable, but she's also compassionate. The fact that she doesn't manipulate or exploit the desperate Earl proves she truly believes in justice and isn't hypocritical...which can't be said for everyone else in this film.

    Excellent choice!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ruth! It's just criminal to me that Hildy wasn't even considered for a place on the list. Walter can be despicable, but he is right that the newspaper business needs Hildy, someone who tries to do the right thing rather than the selfish thing.

      Delete
  3. Long live Roz Russell. She should have won the Best Actress Oscar for either this film or for Auntie Mame! She is so so good opposite Cary Grant in this one...they were BFFs, and Cary actually introduced Roz to hubby Freddie Brisson, to who she was married for over 35 years...
    Great post on a great film, and iconic RosalindRussell performance.
    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Long live Roz, indeed! She was such a force of nature, wasn't she? I agree that this film or Auntie Mame should have guaranteed her an Oscar. And I love that Cary was the one to introduce her to her husband.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  4. "...clocks in at a perfect 92 minutes..." Yes! Everything about His Girl Friday is perfect, especially the wonderful Rosalind Russell as Hildy, a woman we can relate to as well as look up to. A perfect choice for an inspirational hero, and a clever, well-written article.

    PS: Hildy gets an honourable mention in my post for the blogathon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, great! I'm hoping to catch up on the other entries today.

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post! When I heard about this blogathon, I thought of so many different subjects, but Hildy seemed to stand head and shoulders above them. She's a magnificent character played by a magnificent woman. You just can't go wrong with Hildy!

      Delete
  5. I love Hildy as a hero. She deserves to be listed. And I love the way you presented this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, thank you! Hildy is the best, and she deserves the best.

      Delete
  6. Hildy really deserved a spot in the 50 heroes list - and you wrote amazingly in her behalf. It's interesting to see how journalists are, often, portrayed as evil, greedy characters.
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Journalists can be given quite the bad reputation in old movies, it's true. Thankfully, Hildy is not such a character, which I think makes her infinitely more interesting.

      Delete
  7. You've certainly convinced me! She deserves to be on that list, for sure. Well said!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Perhaps whenever the AFI decides to revise their list, they'll realize their mistake. It's doubtful, but one can always hope.

      Delete

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