Performance of the week: Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Although I haven’t watched a lot of them admittedly, I happen to be quite a fan of screwball comedy films. Did I mention that The Awful Truth is one of my all-time favourites, along with Irene Dunne’s fantastic performance? It was one of the few times I actually found a movie very funny, which is saying something because I’m at this age where my cynicism has hardened me to several of the most “funny” films today. I understand the criticism though; these movies are admittedly formulaic at times, with the whole battle of the sexes thing and Cary Grant remarrying/reuniting with his ex-wives but to me, they effortlessly achieve what modern comedy films aim to achieve nowadays in some way or the other: fast, sharp, and witty dialogue, the slapstick that is actually funny and most importantly, great comedic acting. When it comes to “Oscar-worthy” comedic performances, other than Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, I think of Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. You can say that these films are the very “definition” of great comedic films, and I would agree.

As such, another favourite of mine from this genre that I have just discovered would be His Girl Friday. The film received zero Oscar nominations in 1940, and yet I personally prefer it so much more to The Philadelphia Story (no offense to the fans). In my humble opinion, all of the The Philadelphia Story’s nominations should have gone to this one, but seriously, does it matter? The movie is such a beloved and respected classic that whenever people think of Rosalind Russell, they think of her performance here as Hildy Johnson. Although I find The Awful Truth the funnier movie because of its silliness, I don’t think less of His Girl Friday. In fact, I might even prefer this one to that movie, which is saying something. It is less funny, not because it is not as effective, but because the humour is more satirical with the black comedy element in it. Other than purely being a comedy, His Girl Friday is also a social commentary about the immoral, manipulative nature of the media and the abuse of power by reporters – a message that is still relevant today. It’s disturbing to see the reporters get all excited because a woman who jumped off the building is “still moving”, and yet the film’s light-hearted tone brought out the impact of the message just as effectively (if not more) as Network (1976), arguably the most iconic film about this topic. The direction is also fantastic; just the way the last 30 minutes of the film ties up the entire story within the same room is simply amazing.

Rosalind Russell is an actress I am not familiar with at all. The only other movie of hers that I’ve watched is Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), where she gave a really theatrical performance in a movie that feels more like a filmed play (I liked it though). I was wondering whether this was her actual acting style, but over here she couldn’t be any more different. Her acting was so natural and sharp that she easily gave the best performance of the entire film. Her line deliveries are fantastic; like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Russell got to improvise and this worked because not a single part of her performance feels forced. you can say that technically, the performance is fantastic, and I’d agree. Every single line and comedic moment is nailed fabulously, be it when she’s sarcastically saying that she is in the Niagara falls, or when she’s busy handling both calls by her new boyfriend (Ralph Bellamy, reprising his role from The Awful Truth) and Walter Burns (Cary Grant).

Yet, there is something else to the performance that made me appreciate it even more: depth. In this aspect, you can say that I prefer her performance (and Colbert’s in It Happened One Night) to Irene Dunne’s. The reporters in this film are represented as an immoral bunch, and yet Hildy Johnson seems to be the only one (and the only woman of the gang) who actually has a conscience. Right from the beginning, Russell makes it clear that Hildy has had enough of this life, and that she wants to settle down to perform the role of a mother and wife to her new husband-to-be. However, as the film progresses we learn that this woman is incredibly passionate about her job, so much so that leaving it is much harder than she makes it out to be. Walter Burns realises this “weakness” and exploits it, manipulating her to cover one last case involving a convicted murderer who is about to be sentenced to death. Russell shows the other side of this woman that is different from what we saw in the beginning; when it comes to her job, she can be ruthless and manipulative, like when she is manipulating the prisoner to say what she wants to hear and brushing off  Bruce when she is busy typing. However, unlike her rotten colleagues, you can feel that Russell portrays this part of Hildy as something that is not within her control, and that she isn’t a terrible person at heart but she can also never ever leave this job no matter how hard she tries. The final scene where she breaks down added a wonderful layer of vulnerability and helplessness behind the strong facade, giving the performance another important dimension and layer.

To sum it up, Rosalind Russell is absolutely terrific as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. This may be a performance that was ignored by the Academy, but I consider this the best female performance of 1940 that I’ve seen (only saw Fontaine and Hepburn admittedly). Great, memorable work.

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