‘I Want to Go Someplace Where I Can Be a Woman’: The Problem of ‘Having it All’ in the Screwball Comedy Romance

His Girl Friday is available to watch for free on BoB.

A woman’s place, in the eyes of His Girl Friday heroine, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), is difficult to find. Caught in a web of clacking typewriters, front-page stories, and an obsessive ex-husband, who uses every trick in the book to win her back, Hildy has little time to discover a ‘place’ which she can call her own. The 1940 screwball comedy presents ‘career woman’ and ‘wife’ as mutually exclusive roles. Hildy, it seems, cannot find happiness in both her work in journalism and her personal life. She finds herself torn between these two worlds, embodied in her two suitors: hard-boiled editor, Walter Burns (played by the iconic Cary Grant), and the dull Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Either Hildy returns to work, settling for a dysfunctional marriage with Walter, or she stays with Bruce, and sacrifices her career. On the surface, the depiction of female autonomy, or lack thereof, is characteristic of its time. However, I believe that Hildy, who pursues her ambitions above all else, expresses something that modern viewers will find liberating. 

Gif Source: Giphy

Howard Hawks adapted His Girl Friday from the 1928 play, The Front Page, in which Hildy is a male reporter, and there is no romantic plot. Hildy’s gender becomes a focus in Hawks’ adaptation, as she stands out in the male-dominated workplace. Characteristically for a screwball heroine, Hildy emasculates Walter with wit and boldness. I can’t help noticing how this occurs both ways, however; Walter, with his flawed perception of female career-based success, defeminises Hildy. Though on paper, Walter’s view of Hildy as a ‘newspaper man’ suggests a relationship built on equality, this label is detrimental to Hildy’s understanding of herself. Hildy’s goals of happiness in marriage (presented as feminine) and happiness in work (contrastingly masculine) can only be achieved through separate paths — marrying Bruce or remarrying Walter. Influenced by the regressive opinions held around her, Hildy believes that her happiness can only be the product of sacrifice. 

When trying to win Hildy back, Walter only draws attention to his shortcomings in marriage. Hildy professes her wish for a fulfilling home, to which Walter asks ‘What home? Don’t you remember the home I promised you?’ Hildy replies: ‘Sure I do. That was the one we were to have right after the honeymoon.’ By acquiring power in the masculine sphere of the workplace, Hildy sacrifices the emotional wholeness she could discover in the traditionally feminine sphere of the home. Significantly, it isn’t Hildy’s ambitiousness, which renders her ‘unfeminine’, that prevents her from obtaining balanced happiness. Instead, it is Walter’s dismissal of what Hildy wants, suggesting his lack of understanding of an emotionally supportive relationship. 

Gif Source: Giphy

Film critic, Molly Haskell, termed screwball comedies ‘fables of love masquerading as hostility’, while Andrew Sarris called them ‘sex comed[ies] without the sex,’ as they used innuendo to sneak past Hays Code censorship laws. The fast-paced insults between Walter and Hildy mask underlying emotions, but they also suggest their sexual tension and reveal the patriarchal gender politics of the newsroom. While Walter’s repeated hints to the couple’s sexual past can be read as a sign of their lingering chemistry, it cannot be ignored that his behaviour is unprofessional and belittling. Referring to his body, Walter tells Hildy, ‘I’m better than I ever was,’ making the conversation potentially uncomfortable. In light of contemporary discussions on the treatment of women in the workplace and the emergence of the #MeToo Movement, Walter’s continual unwanted advances are undeniably disrespectful and potentially threatening. Without batting an eyelid, Hildy replies: ‘Was never anything to brag about,’ shutting down his advance, and telling women of the 1940s not to back down in the face of domineering and arrogant male authority. 

The strong heroine is a staple of screwball comedies. Katharine Hepburn’s independent Tracy in The Philadelphia Story, like Hildy, follows her ambitions, and subsequently emasculates her male counterparts. Tracy’s love interests by the end of the film are her ex-husband, again played by Cary Grant, and reporter Macaulay Connor. Though Tracy has infinitely better chemistry with Macaulay, she remarries Grant’s character. Like His Girl Friday, the heroine, in true screwball fashion, ends up with the man she argues with most. Superficially, Hildy “has it all” by the end, as she accepts Walter’s proposal and returns to journalism. However, we can safely say that all is not resolved, as this relationship is permanently, albeit humorously, dysfunctional. 

Gif Source: Giphy

Hildy’s role seems somewhat fixed compared with other screwball heroines. Although they all eventually pair up with men, I can imagine Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, or the impulsive Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby, Monroe’s ditsy Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot, or Colbert’s rebellious Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night, ending up happily single in different hypothetical narratives. Hildy is harder for me to picture in this context — not because she’s a weaker character, but because of the fixed binaries explicitly inscribed in His Girl Friday. One co-worker jokes: ‘Can you picture Hildy singing lullabies and hanging out didies?’. There’s no middle-ground for Hildy to be a wife, mother, and writer simultaneously, hence, other characters find her choice to “settle down” comical. 

“Having it all” proves a paradoxically constrictive phrase, despite its liberating connotations. This demanding concept puts Hildy in an incredibly difficult position which begs the question: is “having it all” just another mythologised expectation/pressure for women? Christine Hassler writes ‘feminism is not about having it all or doing it all. Feminism is about the freedom to make choices.’ Hildy’s freedom of choice allows her to remarry Walter and work again, but only through emotional compromise. As Walter plans another unromantic honeymoon, we realise that these two will perhaps forever put their careers before each other. Hildy claims that working for The Morning Post is ‘the biggest thing in [her] life,’ seemingly making a comically flawed marriage an almost-bearable price to pay for continuing her work. There might be no clear place to “be a woman” for Hildy in the way she dreams of. And yet, the representation of driven women like Hildy cleared a path through which women after her time could invent their own places for personal discovery.

Sylvie Lewis

Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd

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