In a magazine interview I gave earlier this year, I was saying that if there were one film genre to which the phrase “they don’t make them as they used to” applied best, that would be comedies. They are probably the second type of movie I prefer, after film noir. We need comedies these days. But not the kind Hollywood is making, being suddenly so desperate to correct the gender gap and the portrayal of women in substantial roles or in all-women leads comedies. Maybe there are good comedy actresses nowadays, maybe they are relevant for today’s audiences, but, whatever the role they’re playing, they will never match the class and wit and talent of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), or the incredibly natural comedic touch of Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936), or the subtly layered performance of Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment (1960). And if I hear again that there are far more greater roles written for men than for women I’d recommend you watched more classic films, or more world cinema movies. Or just watch Woody Allen’s films.
“I rarely think in terms of male characters, except for myself only. I have a tremendous attraction to movies or plays or books that explore the psychs of women, particularly intelligent ones.” It’s not difficult to see that judging by the extraordinary female comedy characters Allen has given us over the years, proof that there is female talent out there capable of carrying a meaty role and delivering a well-timed quip. So, yes, there is hope. But I want to see more comic situations that do not involve vulgarity, or hard-partying women posing as mothers having a night off, or designer-name dropping bridesmaids wars, or bitter sarcasm just for the sake of sarcasm. I mean, really, Hollywood, is this your emancipation of women? I want to see emotional truth, verbal wit and innuendo, self-irony, even cheap sarcasm, but, please, show me some class, too. There is too much good stuff missing from the usual present-day female stereotypes.
Which brings me again to Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. The normal rate of dialogue delivery in a movie has been estimated at 90 words per minute. In His Girl Friday, the extraordinary verbal sparring between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell has been clocked at 240 wpm. His Girl Friday is one of the best screwball comedies of all time, imbued with speed-of-light dialogue, intelligence and inexhaustible energy. Grant is unstoppable, and, as for Russell and her superb comic timing, it’s hard to imagine a female actor other than her who could have lived up to him.
This was the second screen version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s popular stage play, The Front Page (the first adaptation was the one by the same name directed by Lewis Milestone, from 1931, and the third one was Billy Wilder’s 1974 The Front Page), brilliantly directed by Howard Hawks, who, in a moment of inspiration, decided that the Hildy Johnson character would work better as a woman. And so it does. Russell juggles fiancé, ex-husband, rapid-fire dialogue and the hard-boiled profession of journalism, wears an extravagant hat (not the one pictured above) and does not sacrifice one drop of femininity while being an equal to men and not having her place among them questioned or explained. One of the best comedy roles of all time. She belongs. She earned those stripes alright. Actor not actress (see what I mean?).
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photo: movie still, His Girl Friday | Columbia Pictures