Other Noteworthy Performances: Bette Davis (All This and Heaven Too), Bette Davis (The Letter), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), Greer Garson (Pride and Prejudice), Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge), Margaret Lockwood (Night Train to Munich), Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle), Ginger Rogers (Primrose Path), Ann Sheridan (City for Conquest), Ann Sheridan (The Torrid Zone), Margaret Sullavan (The Shop Around the Corner), Diana Wynyard (Gaslight)
Sometimes a performance is so strong, so overwhelmingly good that I have to wonder if I might not be giving some other fine performances their rightful recognition. I would love to be writing an essay about the fragile performance of Diana Wynyard in Gaslight, but every time I stopped to think about it, my memories of the genius of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday overshadows Wynyard’s work – so much so that it becomes almost embarrassingly obvious that Russell should be considered the best actress of 1940.
Russell specialized in playing strong women usually unconstrained by the paternalistic bounds of society. She managed, however, to retain her femininity while going toe to toe with some of the most masculine leading men of her day. So it’s no wonder that Howard Hawks chose her to play hard nosed newspaper woman Hildy Johnson in his comedic revamp of the 1931 drama The Front Page.
Hildy is a woman who claims she wants out of the newspaper game and to get away from her ex-husband and former editor Walter Burns. We suspect her plans to get marred to bland Bruce Baldwin and retire to connubial bliss in Albany are not as genuine as she rather emphatically declares they are. Does she just want to stick it to Walter one more time? If not, why would she bring Bruce to Walter’s office if she didn’t want to kindle some jealousy?
Our suspicions are confirmed after Walter manages to hook Hildy for one last story. She begins reluctantly, but once she gets a whiff of the big break her old instincts kick in and bulldoze over all of those unrealistic domestic fantasies. She is addicted to the adrenaline rushes of deadlines and scoops that Bruce Baldwin and his promises of a quiet country life could never satisfy.
She is also addicted to Walter, no matter how rocky their relationship may have been. She is a strong working woman (in an era when women weren’t encouraged in the workforce), but her hoydenishness doesn’t preclude traditional romantic entanglements. She has a connection with Walter that by the end of the film she can’t deny any longer – a connection that is intimately intertwined with their work. Neither Walter nor her work are more important for Hildy – they are equal components that can not be untangled from one another. They are one in the same and she will not be happy without either of them.
Rosalind Russell grabs this role by the throat and owns it. She delivers Charles Lederer’s rapid fire dialogue with astonishing ease (a talent she showed off in George Cukor’s The Women only the year before). Her chemistry with Cary Grant (as Walter) is dynamic; it turns out to be one of his best pairings, along with Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn. She is tough and vulnerable, a dichotomy believably brought to life by Russell’s remarkable characterization.