Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) – Best Actress of 1940

Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in "His Girl Friday"

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?


Russell matches wits with Cary Grant

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.



Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Performances

6 responses to “Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) – Best Actress of 1940

  1. I love Russell’s performance in this too, and really enjoyed your discussion of it. (Wonder if Cary Grant will rate highly in your male choices for this year?! ) I also like many of the others you’ve listed, like Hepburn, Fontaine, and Sheridan in ‘City for Conquest’ – I’m not quite so keen on her in ‘Torrid Zone’, where I think she gets less scope. Bette Davis is great in ‘All This and Heaven Too’ – I haven’t seen ‘The Letter’ as yet, but have just bought the DVD so will be filling in that gap very soon. There are some of the others I haven’t seen too. I think my favourite performance from those I’ve seen this year, though, might be Edwige Feuillere in ‘Sans Lendemain’ , which is a heartbreaking role.

    • I know I’ve missed something when more than one person mentions I movie I didn’t get to see. Sans Lendemain wasn’t on my radar until you and some other mentioned it.

      I was certain you would approve of my choice of Russell. Hopefully I will get the best actor post up tomorrow. (Sorry I’ve gotten terribly busy the past few days and I haven’t had a chance to edit and post it yet.)

      As for the other performances you mention, I think the reason you don’t like Ann Sheridan in Torrid Zone so much is because it is a fairly small part without a lot of screen time. This is why so many have relegated her to supporting status, but I really feel like she was the lead (and I thought she was very good, as always.). Oh, and get to The Letter ASAP. Davis is fantastic and I think you will enjoy it.

      • Just revisiting this posting to say I’ve now seen ‘The Letter’ and agree with you – great performance by Bette Davis and a good film in general, with all that dark, moody atmosphere and feeling of heat.

  2. God Jason, it’s such a close call between Russell, Scott, Sullavan, Rogers, Hepburn and Fontaine, and I am so torn.

    However in a narrow decision I will also go with Russell for all the reasons you gloriously attest to here. Plaus, it’s a performance in a comedy (as is Sullavan’s) so it shouldn’t be underestimated.

    Best Actress of 1940:

    Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday)


    Martha Scott (Our Town)
    Joan Fontaine (Rebecca)
    Margaret Sullavan (Shop Around the Corner)
    Bette Davis (The Latter)
    Edwige Feuillere (Sans Lendemain)
    Greer Garson (Pride and Prejudice)
    Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle)
    Carole Lombard (They Knew What They Wanted)
    Valerie Hobson (Contraband)
    Hedy Lamarr (H.M. Pulham)
    Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story)
    Bette Davis (All This and Heaven Too)
    Claudette Colbert (Arise My Love)
    Margaret Lockwood (Night Train to Munich)
    Mireille Balin (Menaces)
    Irene Dunne (My Favorite Wife)
    Barabara Stanwyck (Remember the Night)
    Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge)
    Diana Wynward (Gaslight)

    • Well all the others are great, but for me it wasn’t that close, though I have to say if you took Russell out of the running I think I would give it to Diana Wynyard. I love what she did in Gaslight.

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