His Girl Friday (1940) is an old fashioned comedy with old fashioned dialogue. It thunders along like a washing machine on spin cycle, much like its central protagonist, Rosalind Russell as ace reporter Hildy Johnson (not first choice for casting by director Howard Hawks, but she earned her stripes so to speak).
Russell is a hoot as she bounds back and forth between her boss and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant), soon to be new husband Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) and key to her big scoop, patsy murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen). Hildy is tenacious and classy, although – and quite charmingly so – she is not graceful.
Robert Kalloch is credited as designing Russell’s ‘gowns’ for His Girl Friday. These essentially comprised of two suits, or one suit and one coat and skirt worn as a suit. The most prominent outfit is arguably the latter, a wildly designed piece that announces Hildy’s arrival back in the newsroom long before her tongue starts flapping:
Calf length striped chevron coat: open front with wide matching tie belt, front yoke, padded shoulders with slightly flared full length sleeves, narrow shawl collar. Flared bias cut skirt.
Matching top hat in padded silk with tall crown and wide soft brim. Attached black silk scarf to rear.
Black set-in sleeve silk blouse with round frilled open neck, leather-lace front bow and padded shoulders. Black fitted knee length skirt. Black leather high heeled shoes with almond toe. Black pintuck suede gloves.
Obviously with this film produced in a transitional period between two decades many of the design details are crossovers. The Mexican inspired peasant look featured on Russell’s blouse for example came from the tail end of the 1930s. As World War 2 took hold and barriers to trade forced America to seek dress inspiration from within this became a popular style until the end of the forties, only to then receive a folk revival in the late 1960s.
A bow at the collar was fashionable on blouses of the 1930s/40s; here it softens the angular padded shoulders of the coat. The fitted hip skirt finishing just below the knee is another detail made popular in the body conscious thirties. Strictly speaking the coat is striped, but the bias cutting gives it a chevron effect.
Although made by Columbia Pictures’ resident costume designer Robert Kalloch, Hildy’s coat bears certain resemblance to designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s output, even that of her rival Coco Chanel. Note the high defined waist creating a tall, slender silhouette, also the innovative styling of her hat, the vivid colours (coat and hat were apparently contrasted in pink and black) and wide padded shoulders (which Schiaparelli was unofficially recognised as inventing). Align this with Chanel who had been a proponent of women’s suits since the 1920s; she too used padded shoulders in some of her designs, although preferring a pointed, less bulky finish to Schiaparelli.
Rosalind Russell is both distracting and distracted in this ensemble. Howard Hawks demanded something ‘striped and flashy’; the loud design to compliment Hildy’s forthright manner; the stripes to specifically echo Adela Rogers St. Johns’ signature look, the journalist to whom Hildy Johnson is reputedly based.
Watch how Russell fiddles with her outfit. She takes off one glove, then the coat, then back on again. Later she hikes up her unyielding skirt to literally rugby tackle a story, while all the time plying her soft silk hat as if it’s getting on her nerves. This is brazen but formal dressing for supposedly off the job Hildy. It is restrictive, though she’ll no more be held back by her clothes than she will be by the manhandling, all-male newsroom surrounding her.
At the time of filming, Russell’s co-star Cary Grant was comfortably into his Hawes & Curtis Savile row period. He seems ill at ease in a trilby hat, though as relaxed as a sleeping baby in his double breasted Prince of Wales check suit. Russell however becomes increasingly dishevelled yet conversely more animated as her immaculate attire disintegrates. The freer she is the better she works. Hildy, after all, is no cookie cutter wife, she’s a newspaperman.
His Girl Friday is currently available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.
© 2009 – 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.