Rosalind Russell’s Mysterious Writer

His Girl FridayOne of my very favorite movies is His Girl Friday. I watch it about once a month—any time I need cheering up. It has two of my favorite actors: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I will always be in love with Russell, or perhaps more accurately, I will always be in love with the character she plays in this movie, Hildy Johnson.

In her autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell discusses the making of His Girl Friday, in a chapter titled, “Back Door to The Front Page[1], or How I Was Everybody’s Fifteenth Choice.” She says that she thought the screenplay “could stand some improving.” But she doesn’t say why.[2] Her brother-in-law was Chet La Roche, who was the president of Young and Rubicam, a big advertising firm. She writes:

So I was pacing around, and Chet asked me what was the matter and I told him this script had me troubled. “Why don’t you fix it?” he said.

“What?”

“Why don’t you get a comedy writer and fix it?”

I said, “Chet, let me tell you something. On these lots they have a big building, it says Writers’ Building, see, and the people in that building are the ones who fix it.”

Well,” he said, “we have a lot of writers.”

So she hired one of his writers, who came to her house for dinner each night during the production of the film. (Russell goes out of her way to say that the writer never ate; he only drank. So we know he was a real writer!) Apparently, it was obvious what she was doing—at least to Cary Grant. She wrote, “It got so every morning when I went in to work, Cary would meet me, asking, “What have you got today?”

I’ve known this story for years. What I didn’t know was what Russell put in a parenthetical paragraph block:

Years afterward I was arguing about a different script with Harry Cohn, and he said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You thought His Girl Friday was in trouble and it turned out to be a smash hit.”

“Harry,” I said, “you aggravate me. Send for the original script of His Girl Friday.”

He did, and it came and I went around his desk and said, “Now we’re going over this, line for line.” I started spouting cracks from the finished picture. “Where does it say that in this script? And where is such-and-such in this script? And where is so-and-so? I hired a writer to put in those laughs.”

Cohn digested the information. Then: “Who was that writer?” he said, and I told him, and he hired him.

This is exciting information, because I think it means that some enterprising young historian could figure out who this writer was. He must have worked for Young and Rubicam in 1940 and then he must have worked for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures some time later. The film she was working on when she had this conversation with him had to have been My Sister Eileen (1942), What a Woman! (1943), The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), Tell It to the Judge (1949), or Picnic (1955).

It doesn’t matter, of course. Whoever this anonymous writer is, didn’t write His Girl Friday. He only punched it up. But he clearly was a very funny guy. And it would be interesting to see if he went on to do any other interesting films.


[1] His Girl Friday is based upon the play (already produced as a film twice by that time) called The Front Page. The big change is that in the original, Hildy is a man who is about to get married and become an insurance salesman. Although The Front Page is an excellent play, His Girl Friday is better.

[2] Wikipedia claims Russell stated that it was because she felt that Cary Grant had the better lines. This (along with much else about their history of the film) is not true. She points out that what she had added to the film included laughs for Cary Grant as well as herself.

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