It was the best adaptation of The Front Page. It solidified Rosalind Russell’s career as a comedian. It’s rapid fire dialogue has never quite been duplicated.
Director Howard Hawks’ 1940 screwball comedy came about as chaotically as many other classic Hollywood films, perhaps more so in retrospect. Hawks pitched to Columbia Pictures a remake of the Charles MacArthur/Ben Hecht stage classic about Chicago newspapering at the height of the tabloid era.
The property had been adapted for the screen in a Howard Hughes production in 1931 starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, respectively playing manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns and his prized star reporter, Hildy Johnson. Of course, the Johnson character was male.
Traditional Hollywood legend — true in this case — has it that the idea of shifting the Johnson character to a female occurred to Hawks after a rehearsal reading of the script by his secretary. It sounded good to Hawks so the transition was made.
The casting of Cary Grant, a superb light comedian, was a no brainer. But who to play the transformed Hildy Johnson?
Hawks and Columbia boss Harry Cohn had their ideas.
Considered for the Hildy Johnson part were, in no special order, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. For one reason or another, none of the above either were available or considered sufficiently suitable for the role. But Rosalind Russell was available, and after her strong performance in 1939’s The Women from MGM, she was considered eminently suitable.
Hawks narrowly ducked what in respect seems like a disastrous casting decision bruited by Cohn. He suggested for the Walter Burns part casting Walter Winchell, the syndicated newspaper columnist then at a career peak at the time.
The clever script had to adjust to the gender change of its new principal, and Charles Lederer (with an assist from Hecht) came up with the idea to convert the new Hildy Johnson into the ex-wife of Grant’s Walter Burns.
It all came together in the end. Take another look at this gem, one of the most inventive comedies to come out of classic Hollywood.