Shelley Harris is Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday
His Girl Friday

Author Shelley Harris has been a teacher, a local reporter, a stuffer of envelopes, a shop assistant and a bouncer at a teen disco. As part of her research for her latest novel Vigilante (Weidenfeld and Nicoloson), in which an ordinary woman, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, dresses up as superhero and sets about righting wrongs, Shelley took to the streets of High Wycombe in a mask and a cape. As she says on her blog: ‘we want to be mighty and we want to be magnificent. We want to be heroes.’ Eithne Farry

Whip-smart, snappily-dressed, and with an infallible bullshit detector, Hildy Johnson is my cinematic alter ego, a fantasy version of myself: a woman cleverer, quicker and funnier than I could ever hope to be.

In Howard Hawks’s mile-a-minute screwball comedy His Girl Friday, ace reporter Hildy (played by the luminous Rosalind Russell) fences with her former editor – and ex-husband – Walter (Cary Grant) as he tries to persuade her back into the newspaper game. She has other ideas: marriage to stodgy dullard Bruce, and a domestic idyll in Albany (‘I’m going to have babies and take care of them,’ she tells Walter). But Walter knows this new life will be unbearable – to both of them. Charming and unscrupulous, he doesn’t give a fig about her homemaking skills. ‘Quitting would kill you,’ he says. ‘You’re a newspaper man.’

Much of the action is set in a reporters’ room overlooking the gallows where convicted murderer Earl Williams is due to be executed the next day. There’s sin and punishment here, right alongside the sparkling dialogue; Williams is a pawn for the power mongers in City Hall, who will sacrifice him to their own ambition if Hildy and Walter don’t stop them.

Part of the joy of this movie is its light and shade: a man’s life at stake as wit crackles between Hildy and Walter. ‘There’s been a lamp burning in the window for you, honey,’ he tells her. ‘I jumped out that window a long time ago,’ she counters.

Of course, Walter’s right; everyone can see it except Hildy herself and the hapless Bruce. She’s a reporter to her bones, her brilliance and inventiveness eventually toppling the city’s government. (‘You’ve done something big, Hildy… they’ll be naming streets after you!’) And since, after all, this is a romance, who does she end up with? As we always knew he would, Bruce returns to Albany with only his mother for company, and Hildy goes back to the man who finds it impossible to see her as a cook, or a housewife, or a mother. She goes back to Walter – who tells her she’s the best newspaper man he’s ever worked with.

Shelley Harris