#CriterionMonth Female Agency in Hollywood’s Golden Age: The women of the Criterion screwball comedies

Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection. We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others

Next time you see me, I should be riding in a Rolls Royce giving interviews on success.” His Girl Friday’s (1940) titular Hildy Johnson proclaims to a gaggle of male colleagues in the pressroom halfway through the film.  A quote I’m certain has spawned countless closed caption screenshot reposts on Instagram from young women with accompanying hashtags of #goals and #itme.

Problematic as depictions of female characters in a lot of classic Hollywood cinema might be – Mary Astor’s buttoned up bore Barbara vs. Jean Harlow’s prostitute with a heart of gold Vantine in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932) is just one example that springs to mind amongst the myriad – the ladies of the Criterion screwball comedies are beacons of badass-ery. These women are confident in both their character and convictions, they achieve what they desire both personally and professionally (with a few narrative called-for diversions along the way) and do it all with studio system style and a killer bon mot.

When we first meet journalist Hildy (played to razor sharp perfection by the glorious Rosalind Russell) as she strides into the newsroom we are unsure what we should covet first, the ability to be so effortlessly deadpan in her enquiry as to the whereabouts of her ex “tell me, is the lord of the universe in?” or her matching chevron patterned top hat and coat combo. As delicious as the biting back and forth rhythm of the Hawksian dialogue is – it is the way Hildy uses it to assert herself within the male dominated newspaper world and fend off pest of an ex-husband Walter (Cary Grant, having more fun than in arguably any other role) that is truly marvelous.

The downfall of Hildy’s union with Walter is never explicitly cited but we are led to believe that his journalistic allegiance allowed their honeymoon to be forsaken for a story he was breaking. This, and the general pressure of the game itself causes Hildy to stop and take stock of what she thinks she wants and decides it’s not being a “newspaperman” at all, but being a woman and a “human being” somewhere instead is. We read this as a yearning to settle down with her new fiancé and become a wife and a mother. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about this notion, especially in 1940, but the prescient roadblock is that Hildy is damn good at her job. She’s too much the intrepid reporter, the gifted writer and her passion for the field is too deeply entrenched within for her to ever be fully satisfied walking away. What I love about how this all unfolds is that despite Hildy ultimately deciding not to go through with her impending nuptials to a character presented to be very one dimensional and bland and ending up back in the arms of Walter, (the mid-WW2 happy ending is in my opinion, nothing to roll our eyes at) the narrative beats emphasise her competence and skill as a journalist and we root for her. We root for her because she’s so good but she’s also a good person. Her empathy and quiet resolve during the prison interview scene is key in displaying this likable and relatable quality. Hildy, with all of her flaws and strengths is the human being and woman we can all model ourselves on.

Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940) is also concerned with feeling human and positively declares herself to be as such in the films closing moments. Katharine Hepburn gives a powerhouse of a dazzling performance in the role and it’s impossible to divert your eyes or ears away from her as this quintessential comedic commentary on class structure and relationships fizzes on screen.  The film was Hepburn’s comeback after a string of flops in the late 1930’s resulting in being labeled ‘box office poison’ in 1938. In the now controversial opening scene, Cary Grant’s (again, enjoying himself immeasurably in the part) C.K Dexter Haven seethes with rage as he carries suitcases to his car and then circles back to push Tracy down onto the porch of what we assume is their shared mansion with his hand over her face. We are instantly on her side.  Who is this jerk and good riddance!

Despite learning that Tracy comes from a high society family and has grown up with great privilege and wealth which is usually played to be alienating and viewed as a negative character trait, it’s the vulnerability she displays during terse conversations with her philandering and absent father that humanise her. That we can empathise with.  This is I’m sure what leads Tracy to seek stability with the wrong man, George Kittredge – a fiancé character again comprising of little substance and complexity, (he is a self made man which might be his sole appeal) which only bolsters relationships with the other couple of men in her life, the ones that are far more titillating.  Her ex-husband Dexter and Jimmy Stewart’s cynical boyish writer / reporter Macaulay Connor, the latter of which I have a particular fondness for. I adore a good Uptown Girl trope in the romance genre if it’s done well. The princess and the guy from the wrong side of the tracks (that brief period where they put Dan and Blair together on Gossip Girl anyone? Just me?!) and Tracy’s scenes with Mike Connor sizzle with chemistry and banter. She calls him the worst kind of snob there is, “an intellectual snob” when he lampoons Tracy’s plans to go through with her marriage to George in what I would argue is a proto-calling hipster guys out on their inauthentic bullshit if only the two weren’t making out in the scene two minutes later. Regardless, it’s an applaudable moment for Tracy and it’s brilliant. Hepburn’s ability to temper the softer, quieter Tracy moments with the built in snark and haughtiness means we can delve deeper into her character and who she is as a woman. She has been told by men her entire life things like she is some “marvelous, distant queen” (George) and a statue made of bronze (her father) and all she wants is to be seen, for all of her attributes and sensitivity and emotions: “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved.” She is a woman who gets drunk and silly on champagne at a society party because she’s hurting but also one who concludes for herself, without interference from any potential suitor, that she doesn’t want to marry to George and calls the whole thing off, appearances and convention be damned.

Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night (1934) hails from the same upper class world as Tracy. She is an heiress (referred to as spoiled and a brat on a multitude of occasions) who has recently eloped with a man of whom her father disapproves. In an act of defiance, we see Ellie diving into the ocean from the boat they are both aboard by means of escape from his oppression. A move which in today’s kick-ass, gung ho film culture would not be unusual for a female character but in 1934 and revisiting the film now with that perspective, it was and is positively shocking. This is a fantastic introduction to Ellie and her unfaltering independence.

The most iconic and remembered scene from this Frank Capra classic elegantly demonstrates the prevalence of the male gaze and how it can be used for one’s own benefit. In an excellent piece of physical comedy from Clark Gable, his character Peter (whose profession is also journalist, perhaps the equivalent of those female characters in rom coms of the 90’s / early 00’s who all work in publishing) tries to hitch them a ride by using a variety of over the top thumb motions whilst Ellie languishes on a fence behind him, looking bored when it fails to work. She then takes the matter into her own hands, walks over to the side of the road and hikes up her skirt to display a pre-code long and shapely leg. Of course the next shot is of a car screeching to a halt followed by Gable and Claudette Colbert’s Ellie in the backseat both reeling from what has just transpired. I like that this is a thoroughly pragmatic move on Ellie’s part and she isn’t just the submissive partner in her and Peter’s adventure. It’s on her terms. Once the third act conflict and an ultimate resolution with their romantic relationship has been reached, the insinuation that they finally sleep together is also on her terms in the famous ‘Walls of Jericho’ collapsing scene (seriously, watch the film, it’s fantastic) and it’s refreshing to view a movie from this era as being sex-positive. There are no punishments of Ellie for having sex, for either losing her virtue or for being of ‘loose morals’ to begin with. It’s the natural conclusion for two characters who have spent the duration of the film flirting with each other and supporting each other and who have fallen in love.

These women are among some of the first female characters on film to have real agency and a multitude of the qualities I, as a young woman hope to possess. It’s a fascinating and unequivocally positive way of looking at the first century of cinema and I’ll be thinking of them as I put on that outfit I feel fantastic in and head out to conquer whatever the day throws at me.


You can view His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night on Criterion by clicking on each title.


By Lauren Pinnington

Lauren is a writer & perennial overthinker based in London. She is a big fan of strong gin and tonics, classic Hollywood cinema & writing personal essays about the affect American teen dramas have had on her being.
You can find her on Instagram @laurenpinnington & peruse an assortment of her writing here.

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