One of the more tantalizing "what-ifs" in Carole Lombard's career concerns the great Howard Hawks comedy "His Girl Friday." This semi-remake of Ben Hecht's "The Front Page" -- with the Hildy Johnson character changed from a man to a woman -- was filmed in late 1939 and released in January 1940, and is now considered one of the gems of the screwball genre.
If you've never seen "His Girl Friday," it's easy to find. Like "My Man Godfrey" and "Nothing Sacred," it's in the public domain, issued on a number of inexpensive DVDs (though a word of warning: on most of them, the print quality ranges from mediocre to miserable). Turner Classic Movies also periodically runs the film.
Rosalind Russell is so magnificent as Hildy that these days, it's virtually impossible to envision anyone else playing her. But truth be told, Russell wasn't the first choice of Columbia Pictures to portray the ace reporter...and that first choice wasn't Lombard, either. According to the Internet Movie Database, it was Jean Arthur.
Why did Arthur decline? Probably because "His Girl Friday" was directed by Howard Hawks, and the two hadn't gotten along well when filming "Only Angels Have Wings" some months before.
Rebuffed by Arthur, Columbia mogul Harry Cohn then turned to Lombard, whose star had been boosted at Columbia nearly six years before by working on a Hawks-directed comedy, "Twentieth Century." Moreover, Lombard (then in the midst of a non-exclusive contract at RKO) was one of the few top actresses in Hollywood who got along with the often acerbic Cohn.
So what happened? Money got in the way. Lombard's agent, Myron Selznick, simply demanded too high a salary for Cohn, according to Lombard biographer Larry Swindell.
So Russell was the third choice as Hildy, you say? How about the sixth? IMDb states that Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne also turned down the role. It's no wonder Rosalind had a chip on her shoulder when shooting began. Thinking the script wasn't giving her enough good lines, she discreetly hired a writer to provide her some things to "ad lib" (a trait Hawks always encouraged among his actors).
A Lombard portrayal of Hildy Johnson might have been interesting. She certainly could have kept up with the rapid-fire dialogue -- plus, of course, who wouldn't have wanted to see Carole and Cary Grant do comedy together? Unfortunately, that was never to be.
However, more than a decade before, Lombard did play a reporter, in one of her more obscure films. More about that tomorrow.