Combining the rapid-fire stage treatment of the classic newspaper comedy The Front Page with a modification which altered the original characters now butting their way through a battle-of-the-sexes farce, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday ranks among the greatest screwball comedies ever made and most certainly one of the last masterpieces in the genre.
The Production: 4.5/5
Combining the rapid-fire stage treatment of the classic newspaper comedy The Front Page with a modification which altered the original characters now butting their way through a battle-of-the-sexes farce, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday ranks among the greatest screwball comedies ever made and most certainly one of the last masterpieces in the genre. Offering career-defining performances from Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and a top-notch cast of character actors who play The Front Page faster and funnier than ever before, His Girl Friday emerges as the perfect screen comedy. This Criterion set also includes a new version of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version of The Front Page taken from the original American release cut which director Milestone favored and proving that its greatness which emerged when Kino Lorber released a restored version of the international cut of the film last year should also be celebrated.
His Girl Friday – 5/5
Determined to leave the ranks of hardboiled newshounds behind, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) has divorced her husband Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and become engaged to mild-mannered insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) who plans to take his new bride back to his Albany home. Equally determined not to lose his best reporter, Burns pulls every scheme he can think of to hoodwink Hildy into covering the hanging of convicted killer Earl Williams (John Qualen), a story that becomes even more vital when Williams escapes custody and Hildy finds herself with the killer in the courthouse press room with the hottest scoop of her career right in front of her. Now she must work with her former husband to keep the story for themselves and away from all those out to locate Williams: the sheriff (Gene Lockhart), the mayor (Clarence Kolb), and all the reporters (Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, and Regis Toomey) from rival papers out to nab their own exclusives.
The Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage script has been skillfully adapted by Charles Lederer with an assist from Hecht in turning the role of Hildy from male to female. The basic manipulative relationship between Walter and Hildy has been completely retained with only the added backstory of a romance now cooled with a combative sexual undercurrent to differentiate the two versions of the play on film (all of the Earl Williams material, the press room gags, Earl’s devoted follower Molly Malloy (Helen Mack), and the interfering mother-in-law are carried forward with little to no difference between the 1931 and 1940 versions of the story). In his usual subtle fashion, Howard Hawks’ direction is straightforward and on point (Milestone’s camera movements in the earlier version are actually flashier and more mobile than here), and he favors long takes for the most part which emphasizes the theatrical aspects of the piece. When quick editing is necessary, of course, he’s right there to take advantage of big shocks and surprise revelations, and his use of overlapping dialogue seems to be an industry first and most effective for the rapid-fire delivery necessary to convey the breathlessness of the pacing of the action especially in the film’s second half once Earl Williams escapes from police custody.
The performances are all classic ones and among the greatest ever found in a screen comedy. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell couldn’t have been better cast (Jean Arthur was the original choice for Hildy) and deliver their lines with such lightness and verve that we really savor scenes where it’s just the two of them verbally jousting with one another. Russell’s adeptness with the typewriter also makes her a much more convincing reporter than Pat O’Brien’s very poor simulation of typing in the Milestone version. Helen Mack’s Molly Malloy is the definitive performance of this heart-breaking character, and John Qualen’s Earl Williams is likewise a character whom the audience will root for. The crooked politicos are played brilliantly by Gene Lockhart and Clarence Kolb, and the press room ensemble mentioned above is so adept with their overlapping lines that repeated visits to the film are a necessity to catch all the jokes (Ernest Truex’s Bensinger has been toned down considerably from Edward Everett Horton’s performance in the earlier film or the flaming one that David Wayne enacts in the 1970s remake). Billy Gilbert makes a welcome couple of appearances as the delivery man who holds a damning piece of evidence, and Abner Biberman as Burns’ strong arm Louie and Frank Orth as city editor Duffy also add to the fun.
The Front Page (1931) – 4.5/5
Calculating managing editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) is outraged to learn that his top reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is leaving his Chicago reporter’s job to marry lovely Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and take a job in an advertising agency in New York City, but he’s encouraged that Johnson might stay when sentenced-to-death anarchist Earl Williams (George E. Stone) escapes from inept Sheriff Hartman (Clarence H. Wilson) that lights a fire under Hildy who can’t resist a good story. And when Williams drops into the press room at the Criminal Courts Building and Hildy hides him in a roll-top desk to garner an exclusive story, Burns himself heads down to lend a hand and work on the printer’s ink in Hildy’s blood to keep the interfering Peggy from possibly stealing him away at such a crucial juncture.
The original play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (often called the most perfectly structured comedy ever written) has been slightly opened up by screenwriters Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer, but the essence of the bittersweet satire built into the play is still there from scathing views of indolent newspapermen to incompetent and sometimes corrupt political officials. No one (apart perhaps from the noble streetwalker Molly Malloy enacted by the wonderful Mae Clarke) emerges unscathed from the Earl Williams affair, and the combination of witty, farcical situations along with some heartfelt tributes to man’s occasional nobility (rare but not wholly extinct) keeps the narrative completely involving for both first-timers and return visitors. Sure, the profanity-laced dialogue from the stage play has been completely cleaned up, but there’s enough naughtiness still present to suggest what kind of uncouth humanity we’re dealing with here. But you’ll be most astonished by the staggering direction of Lewis Milestone who even in this early talkie keeps the camera mobile throughout, sometimes making circular sweeps of the press room, sometimes placing the camera in point-of-view shots that boggle the imagination, and always making sure that there is none of the static cling of a photographed stage play that so many other play adaptations around the same time possessed. (Had Milestone not already won two Oscars in the first three years of the Academy Awards, he most surely would have won for his work here; he was nominated.)
Adolphe Menjou was likewise Oscar-nominated for his Walter Burns, a part expanded on film from its stage counterpart, allowing the often suave Menjou a change-of-pace role as a slimy, hard-nosed schemer with a heart of brass and demonstrating the ability to handle lengthy takes with all the aplomb of a practiced stage actor. After other actors were considered, Pat O’Brien made his film debut in the role of Hildy Johnson, and while the role is usually performed in a showier, brassier manner, O’Brien gets the job done (even if his typing is about as unconvincing as can be). Mary Brian is acceptably colorless as O’Brien’s love interest (she can’t match Walter Burns’ zest and drive to be number one in Hildy’s heart), but Mae Clark steals the show as the noble down-on-her-heels Molly Malloy. George E. Stone is a sweet, innocent pawn of the system as Earl Williams. And what fantastic character actors are around to play the motley crew of reporters crafting features (often fictional) for their city editors over the telephone: Walter Catlett, Matt Moore, Frank McHugh, Freddie Howard, Phil Tead, Gene Strong, and, as the fussy, germ phobic feature writer Bensinger, the one and only Edward Everett Horton. Clarence H. Wilson is unforgettable as the snarling sheriff, and there’s Slim Summerville in a small but key role as a delivery man whose appearance (or lack thereof) can affect the futures of several of the play’s central figures.
3D Rating: NA
His Girl Friday – 5/5 The Front Page – 4/5
Both films have been presented at 1.33:1 in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. His Girl Friday has been completely cleaned up and looks brand spanking new with superb sharpness, outstanding grayscale rendering, and consistent contrast throughout the presentation. No age-related artifacts are present at all. This new version of The Front Page is quite a bit cleaner than the Kino Lorber release of the international version from last year (only a bit of partially corrected damage and a small scratch are the artifacts present on the Criterion version), but the Kino has better contrast and is a bit brighter. His Girl Friday has been divided into 14 chapters while The Front Page has 18 chapters.
Both films are offered in PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps). Age-related problems with hiss, crackle, flutter, and hum have all but been eliminated with both releases. His Girl Friday has better fidelity, of course, since The Front Page was filmed during the early years of the talkies (and was recorded on both film and disc as one of the bonus features illustrates), but both films present the mounds of dialogue cleanly and precisely.
Special Features: 5/5
The His Girl Friday disc contains the following features:
Howard Hawks Interviews (10:27, HD): excerpts from interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Richard Schickel are combined into an enjoyable featurette.
A New Hildy Johnson (25:04, HD): film historian David Bordwell does a fascinating video analysis of the movie with an emphasis on Howard Hawk’s unfussy, strong filmmaking style.
On Assignment: His Girl Friday (8:47, HD): critics David Thomsen and Molly Haskell praise His Girl Friday.
Howard Hawks: Reporter’s Notebook (3:23, HD): a brief overview of the making of the film.
Funny Pages (3:28, HD): an overview of the original stage version of The Front Page.
Rosalind Russell: Inside Scoop (3:14, HD): a brief history of actress Rosalind Russell’s career with clips from some of her films.
Lux Radio Theater (59:30): the 1940 radio version of His Girl Friday with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in the leading roles.
Trailers (HD): teaser trailer (1:22), theatrical trailer (2:50).
The Front Page disc contains the following bonuses:
Restoring The Front Page (24:01, HD): Dr. Hart Wegner introduces the story of the three different versions of the 1931 classic and how the version used on the disc from the Howard Hughes collection housed at UNLV came to be found and utilized for this edition. Film professionals from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and the University of Nevada also participate in the discussion.
Ben Hecht (25:43, HD): David Brendhl tells the fascinating story of the literary and cinematic career of Ben Hecht.
1937 Radio Adaptation (58:45): hosted by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Walter Winchell and James Gleason, this version aired on June 28, 1937.
1946 Radio Adaptation (31:42): airing on June 22, 1946, the film’s stars Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien recreated their film roles.
Enclosed Newspaper: clever four-page insert which includes cast and crews for both films, information on the transfers, and essays on the films by film critics Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow.
Timeline: on each movie disc, this can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
A masterpiece of comic invention and inspiration, His Girl Friday is a film that rewards multiple views with fresh insights and new discoveries. This new Criterion release paired with the first-ever release on home video of the American cut of the 1931 The Front Page comes with a startling array of bonus material that will keep one entertained for hours. Highest recommendation!