The Criterion Collection add the Hollywood comedy classic His Girl Friday to their UK catalogue. Not content with merely upgrading this old favourite for Blu-Ray, they've included the first film version of the play on which it was based, The Front Page, which was produced by Howard Hughes. I've included reviews of both films below.
I'm going to review the films in reverse chronological order as this is the order in which I watched them and, let's be honest, His Girl Friday is the film most people will be buying the Blu-Ray for. The Front Page is even classed as a special feature on the box, which is quite surprising – it could have easily been marketed as a box-set as the older film deserves your full attention.
His Girl Friday
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on a Play by: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: U (although the disc is rated 12)
We like to moan about remakes these days amidst nostalgia-tinted exclamations that “they don't make them like they used to”, but the Hollywood system was even more rigid and dominating back in the 'good old days' than it is now. There were plenty of remakes, sequels, knock-offs and cash-ins in the golden age (roughly 1930-59). It's just that we only remember the good (or at least most popular) films several decades on. That's not to say none of the remakes or sequels were any good though. A number of films now regarded as classics were remakes. Ben Hur had already been made in the 20's before the hugely successful 1959 version came out for instance. Alfred Hitchock even remade one of his own films when he chose to update The Man Who Knew Too Much in Hollywood in 1956, using his British 1934 film of the same name as a template (which is the better version is up for debate on this though). One classic I didn't realise was a remake until recently is His Girl Friday. Long considered one of the greatest Hollywood comedies of the era, it was based on a popular Broadway play that had already been produced by Howard Hughes almost 10 years previously as The Front Page (which was also the title of the play). The original story and most of the dialogue was kept in tact, but the most notable difference was that Howard Hawks' 1940 version swapped the gender of the film's protagonist.
So the male lead Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson from The Front Page became the female Hildegaard 'Hildy' Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday. The film sees her come back to the newspaper office where she used to work as a reporter to tell her boss and former husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that's she's leaving town to get married to her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – the gender of this role was reversed too of course - the early 30's weren't ready for same-sex marriage stories yet) and won't be returning. Burns wants her back professionally and personally though, so schemes to give her a taste of a hot story breaking in town. Initially refusing, Hildy can't resist after a while and gets drawn deeper into the political mess surrounding the proposed hanging of a supposed 'commie' who shot a police officer. She desperately tries to get the story tied up before her train is due to take her, her fiancée and mother-in-law to a new life, but juicy nuggets keep dropping in her lap and Burns tries every trick in the book to keep her hooked.
The problem with reviewing cast iron classics like these is that so much has been said already and the film has been widely seen by now (although younger generations seem less exposed to anything pre-70's). So I'll keep my review pretty brief. The simplest thing to say is that His Girl Friday more than lives up to its reputation. It's breathlessly entertaining, aided by the breakneck pace served up by director Hawks who already flexed his rapid-fire screwball comedy muscles with Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby. The dialogue shoots out so quickly I imagine the script for this 92 minute film probably resembles that of a 3 hour epic!
The dialogue is incredibly sharp too and the script doesn't shy away from presenting the press as a particularly heartless bunch. Much is from the original play, so most of the praise in this department must go there, but there are a couple of fun post-modern references added into the mix. My favourite is when Burns is asked what Bruce looks like and he says “he looks like that fellow in the movies – Ralph Bellamy”. There's some great visual and physical comedy too, such as the seedy reporter quietly looking up skirts as women go up the neighbouring stairwell or when Burns hoists a short colleague up to look through a window.
What really pushes this from simply being a great script delivered very quickly, is the strength of the cast. Russell deserves more recognition than she gets as it's her film more than Grant's and she has a fire and energy like no other. Grant delivers the goods too, making a character who's a real piece of work remain a joy to watch.
The film is a real force of nature – a non-stop whirlwind of sharp dialogue, spirited performances and briskly delivered plotting. It's hugely entertaining from start to finish and still laugh out loud hilarious almost 80 years on. It's a perfect example of the great Howard Hawks' genius behind the camera.
The Front Page
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Bartlett Cormack
Based on a Play by: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Starring: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O'Brien, Mary Brian
Running Time: 101 min
The plot of The Front Page is obviously the same as His Girl Friday, so I'll skip the usual synopsis and get right to the nitty gritty, meaning this review will likely be quite short.
I think watching His Girl Friday first made it difficult to judge The Front Page on its own merits. Supposedly the earlier film was deemed incredibly fast paced at the time of its release, but when compared to Hawks' version it feels fairly sedate. There's 10 minutes difference in the running time and it shows, although when compared to most films, The Front Page is pretty pacey. It's just when you compare it to the tornado of His Girl Friday.
The top class dialogue is already here though and works a treat of course. I felt like there was a fraction more time given to the political aspects of the story though as well as to the other journalists in the court's news room. In fact, one thing I felt The Front Page did better than its counterpart was giving life to the group of journalists getting in the way of Hildy at the court. They're a real motley crew of characters and the banter between them provides much of the humour. I particularly liked a scene where we hear three journalists phone in their latest updates at the same time. One is flowery and detailed, another rough and full of scandal, whilst the last simply says “no new news on the case”. I can't remember this scene in His Girl Friday, so either it isn't there or it isn't delivered as memorably. The remake loses the great final sucker punch line too, although it still ends perfectly as it is.
I didn't think the leads here matched Grant and Russell though. They do a decent job, but feel a little stagier and their characters come across much more aggressively, making for leads that are more difficult to like than their later counterparts. Pat O'Brien in particular is a bit bland and much less likeable than Russell. Adolphe Menjou fares better, delivering a truly despicable Burns, but I do prefer Grant's slimy but charismatic take on the role.
In terms of visuals I thought this early film contained some more extravagant and stylish shots though. Knowing that he needed to do something to justify taking the script from the stage, Lewis Milestone adds plenty of elaborate camera movements in the minimal sets and throws in a cool room of mirrors near the beginning to grab your attention. Hawks doesn't get as flashy as this, although he uses constant movement in frame to keep his restless energy up.
I get the feeling I'd have given The Front Page a higher score had I seen it separately, but I couldn't help comparing it to its superior remake when viewed only a couple of days later. Much of what makes His Girl Friday great is already here, but when watching them side by side you can't shake the feeling that the original film isn't quite as much fun or as perfectly presented and performed.
His Girl Friday is out on 16th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality on His Girl Friday is great – nice and sharp and detailed. The Front Page is a lot softer, but considering the age and difficulties they had (outlined in the special features), they did a decent job.
You get a fair amount of special features too. Here's the full list:
- New 2K restoration of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931), made from a recently discovered print of the director’s preferred version
- New interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday
- Archival interviews with director Howard Hawks
- Featurettes from 1999 about Hawks, actor Rosalind Russell, and the making of His Girl Friday
- Radio adaptation of His Girl Friday from 1940
- New piece about the restoration of The Front Page
- New piece about playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht
- Radio adaptations of the play The Front Page from 1937 and 1946
- His Girl Friday trailers
- PLUS: A booklet featuring essays on His Girl Friday and The Front Page by film critics Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow
It's a strong collection which covers most of what you'd like to know about the two films. The new interviews in particular are very rich and informative.