It’s easy to get overwhelmed looking at the filmography of director Howard Hawks. There are numerous films in the Hawks catalog that any director would be happy to have one of. Out of forty six films, Hawks has nine on The National Film Registry. Hawks was a genre master, tackling and succeeding in screwball comedy, musicals, drama, western, film noir, and even sci-fi.
If the name Howard Hawks doesn’t immediately ring a bell with you, odds are good you’ve seen at least one of his bigger films: “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo,” “To Have and Have Not,” “Red River,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and the film which this week’s column is about, “His Girl Friday.” Released in 1940 by Columbia Pictures, “His Girl Friday” stars Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and is based upon the 1928 stage play “The Front Page” written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Grant plays Walter Burns, the determined and hard-boiled editor of “The Morning Post,” who learns his ex-wife and former ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) is about to wed again. This news comes on the eve of one of the biggest news stories in years, the execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams. Burns is desperate to have Johnson cover this story, but she’s ready to sail on with her new beau. Through a series of carefully calculated complications, courtesy of Burns’ always tinkering mind, the deep seeded reporter inside Hidly is activated and she’s on the job.
“His Girl Friday” is one of the most influential film comedies ever made. It’s the origin of so many fast talking, quick paced films. Hawks took the unique vocal stylings of the original play and turned them up to eleven. It would be little more than a parlor trick if the only novelty in “His Girl Friday” was the rapid pace, but the performances behind it leaves one floating in a pool of delight that us mere mortals should give thanks to be in.
The other notable change in Hawks’ film is the gender swap the director made. In the original stage play and the 1931 film of “The Front Page” (more on that in a moment), Hildy Johnson is a male role. There are two different stories of what gave Hawks the idea of swapping the gender, but regardless of what gave him the idea, he also barely changed a word of the character’s dialogue. Hawks allowed his actors to ad lib as well, which leads to a lovely moment when Grant’s character refers to a gentleman named Archie Leach slitting his own throat–Archie Leach being Cary Grants real name.
As I mentioned “His Girl Friday” is not the first time “The Front Page” had been adapted to the screen. The 1931 adaptation of “The Front Page” is an early talkie produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Lewis Milestone, and is quite innovative in its own right. Most early talkie films were static, due to the placement of the microphones, but “The Front Page” has both camera and actors moving while speaking. It’s very fluid compared to other talkies of the early ‘30s. I bring it up as I had the chance to see a 4K restoration of “The Front Page” alongside “His Girl Friday” in the new blu-ray release of the latter by The Criterion Collection.
In comparing the two films, for I at least, “His Girl Friday” is the better version. Let’s face it, it’s hard to top Grant and Russell, but the 1931 film does have the great character actor Edward Everett Horton in the cast. The HD transfer of “His Girl Friday” was sourced from a 35mm fine grain master positive struck from the nitrate camera negative. Simply put, it’s the best I’ve ever seen “His Girl Friday” look. The black and white image is clear and rich, with solid black levels that I’ve seen washed out in other prints of the film.
Criterion’s excellent presentation style is apparent in all facets of the release. Bonus features include archival interviews with Howard Hawks, an appreciation of “His Girl Friday” with scholar David Bordwell, featurettes from 1999 and 2006 about the film, radio adaptations of both “His Girl Friday” and “The Front Page,” a featurette on the restoration of “The Front Page,” a featurette on Ben Hecht, trailers, and more. Also, in keeping with the newspaper theme, the booklet inside the package is a small, fold out newspaper.
“His Girl Friday” is one of the great hallmarks of screwball comedy, and a film that has influenced generations of filmmakers. Criterion’s amazing new blu-ray release of the film is the finest it has looked to date, and is an absolute must own. I can’t recommend this one enough! See you next week.