Throughout the history of cinema, few filmmakers have shown the ability to seamlessly weave in out of various genres with the brilliance of Howard Hawks. Not only did Hawks simply make good movies in just about every conceivable genre, he made some of the greatest movies within those genres. Need a great gangster movie? How about Scarface. Need a great western? There’s Red River and Rio Bravo. Need a great film noir? Don’t snooze on The Big Sleep. Want a toe-tapping musical? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will do the trick. Looking for a classic screwball comedy? Look no further than His Girl Friday.
Hawks’ cinematic adaptation of the play by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur, The Front Page, is notable for many reasons – it’s blistering fast dialogue, the classical directorial style of Hawks, the gender-swapping of its lead character and the dynamic chemistry between its stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. One of the odder things of note about His Girl Friday is the fact that the film slipped into public domain in the late ‘60s. That error made it easier for people to watch and study the classic film, and it became a staple of film school courses across the country and the world. However, its public domain status meant that its wide availability would be marred with countless issues of woefully inferior quality, copies of copies that were so degraded in audio and visual quality that its ample brilliance was diluted.
Thankfully, there are the great lovers of cinema at the Criterion Collection that couldn’t let such a travesty stand. They’ve now issued a gorgeous restoration of Hawks’ legendary comedy on Blu-ray that is overflowing with some great special features, including the 1931 movie version of The Front Page that was thought lost to the ages. His Girl Friday is one of the best Criterion Collection editions ever released, one that features a great movie and a great restoration as well as special features that could double as film school classes on Howard Hawks.
Walter Burns (Grant) is the fast-talking managing editor of a newspaper. He’s got a million concerns while following a million stories that line the columns of his paper. There may be not greater concern for Walter than the news that his best writer Hildy Johnson (Russell), who also happens to be his ex-wife, is quitting the newspaper business and moving away with her fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Compounding desperate matters for Walter is the scheduled execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who pleads his innocence but is being railroaded for political expediency. Walter cuts a deal with Hildy to have his best reporter on the scene, convincing her to place her new life on hold for just a few hours to get the story. Meanwhile, Walter will uses all of his devious tricks to ensure that Hildy and Bruce are unable to get on that train to Albany and his paper gets the hottest story in the city.
The screenplay adaptation by Charles Lederer (with uncredited work done by Hecht) is just overflowing with witty banter that the actors deliver at an unbelievably fast rate. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell fire off their lines faster than bullets coming out of Tommy Gun. The closest a modern movie has come to appropriating this style would be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, and the character is obviously created in the mold of Russell’s Hildy. Characters step on each other’s lines in the speedy exchanges of weaponized words, and the humor of the banter and their delivery haven’t lost their punch in nearly 80 years.
Whether watching the 1931 film version of The Front Page or the 1974 remake from Billy Wilder with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, it becomes more and more obvious that Hawks had the right idea in switching the gender of Hildy. There’s an added dynamic between Hildy and Walter that is amplified by the added layer of sexual tension and faded romance that just doesn’t carry the same punch with two men. One simply has to wonder if Howard Hawks was inundated with angry messages from the die-hard fans of The Front Page that were simply aghast at the gender-swapping.
Of the many special features on the two-disc set, the one that really stands out the most is a lengthy interview with film scholar David Bordwell, who with Kristin Thompson wrote the textbook on cinema. Bordwell hits on many subjects in his discussion of Howard Hawks and His Girl Friday, examining the directorial style of Hawks as well as the history of the critical reevaluation that director’s work underwent thanks to the legendary roster of French critics at Cahiers du Cinema. On top of that, Bordwell gets deep into the themes that define Hawksian cinema. If this were the lone special feature on the disc, it would be worth the cost as it is really the equivalent of an introductory course into Howard Hawks.
The other special features include the 1931 version of The Front Page by director Lewis Milestone. Long believed lost, this restoration is a stunning find by the Criterion Collection and a lengthy documentary examines all of the obstacles that went into its restoration, obstacles that are far greater than one could imagine. The two-disc set also features classic radio play versions of The Front Page from 1937 and 1946, one of which featuring Fred MacMurray in the role of Walter Burns. There are other assorted featurettes that are of varying quality. Impressively, the booklet for His Girl Friday is a recreated newspaper, like the one Criterion did for Ace in the Hole, featuring essays by Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow.
His Girl Friday is one of many classics that were helmed by Howard Hawks, containing his efficient directorial style and themes of professionalism. Despite falling into public domain, being widely available albeit in inferior quality, Criterion took it upon themselves to give the film the loving restoration that it deserved and flavored that great restoration with abundant special features that examine the legacy and brilliance of the film, its stars and filmmakers. There’s a reason film fanatics salivate each month when Criterion announces their upcoming releases, and His Girl Friday is just another example as to why – it’s a great edition that exceeds the wildest expectations of the most devoted and fickle fans.