In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play newspaper reporters Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, who used to be married to each other. Their sexual tension combines with professional pride while covering a man’s imminent execution in a frantic, fast-talking, head-spinning plot set mostly in one room. Hildy’s now about to get married to a nice Ralph Bellamy type (played by Ralph Bellamy), but it’s a cinch that cracking the case and repairing the marriage will go hand in hand.
This is one of the funniest films ever made, rendered all the more so by the cynical atmosphere and director Howard Hawks’ decision that everyone talk at once, stepping on each other’s lines. As critic David Bordwell attempts to demonstrate in an extra on the new Criterion Blu-ray, the result yields one of the most perfect Hollywood films, arguably the apotheosis of form.
I don’t want to talk about it.
Really, if you haven’t seen His Girl Friday, consider your life wasted so far, and the good news is that you can correct this error post haste. If you’ve seen it before, you’ve only joy to gain by watching it afresh. I’ll leave further comments to those who have and will continue to discuss this classic, for what’s gotten me especially excited about this new release is the bonus disc, which contains a very clear-sounding and mostly clear-looking restoration of the film on which it’s based: the 1931 production of The Front Page, adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s seminal Broadway hit.
Both films have fallen into the public domain and circulated for years in lousy prints from various companies, so it’s great to have excellent versions. The 1931 movie has been especially problematic because it was an indie produced by Howard Hughes for release by United Artists, while the 1940 film at least was a major studio production from Columbia and has already been out in good prints. Although the 1931 negative no longer exists, a safety print was made from the Hughes archive (stuff kept in a Las Vegas airplane hangar), and that’s the source of this meticulous job.
As explained in an excellent making-of, the restorers were befuddled to discover themselves in possession of a different print from that held by the Library of Congress. They eventually realized that they were working with the original US release version, while the Library of Congress had a print made from alternate takes intended for overseas release. There are many differences in performance, editing, and even dialogue choices, sometimes with sexual innuendos altered. For example, the LC print has a character “flipping the bird”. That version was released by Kino in 2015 and those who own that extras-laden disc should hold onto it, not least to make the comparisons.
Enough with the technicalities. How does the movie hold up? Splendidly. Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-nominated direction handles the new talkie medium with snap and recorded clarity, giving the 101-minute movie a reputation for its rapid pace—cut by ten minutes under Hawks’ even more rapid pace. This is dark-hued comedy punctuated by rat-a-tat gunfire amid cynical manipulations without regard for the truth—only the scoop. The film opens with literal gallows humor, as the trapdoor is tested with a sack of flour and the hangman complains that the last guy bounced up and down like a rubber band.
Milestone didn’t want a static film, although it’s mostly on one set. Aside from several frantic moments of cross-cutting, his camera continually circles, paces, dollies into and out of doors and windows, and generates nervous restlessness to underline the suspense of a story about pending execution, the convict’s dramatic and absurd escape, and the nail-biting question of whether the governor’s reprieve will be revealed—not to mention whether reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) will leave Chicago with his bride (Mary Brian) or whether he will be hornswoggled by domineering and unscrupulous editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou, also Oscar-nominated), with whom he has a love-hate relationship that openly rivals his impending marriage.
To further his aesthetic ends, Milestone makes great use of stairwells and elevators. One magnificently gratuitous shot features the camera rising in a glass-fronted elevator towards a beautifully designed, mirror-lined foyer that creates an effect midway between the funhouse scenes in Charles Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). The gist of the short scene seems to be that someone is looking for Hildy in a brothel, which is the kind of pre-Code touch that abounds in this picture.
The chorus of hardboiled reporters keep dropping saucy hints about sexual peccadillos and sissies and what have you, and one strong character is frankly a prostitute played by Mae Clarke, who’s most famous for getting a grapefruit in the face courtesy of James Cagney in the same year’s The Public Enemy. She’s the film’s voice of conscience and commits one of the more gasp-worthy acts ever pulled in a supposed comedy, and that’s after a man gets shot in the stomach before our eyes.
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Then there’s the matter of an innocent man (George E. Stone) accused of murder during a march of the unemployed—remember, this was early in the Depression—and framed as a “Red” by the sheriff (Clarence Wilson) and blustery mayor (James Gordon) to exploit their re-election. A reporter who doesn’t believe in the convict’s innocence calls him a “poor bird who had the touch luck to kill a colored policeman in a town where the colored vote matters”. So much colorful talk.
Later, the condemned man launches into: “Calling me a Bolshevik. I’m an anarchist. It’s got nothing to do with bombs. It’s a philosophy that guarantees every man’s freedom, and all the poor people being chiseled by the system, and the boys, the boys that were killed in the war, and in the slums all of those slaves to a crust of bread. I can hear them crying.” Hildy tells him to shut up so he can hide him in the toilet—a word actually pronounced in the dialogue at one point. By the way, the clarity of this print reveals photos of very topless women pinned to the walls. This was 1931!
If the great His Girl Friday and its extras (including Hawks interviews and a radio version) were the only offerings on this Blu-ray, it would be essential. Throwing in the revelatory restoration of The Front Page, along with its extras (including a profile of Hecht and two radio versions), makes this a sweet deal, indeed.