HIS GIRL FRIDAY is still as fast, fun and fresh as it was sixty years ago. Director Howard Hawks made forty-four films, many of them outstanding. He could shift from genre to genre and masterpiece to masterpiece with awe-inspiring grace; among his classic comedies were BRINGING UP BABY (1938), TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934), and BALL OF FIRE(1941). His greatest comedy, however, and arguably his best film, was HIS GIRL FRIDAY.
Adapted from the stage play "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who had written TWENTIETH CENTURY), HIS GIRL FRIDAY was first committed to celluloid in 1931 by director Lewis Milestone. It told the story of a battling editor and reporter, both men. Hawks admired the film, and the finesse he had displayed in directing screwball comedies perfectly suited the material. While reading through the script it dawned on him that the reporter character, a man named Hildebrand, could be changed to a female and the material would still work splendidly. Hawks followed his instinct, and screenwriter Charles Lederer, who had provided additional dialogue for the earlier film version of "The Front Page," made the changes. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) was now not only a woman, but the ex-wife of the maniacal editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant).
Hildy, Walter's ace reporter, wants out of the business and into a "normal" life, which she believes earnest mama's boy Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) can provide. She announces her intention to leave the paper and wed Bruce; neither decision sits well with Walter, who promptly does everything in his power to alternately infuriate Hildy and keep her in his life and on the paper's staff.
Walter, the consummate schemer, sees his chance to keep Hildy away from the altar when a convicted killer who is set for execution the next day escapes and hides in a newsroom desk. Hildy is torn, desperate to become Mrs. Baldwin but also eager to chase the story. Equally desperate is Walter, who babbles excitedly, nonsensically, and often rudely. Hildy is the only character who can match him barb for barb, and they verbally spar for the better part of 90 minutes. The pace at which dialogue is spoken was estimated by an archivist to be 240 words per minute; 130 words per minute over the norm. Hawks, who had been appreciative of overlapping dialogue since hearing it in Frank Capra's 1932 film American Madness, puts it to as good of use as it has ever had in cinema. The masterful, rapid-fire exchanges, parts of which the actors improvised, keep the story moving at an exhaustively funny pace.
Although Grant went on to make countless comedies, several directed by Hawks, he is at the pinnacle of comedic artistry in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Likewise, Russell gives her best comedic performances. Yet, for all of the superlative work represented by the film, it received not a single Oscar nomination. Behold the lameness of the Academy.
Supporting cast includes Cliff Edwards, Ernest Truex, Porter Hall, Regis Toomey, Frank Jenks, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen and Alma Kruger. Cinematography by the wonderful Joseph Walker.
DVD Details: Another Columbia Classics release, HIS GIRL FRIDAY has been restored from the original negatives and it shows. Occasional scratches keep the transfer from being flawless, but the picture is wonderfully clear given the age of the film, and the contrast is excellent. The mono English soundtrack is top-notch. When the words are more difficult to understand it is not because of an insufficient audio track but rather because of the rushed line delivery.
Todd McCarthy, a film critic and Hawks biographer, provides a scene-specific audio commentary that offers new insight into the production as well as retells old anecdotes. Four featurettes rehash the careers of Grant (5 min.), Russell (3 min.) and Hawks (3 min.) and the final short, entitled "Funny Pages," looks into the production of the film. The original theatrical trailer is included along with trailers for the Hawks/Grant film ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and PAL JOEY (which excruciatingly lasts almost five minutes).
As usual, a 2-page production booklet is included, as are vintage advertising material, talent files, a Spanish mono track and English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles. Priced at $24.95, the HIS GIRL FRIDAY disc is a must-own for classic film fans.