Ben Hecht's play The Front Page hit the stage in 1928 to wild critical acclaim. The nearly three hour production is a behind the scenes comedy about the newspaper business based on Hecht and co-writer Walter Burns' experiences working at the Chicago Tribune. It wasn't long before Hollywood latched onto the play and in 1931 it was adapted for the silver screen by Howard Hughes. Though Hughes' version was popular it wasn't until Howard Hawks got hold of the material that it received the treatment it deserved under the new name His Girl Friday.
His Girl Friday is among Hawks' best films and arguably one of the greatest American comedies ever made. The story (changed slightly from the original Hecht version) concerns female reporter Hildy Johnson's (Rosalind Russell) bid to give up the newspaper game and settle into the life of a married woman. Circumstances conspire to block her plan though as a major local story erupts and she finds herself unable to turn her back on the breaking news. Meanwhile ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is doing everything he can to convince Hildy that reporting is in her blood and that she should stick with the paper and with him. From this basic premise springs a flood of screwball comedy and rapid-fire dialogue that seem as funny today as they must have in 1940.
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant shine in His Girl Friday. Their performances are precise, engaging and endlessly comical. In fact, this film firmly cemented the reputations of both actors, establishing them as major stars. Hawks' seamless direction and obsessive attention to detail adds a richly rewarding subtext to the film that makes repeat viewing ever more entertaining and enlightening. All in all it's hard to find flaws in His Girl Friday. If ever a perfect screwball comedy was made this had to be it.
This is one of the most remarkable conservation jobs I've seen in some time. The film itself has been restored by Sony pictures in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress. The results are simply stunning. The image is almost completely free of scratches, dirt and pinholes and exhibits rock solid stability. Ninety-nine percent of the film is in virtually pristine condition with only a few feet of faded footage that may have come from another source (the main source is the original 35mm nitrate negative.) His Girl Friday looks as good here as it must have during its initial theatrical run in 1940. Columbia and Sony should be lauded for the work they've done. Thanks to them this film will be enjoyed by many generations to come.
The Transfer: Supporting the immaculate restoration is an exceptional transfer to DVD format. The black level is deep and velvety and the whites bright and clean. The fine grain black and white images are faithfully represented here with a very broad dynamic range, crisp deep focus and extremely good shadow detail. A perfect example of the care taken with this transfer occurs in the first scene. Rosalind Russell enters the newsroom wearing a pinstriped dress that looks like a video technician's test pattern. On a typical DVD that dress would scintillate with moiré due to compression artifacting and digital edge enhancement but here it's almost entirely free from such problems. Examples like this one can be found throughout the film and I found myself continually marveling over how beautiful this transfer is.
The sound track for His Girl Friday is much better than I would have expected. Given the limitations of 1940s audio recording technology one wouldn't expect a very broad dynamic range or exceptional clarity. What you have here is an accurate representation of the original sound with all of its inherent flaws, which is to say that the film sounds just about as good as it did when it was new. There are a few instances of subtle, almost un-noticeable pops and a keen ear can detect a tiny amount of hiss but these flaws are so minor that you probably won't even hear them.
Columbia has been quietly releasing catalogue titles under the 'Columbia Classics' line for some time now. The quality of these discs is generally very good though in some cases ancillary content is severely lacking. In the case of His Girl Friday Columbia took the time and effort to include some very interesting extras that really enhance the presentation of the film.
Audio Commentary by Film Critic and Author Todd McCarthy
This is the biggest and most interesting extra on the disc. Todd McCarthy provides a screen specific audio commentary focusing primarily on production anecdotes, the history of the film and an examination of Howard Hawks' technique and pet themes. McCarthy is wry, engaging and informative but takes very long breaks between comments. Be that as it may, the commentary is well worth a listen, especially for those unfamiliar with Hawks' films.
The vintage advertising section is a collection of one-sheet posters for the film. Users can scroll through this material with the forward and back buttons on their DVD remotes. The posters are presented in vivid clean colors and are fun to browse.
Talent Files (Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy)
Here you'll find the usual basic biographies and filmographies of the film's principles. Most of the information contained in these text screens can also be found in the disc's printed insert and in the McCarthy commentary.
Four Featurettes: "Cary Grant: Making Headlines," "The Inside Scoop: Rosalind Russell," "Reporter's Notebook: Howard Hawks" and "The Funny Pages"
Four newly created video 'documentaries' are included on the disc. Each runs under ten minutes and contains a reasonable amount information on the actors and filmmakers. The featurettes are interesting but I found the narration to be a bit glib. I also wonder why Columbia chose to break this material up into four separate segments. They could have just as easily combined them into one half-hour documentary.
There are two other versions of His Girl Friday available on DVD but this Columbia Classics version is the best of the batch. The audio and video alone make the disc worth owning and the extra content is just icing on an already fantastic cake. His Girl Friday deserves a place in just about any DVD fan's collection and I give it my highest rating: Collector's Series.