His Girl Friday (1940): Criterion Collection
Criterion // Unrated // $49.95 // January 10, 2017
Review by Randy Miller III | posted January 3, 2017
Highly Recommended
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Unlike a few of my long-winded reviews, I'm a man of few words in real life. I don't like gab-fests, excited crowds, or most things above normal speaking volume. But I'll make exceptions with some of the movies I watch...and while dialogue-heavy affairs like Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) are usually not my cup of tea, most of the gags and performances are more than enough to make me listen intently. Like Lewis Milestone's The Front Page, released less than a decade earlier and also based on a 1928 play by the same name, His Girl Friday is a fast-paced examination of life in the newspaper business. Both films feature a star reporter named Hildy Johnson working for hard-boiled editor Walter Burns. But His Girl Friday outpaces its older brother by changing "Hildy Johnson" to a woman (the singular Rosalind Russell) and making her the ex-wife of Burns (played here by Cary Grant), with the resulting sexual tension and prickly dialogue exchanges---often simultaneously---forming a rock-solid backbone.

Perfectly cast, the pairing of Grant and Russell (more well-known at that point for her time at MGM, such as 1939's Fast and Loose and The Women) is more than enough to carry the lightweight His Girl Friday when they share the screen. But their relationship is far from sweet, or even candid: Hildegard ("Hildy" for short) is on her way out, and isn't afraid to remind the charming Burns at every opportunity. She's off to marry milquetoast insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) in Albany, ending her career as star reporter at The Morning Post when her train leaves at 4:00 pm. Naturally, the resourceful and cunning Burns uses every legal---and in some cases, illegal---trick in the book to keep Hildy under his roof, from kidnapping her future mother-in-law (Alma Kruger) to handing her the story of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen) and his upcoming execution.

Naturally, the tricky balance of dark and light---Hildy and Walter's playful banter and brutal jabs at one another, as well as the black comic backdrop of his actions---would spell disaster in the wrong hands, but His Girl Friday toes the line admirably. Often times scathingly funny, it's so punishingly fast-paced that first-time viewers will probably have trouble keeping up. Some gags might not even register until the third or fourth viewing. Yet while His Girl Friday can't help but falter a little when Hildy or Walter aren't on screen---together or not---it's aged quite well during the last 76 years and, like its source material, still feels eerily prescient in today's media-driven world. Like Ace in the Hole and Network, it'll probably feel timeless for at least another few decades (unfortunately?).

Though highly successful (and, like The Front Page and its stage version, controversial) during its original run, it took several decades for His Girl Friday to carve out its status as a classic comedy. Perhaps its greatest surge in popularity occurred during the 1970s, when a failed copyright renewal put His Girl Friday in the public domain and made cheap 16mm prints an easy acquisition for college film professors. While later adaptations---Billy Wilder's 1974 version of The Front Page and 1988's Switching Channels, for example---have attempted to recapture the same spark, Hawks' 1940 remake remains one of the better adaptions of durable source material. Luckily for fans, it's presented on Blu-ray from Criterion...and even better, it shares the spotlight with Milestone's The Front Page as well. Both films are presented separately on this two-disc set, with each receiving a terrific new A/V presentation and several worthwhile extras. It's a fine package from top to bottom, whether you've seen both films or neither one.

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this sparkling 1080p transfer of His Girl Friday is, unsurprisingly, miles ahead of Columbia/Tri-Star's respectable 1999 DVD. Sourced from a high-definition digital restoration, there's a strong amount of detail and texture on display here, with deep black levels and good contrast. Digital imperfections, such as compression artifacts and excessive noise reduction, don't seem to be an issue at all. Film grain is also nicely rendered, it's almost always evident but rarely overpowering. Quite simply, this is a great presentation from a reliably good company that should easily impress die-hard fans and newcomers alike. Although not marketed as a true 4K restoration, I can't imagine His Girl Friday looking much better on Blu-ray than it does here.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

There's less to say about the PCM 1.0 track, aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds a little better than expected for a film that's now more than three-quarters of a century old. Dialogue, sporadic music cues, and background effects are relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while the overall experience even manages to showcase a few moments of depth at times. Overall, this lossless mono presentation is true to the source material and purists will enjoy the lack of surround gimmickry. Optional English subtitles are included.

Menu Design & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" keepcase with terrific cover artwork by Randy Glass and a fold-out Newspaper Insert that ought to win some kind of packaging award: it replicates an edition of The Morning Post and features essays on His Girl Friday and The Front Page by critics Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow.

Bonus Features

Two new Interviews are up first, newly produced by Criterion from old and new source material. "Hawks on Hawks" (10:26) is an overview of the film in the director's own words via a 1972 audio conversation between Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich, as well as a 1973 interview with Richard Schickel and Hawks. The more in-depth "Lighting Up with Hildy Johnson" (25:05) is hosted by author and film scholar David Bordwell, who speaks in great detail about elements of His Girl Friday that showcase some of director Howard Hawks' best work, compares him to other auteurs including Alfred Hitchcock, and analyzes the film's breakneck pace and razor-sharp dialogue. It's a scholarly and detailed (but very accessible) analysis of the film that die-hard fans and newcomers will enjoy.

Rewinding a bit, we also get four recycled Featurettes---mostly from Columbia/Tri-Star's 1999 DVD---including "On Assignment: His Girl Friday", "The Inside Scoop: Rosalind Russell", "Howard Hawks: Reporter's Notebook", and "The Funny Pages" (19 minutes total). It's great to have this vintage material, but several of that disc's extras (including an audio commentary with film critic Todd McCarthy and a poster gallery) didn't make the cut.

An original Lux Radio Theater Adaptation of His Girl Friday (59:30) from September 30th, 1940 is also included, featuring Claudette Colbert as Hildy Johnson and Fred MacMurray as Walter Burns, plus the main feature's original Teaser and Trailer. But that's not all, as we're barely halfway done with this two-disc release.

The second half of this package is a new 4K restoration of Lewis Milestone's The Front Page (101 minutes, above), made from a recently discovered 35mm print of the director's preferred version: a first-run domestic copy, rather than the more well-known foreign release (with slightly different takes) owned by the Library of Congress. Explained in greater detail during an included restoration featurette (see below), this resurrection of the earlier film is certainly welcome on Blu-ray, as die-hard fans of His Girl Friday can easily compare and contrast both adaptations of the stage play. Presented in 1080p with PCM 1.0 sound, it looks and sounds better than most will expect.

"Restoring The Front Page" (24:01) is a terrific featurette about the film's restoration for this release. Several members of the UNLV Department of Film are featured including Dr. Hart Wegner, who talks about digging through the Howard Hughes archives, while other film archivists like AMPAS director Michael Pogorzelski speak about using an original 35mm print of The Front Page as the basis for this new restoration. The film's place in Hollywood history is also discussed, as well as its lapse into public domain and the circulation of poor quality prints. There's even a few comparisons between the UNLV print and an alternate Library of Congress print that uses different takes of various scenes during the film, as well as some great details about the audio clean-up. Overall, there's more substance here than traditional restoration featurettes, especially from a historical perspective. Fans will love this!

A new piece about writer Ben Hecht (25:42) covers many details about his career in Hollywood and early life in Al Capone-era Chicago. Hosted by Hecht expert David Brendel, this brief biography offers a fascinating account of the writer's down-and-dirty style that produced, among other things, The Front Page's original stage production.

Two separate Radio Adaptations of The Front Page are also included; one from 1937 (58:45, featuring Walter Winchell as Hildy Johnson and James Gleason as Walter Burns) and another from 1946 (31:43, reuniting Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in their roles from the 1931 film). Overall, a fully-loaded release from top to bottom.

Though not as memorable when Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell aren't sharing screen time, Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday is worthy of its status as an innovative, influential comedy that's held up quite well during the past 77 years. Chock full of razor-sharp dialogue often delivered at a breakneck pace, there's a lot to take in during this film's brisk 92-minute running time...and most of it is first-rate, even if you've never worked a day in the newspaper business. Criterion's thoughtful and well-rounded Blu-ray edition ends up being a double feature, sharing the spotlight with Lewis Milestone's The Front Page (1931); both are based on the same 1928 Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Each film features a top-tier A/V presentations and a handful of entertaining, informative supplements... and at just $10 more than Criterion's usual price point? Highly Recommended, obviously.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.

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