“Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.”
Is there a better showcase for comic dialogue than His Girl Friday? The rapid-fire banter has enough killer lines to fill a dozen good comedies, and the only thing that keeps you from laughing even more than you already are is the fear that you might miss one of them. There’s plenty of plot (lots of newspaper investigations and an increasingly complicated love triangle), but the story is largely just a complex framework designed to inspire memorable conversations. Above all, it’s a movie about the pleasure of listening to people talk. And yet… there’s also something else going on here.
The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 comedy The Front Page (a perfectly respectable movie in its own right, and included as a bonus feature on this Blu-ray release), and it was originally supposed to be a fairly straightforward one. Milestone’s film focused on newspaper editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou, Paths of Glory) and ace reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (Pat O’Brien, Some Like It Hot), who are preparing to part ways due to Hildy’s plan to retire from the newspaper business and marry his sweetheart Peggy (Mary Brian).
When Hawks was auditioning actors for the assorted roles in his remake, he would occasionally have his secretary read the role of Hildy. Hearing a woman’s voice applied to the part inspired him: maybe the part actually should be played by a woman. His decision to change the gender of one of the main characters is by far the most dramatic change he makes to his source material, but it’s one of many alterations that takes something good and makes it great. The end result is one of those rare comedies that seems to have been sprinkled with a bit of magic dust; a film where every single scene seems to work in three or four or ten hilarious touches.
In this version of the story, Walter is played by Cary Grant (North by Northwest) while Hildy is played by Rosalind Russell (Gypsy). One additional variation: Hildy is Walter’s ex-wife. Once upon a time, they were co-workers in love, chasing down stories by day and… well, chasing down more stories by night. Things fell apart eventually, and now Hildy is getting ready to marry the quiet, sweet, slightly dim Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, The Awful Truth). Alas, Walter still harbors feelings for his ex, and begins concocting a scheme to win her back: he lures her back to the paper for a one-time assignment – the juicy story of a convicted murderer (John Qualen, The Searchers) who is scheduled for execution – and continually finds less-than-ethical ways to keep Bruce out of the way (the poor sap keeps getting thrown in jail for reasons beyond his understanding).
Given the razzle-dazzle wit of the dialogue and the almost impossibly charming chemistry of the two leads (it’s clear from the very first reel that poor, dumb Bruce doesn’t stand a chance), it’s easy to overlook the satirical bite beneath the film’s surface. This is an almost gleefully amoral work, in which our protagonists violate all sorts of ethical codes (journalistic and otherwise) in the service of getting what they want without ever bumping into any consequences. Whether their actions are perceived as good or evil don’t particularly matter as long as they get a juicy story out of it, and whether Walter’s brand of wooing is honorable or vicious doesn’t particularly matter as long as he gets the girl. Hawks takes that same philosophy and applies it to the film as a whole: he doesn’t care what moral you take away from it as long as you laugh. It’s the gleeful flip side to something like the great, gloomy The Sweet Smell of Success (where the media’s amorality is the source of intense drama and stern lessons), and a genuinely subversive entertainment (one that turns the viewer into an eager accomplice).
His Girl Friday (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a fine 1080p/Full Frame transfer. Scratches and flecks are almost non-existent, a moderate amount of stable grain is present and detail is exceptional. There are a few moments of softness here and there, but they’re not particularly distracting. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is strong, too, presenting the overlapping dialogue with clarity and completely free of crackling and hiss. Supplements are generous even by Criterion standards. On the first disc, you get four archival featurettes, a compilation of clips from older Hawks interviews, a visual essay from film scholar David Bordwell, a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film and trailers. The second disc contains The Front Page, two featurettes (one on restoring the film and one on screenwriter Ben Hecht) and two radio theatre adaptations of the film. Finally, you get two leaflets containing essays on both films.
His Girl Friday is a screwball classic with a sharper bite than you might expect given its reputation as a universally-beloved classic. The inclusion of the (pretty good!) The Front Page is a nifty bonus.