“He looks like, ah, that fellow in the movies…you know, Ralph Bellamy.”
While His Girl Friday (1940) could in no way be mistaken as a Christmas film, what could be more in keeping with the spirit of the holiday season than an evergreen comedy that constantly tickles the funny bone, invigorates the senses and leaves us comfortably full with enjoyment? Howard Hawks’ version of the 1928 stage play “The Front Page” (previously filmed in 1931 as The Front Page) is an amazing piece of entertainment played to perfection by stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and a who’s who of Hollywood character actors. If you can’t enjoy this, I’d say there’s no hope for you.
Columbia has released a sparkling DVD of His Girl Friday — one that immediately jumps to near the top of must-have discs of 1940s films.
Ace reporter Hildy Johnson has quit her job with the Post in order to marry insurance saleman Bruce Baldwin and settle down to a normal, civilized life. Editor Walter Burns, to whom Hildy was formerly married, is not prepared to let her go without a fight, however. He uses the impending hanging of convicted killer Earl Williams as a pretext to get one last story out of Hildy. Hildy agrees on the condition that Walter take out a $100,000 life insurance policy on himself
Hildy goes to the prison where Williams is being held to write up a human interest story on him. There she meets half a dozen of her reporter colleagues who are on the death watch (and a more-cynical bunch one is unlikely to meet). Earl Williams, however, escapes, apparently after taking the sheriff’s gun. The sheriff, one Peter B. Hartwell, is a bungler who along with the mayor has been trying to orchestrate the timing of Williams’ execution to put themselves in the best light for forthcoming elections.
While the sheriff’s men are out following false leads as to the escaped Williams’ where-abouts, Williams in fact is still on the prison grounds and he stumbles into the newspaper reporters’ room where Hildy has been left on her own. Sensing the possibility of a major scoop should she be able to keep Williams hidden until the Post can break a story that it has recaptured Williams when the sheriff and all his men couldn’t, Hildy summons Walter to help her.
A roll-top desk, Williams’ “girl-friend,” the arrest of Bruce Baldwin, the kidnapping of Baldwin’s mother, and a reprieve from the governor all play roles in the eventual resolution of the story.
It’s hard to know where to start with a film that’s an old friend, one that you’ve seen over and over again and of which you never tire. Director Howard Hawks or stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or the witty script with the wonderfully overlapping dialogue are all obvious topics for discussion, but anyone who’s at all familiar with His Girl Friday will be well aware of their various contributions to the film. Let’s just say that you couldn’t improve on any of these aspects no matter how hard you tried.
The main change that His Girl Friday has from the original play is the reporter Hildy Johnson, a character that was a male in both the original play and film. The change turned out to be a real inspiration, particularly given how well the role was played by Rosalind Russell. Cary Grant was always tabbed to play Walter Burns, but Jean Arthur was actually the original choice for the Hildy Johnson part, given her chemistry with Grant in the previously completed Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings (1939) [whose DVD from Columbia I also recommend]. She turned down the role as did several others such as Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne. Rosalind Russell had to be borrowed from MGM and her initial reaction was not one of ecstasy at the opportunity. She soon realized, however, that she’d lucked into a good thing.
The script was beautifully crafted by Charles Lederer, but Hawks was quite content also to let the two stars ad-lib as they wished and some of the best lines arose because of it. The signature of the film was the furious pace at which the dialogue was delivered and the deliberate overlapping of the dialogue at times. The exchange between Walter, Hildy and Bruce near the end of the film as Hildy attempts to type up the story is perhaps the best example of the latter.
One could go on about the excellence of the two stars in the film or Hawks’ trademark handling of the male-female relationship, but much has been written elsewhere about those topics (see “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood” by Todd McCarthy). Instead, let’s look at the supporting cast — one of the finest assemblages of Hollywood character actors ever to appear in one movie. Veteran classic-film watchers will recognize all these names and certainly their faces:
* Ralph Bellamy — Bruce Baldwin
* Gene Lockhart — Sheriff Peter B. Hartwell
* Porter Hall — Reporter Murphy
* Roscoe Karns — Reporter McCue
* Ernest Truex — Reporter Roy B. Bensinger
* Cliff Edwards — Reporter Endicott
* Frank Jenks — Reporter Wilson
* Regis Toomey — Reporter Sanders
* Clarence Kolb — Mayor
* Abner Biberman — Louis
* Frank Orth — Duffy
* John Qualen — Earl Williams
* Billy Gilbert — Joe Pettibone
* Edwin Maxwell — Dr. Egelhoffer
One of the great pleasures of His Girl Friday is watching these professionals do their stuff. Of this group, Bellamy and Lockhart have the largest parts. Bellamy made a career of playing the “other man,” the one who was honest, stable and dependable. Invariably the film’s heroine would for a time be drawn to him as an alternative to the unconventional characteristics of the hero. And just as invariably, those upright “other man” characteristics would brand him as boring in the end and he would never get the girl. The role of Bruce Baldwin — replete with umbrella, galoshes (“you never know when it might rain”), and briefcase — was no exception to this pattern. This, and his Oklahoma rancher/oilman in 1937’s The Awful Truth (Col), are probably Bellamy’s two signature roles of this type.
Gene Lockhart was a little more versatile than Bellamy, and no one portrayed an air of unwarranted superiority better. That’s what the part of Peter B. Hartwell called for and to watch the range of expressions on his face and hear the inflexions in his voice as he attempts to deal with the reporters is just pure pleasure. Even though you don’t know the background when you first see Hartwell in the film, Lockhart’s performance lets you know unequivocally that Hartwell is a posturing incompetent despite what the words coming out of his mouth may be saying.
Anyone who has seen It Happened One Night (1934, Col) will remember Roscoe Karns. He’s the fast-talking guy on the bus (“Shapeley’s the name…”) who tries to put a move on Claudette Colbert when she finds herself seated next to him. Imagine Shapeley’s line of patter and multiply it by five and you’ve got some idea of the reporters awaiting Earl Williams’ execution. These guys have seen it all and can only survive through gallows humour. Porter Hall, the other main reporter, often played a more sober, upright character, usually with a degree of pompousness. Here he snaps out sarcastic dialogue with the best of them.
Then there’s Billy Gilbert — here playing Joe Pettibone, the man delivering the pardon for Earl Williams. Gilbert was famous for his double-takes, but here he sticks to the dialogue and relies on his expressive face and bug-eyes to elicit laughter. The exchange between the mayor, Sheriff Hartwell and him when he first appears with the reprieve from the governor is simply priceless.
Whether or not you’ve ever seen His Girl Friday, you’re in for a treat with Columbia’s DVD of it. Sony Pictures restored the film in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive from the original 35mm nitrate negative stored at the Library of Congress. This work was the basis of a great-looking laserdisc release by Columbia several years ago. On DVD, presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with 28 scene selections, it looks even better. In fact, it’s so smooth and richly detailed, you’d think it was a recent release rather than a 60-year-old title. Blacks are deep and satiny; whites are clean and pure. Age-related speckling is almost non-existent. The audio is the original mono track and sounds strong and distortion-free.
Columbia has also done a nice job on the supplementary material. There is an audio track by film critic and author Todd McCarthy who wrote an excellent recent biography of Howard Hawks (cited above). His talk is extremely interesting and informative, covering the actual shooting of the film as well as filling in lots of background production information. Four short featurettes are included on the disc; one deals with Cary Grant, another Rosalind Russell, a third Howard Hawks, and the fourth the film itself. They are mildly interesting adding a little information to the cast and crew profiles elsewhere on the disc. Some vintage advertising — a sequence of lobby cards and a couple of posters — has been assembled and the disc ends up with a somewhat beaten-up looking re-release trailer plus trailers for three other Columbia Classics.
His Girl Friday is one of the finest comedies ever made and bears watching over and over again. Columbia’s effort places the title among the top two or three best classic-film DVDs of the 1940s. Even if you already have the fine Columbia laserdisc, you owe it to yourself to get the DVD version. My highest recommendation!
To see how well this film has been treated is a revelation, particularly when you realize that it was a title that was allowed to slip into the public domain, so that Columbia’s DVD is competing against schlock versions from the public domain specialists. Columbia is to be highly commended for going the extra mile on this title, given the copyright situation. Show them your support!