His Girl Friday (1940) is based on the rapid-fire newspaper comedy The Front Page, originally a snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (themselves veteran reporters) and then a 1931 film directed by Lewis Milestone, with Pat O’Brien and Adolph Menjou in the lead roles.
Barely a decade later, Howard Hawks returned to the material and added a twist that made it all his own: he transformed the love-hate buddy comedy of dirty tricks into a delicious battle of the sexes. Rosalind Russell plays crack reporter Hildy Johnson, who is ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Cary Grant is crafty editor Walter Burns, who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job. More than professional colleagues, they were once married and Walter is suddenly obsessed with winning her back. The romantic rival is sweetly milquetoast insurance salesman Ralph Bellamy, a thoroughly decent guy whose slow-talking, trusting manner instantly sets him off from the scheming, cynical, savvy newsmen and urban hucksters whose minds are always racing for an angle.
At the center of both versions is a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical and the political machinations of politicians who are more cynical than the reporters (who are a hard-boiled lot) and scheme to keep the governor’s reprieve under wraps so they can get the election boost of a law-and-order campaign execution.
Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists. These guys are equal parts con men who will do anything for a story, hard-boiled professionals jaded by the job, and public servants out to dig up the hidden dirt of corruption and crime (even if they have to commit a few themselves along the way). And they knew the dirty game of Chicago politics.
Hawks’s direction is even faster than Milestone’s movie, a model of screwball pacing and rapid-fire delivery that never strains for effect, and he’s a master of staging. He continually manages to frame his criss-crossing banter and swirls of chaos within the same sustained shots, creating a dynamic where scenes can rev up from idle to over-the-speed-limit with minimal editing. It’s all in the delivery.
He keeps the cynicism of both the play and Milestone’s movie but adds more humanizing touches, and even operating under the constraints of the production code censors, slips in just as many sly suggestive asides as Milestone in his pre-code environment with just a little sleight-of-word delivery. But for me the singular Hawks addition to the fine screenplay, much rewritten for the Hildy and Walter dynamic but remarkably faithful in the newsroom banter, is Hildy’s capper to the scene where the newsman heckle Molly to the point to brutality. Hildy escorts the devastated Molly (Helen Mack) from the press room, which goes quiet after the door closes and the reporters sink into the only shame they feel in the entire film, and then reenters to deliver, softly like a velvet blade, the line: “Gentlemen of the press.”
His Girl Friday fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, and DVD releases. Amazon Prime has a superior edition licensed from Sony Pictures, which owns the Columbia Studio catalog and mastered their version for original materials. Forget those other fuzzy, hissy, unwatchable versions. This is the one to stream.
Also on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion in a deluxe special edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
His Girl Friday (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
His Girl Friday (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
His Girl Friday [DVD]
Along with a DVD release from Sony Home Video there is a two-disc Criterion edition on Blu-ray and DVD that features brand new high definition transfers of His Girl Friday and the newly-rediscovered original domestic version of The Front Page from excellent preservation elements. New to this release are the featurettes “Restoring The Front Page,” which recounts the discovery of the print, the research on its provenance, and its restoration, along with comparisons of scenes from the two cuts of the film (24 minutes); “Ben Hecht,” an interview with Ben Hecht historian David Brendel discussing Hecht, the culture of newspaper journalism of the 1920s, and the creation of the play, including the real-life inspirations for the fictional elements (26 mins); “Hawks on Hawks,” a featurette created from interviews with Hawks conducted by Peter Bogdanovich (audio only) and Richard Schickel (on film) (10 mins); and “Lighting Up with Hildy: 45 Years with His Girl Friday” featuring film historian David Bordwell on the film’s storytelling: as an exemplar of classical narrative filmmaking, as a classic Hawks film, and as a film that plays variations on classic tropes (25 mins). And critical observation aside, Bordwell offers a succinct appreciation of the film: “Every time I see it, I still laugh my ass off.”
Carried over from previous DVD releases: “On Assignment: His Girl Friday” with David Thomson and Molly Haskell from 2006 and the micro-featurettes “Howard Hawks: Reporter’s Notebook,” “Funny Pages,” and “Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop” from 1999. The inserts—one for each film—are fold-out mini-newspapers with essays by Farran Smith Nehme (on His Girl Friday) and Michael Sragow (on The Front Page).