His Girl Friday
Because His Girl Friday is a public domain film (it was originally produced by Columbia in 1940, but their rights have lapsed), there are several versions of the movie on home video, both on videotape and DVD. And as we're enormous fans of this classic Howard Hawks comedy, we've seen most of them over the years, always willing to shell out another six or eight bucks to see if one of the budget vendors has come up with a decent transfer. Alas, that's never been the case virtually all DVD editions simply are sourced from previous videotapes, with overly soft pictures, shimmering transfers, rotten prints, and audio so drowned in ambient noise that some parts can be unintelligible. We knew all along that Columbia TriStar must have access to better materials, but we also feared they would never release a restored His Girl Friday on disc, particularly as they'd have to market a more-expensive DVD edition against cheaper knock-offs that uninformed consumers would buy on price alone. Thankfully, we were dead wrong His Girl Friday is now on DVD from Columbia, and take a close look at that boxcover, because that's the only DVD version you should consider adding to your collection. Largely considered among the greatest screwball comedies of all time, His Girl Friday actually appeared on film before Howard Hawks made his version, as the story is taken from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's stage play and 1931 talkie The Front Page about a dueling editor and reporter at a busy New York daily. Here, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell portray Walter Burns and Hildegard "Hildy" Johnson, who are not quite the original duo in The Front Page, but recast as a divorced husband and wife. In Hawks' update (re-written by Charles Lederer), Hildy has returned to the paper after a four-month absence, but only to inform the scurrilous Walter that she's engaged to re-marry, and this time she's playing it safe rather than get roped into another working marriage with a tireless newsman, she's planning to wed Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a meek insurance salesman from upstate Albany. Walter will not openly admit that he's stung by Hildy's impending nuptials, but when he learns she and Bruce are to marry the next day, he quickly devises a plan to break up the engagement, convincing Hildy to interview a death-row convict scheduled for hanging. But the simple assignment soon is complicated by a prison break, and Walter and Hildy's involvement threatens to land the ex-lovers behind bars.
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Why was Hawks determined to remake The Front Page, already a popular script in its own right? Now a famous bit of Hollywood legend, Hawks, attending a party, was arguing about the importance of dialogue in films, and to prove his point he began reading from The Front Page, which he regarded as having some of the wittiest examples of modern dialogue and banter. But as he was reading the part of Walter, he needed a Hildegard, which as it happened was read by a female guest. And Hawks suddenly decided the play would be better with a female Hildy. Columbia green-lighted the project with Grant and Russell in the leads, and while banter was what Hawks was looking for, His Girl Friday must have exceeded even his expectations. Shooting on a tight schedule, a great deal of the dialogue was improvised by the cast, particularly Grant (as gifted a comedian as he ever was a matinee idol), who drops both his given name (Archie Leach) and Ralph Bellamy's in two of the film's wittier asides. And when the shameless Walter and enraged Hildy aren't delivering acrimonious speeches at the speed of a tongue-twister, they often talk directly over each other a lot. It was a technique Hawks' didn't fully exploit in his previous screwball Bringing Up Baby (with Grant and Katherine Hepburn), but the gamble paid off so well that every scene in His Girl Friday is amusing the first time you hear it, and also worth repeated viewings to find out what barbed asides you probably missed.
Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of His Girl Friday looks and sounds excellent. In fact, the entire transfer is flat-out definitive. Utilizing the original 35mm (full-frame 1.33:1) nitrate negative, now stored at the Library of Congress, Sony and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have delivered a print that has excellent low-contrast details and only some collateral flecking, which is perfectly acceptable for a film of this age. Audio is excellent as well, with barely a trace of ambient noise under the clear, crisp soundtrack (in DD 2.0 mono here). Quite simply, it's a revelation. Features on the disc warrant the added price over the public-domain DVDs as well, including a commentary with film critic Todd McCarthy (who's so full of info it seems he could have been on the set for the film), four new featurettes on Grant, Russell, Hawks, and the production of His Girl Friday that are informative and refreshingly free of product-pitching, talent files, a gallery of original advertising materials, and trailers for His Girl Friday (watch for alternate takes), Born Yesterday, It Happened One Night, and Pal Joey. Keep-case.