His Girl Friday

The latest release from the Criterion collection in the UK is the fantastic Howard Hawks comedy His Girl Friday. The film, a remake of the 1931 movie The Front Page, stars Cary Grant, Rosalind Russel and Ralph Bellamy. The major difference between the two films is in the character of Hildy. For the 1940 remake he became a she and the difference it made was one of the main reasons why the film was, and still is, a superb movie.

Hildy Johnson is the star reporter for the Morning post newspaper. After being away for four months she arrives back in the office to inform her editor that she is quitting to get married to her insurance salesman boyfriend and move to his home town of Albany. The complication is that Hildy was at one time married to the Editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Although now divorced he is hell bent on trying everything he can to keep her at the paper and possibly win her back. Hildy agrees to one last job, interviewing a condemned man down at the city jail and while there the prisoner manages to escape leading to a whole different news story opening up. Hildy is reluctant to leave and Walter sees a chance to scupper her wedding plans.

This film was a joy to watch from start to finish. It is as close to a perfect film as you could find. The stroke of genius that Howard Hawks pulled off in switching Hildy to a woman pays off right from the start. The character is already a strong screen presence but with the added bonus of it now being a very forthright and clever woman it takes it to another level. Rosalind Russell clearly relishes the role and makes the most of the chance to have at least equal billing in the film. He comic timing is excellent and her character dominates the screen while she is front and centre. No mean feat when acting across from Cary Grant.

For his part, Grant is on top form. By that point in his career he was a veteran at screwball comedies and he uses all his experience to fully engage with the audience. The dialogue is delivered at speed and you really need to concentrate to keep up with the quips. This is a film that really benefits from a second viewing as it is quite easy to miss so much detail. Grant makes the role of Walter Burns his own. His mind is always working and he knows exactly what he wants and just how to get it.

With all these Howard Hawks films there is a rich supporting cast. There is a slew of minor roles that have their own moments in the limelight. From the corrupt Governor and the rather stupid Police chief  through to the cynical jail house reporters we get some snappy dialogue and humorous asides that keep the movie flowing at such a fast pace. If it were only the main leads that were called upon to do this the film would have been significantly poorer. Hawks obviously reasoned that there can be too much of a good thing and having a breather between the verbal bouts of Russel and Grant gives the audience a chance to catch up and get ready for the next clash.

The rather nice Blu-ray release features a pristine restoration of the film, an array of special features and as a special bonus a 2K restoration of the 1931 film, The Front Page. If you want to see just how much work goes into the restoration process then check out the fascinating documentary on the work to bring this film up to modern standards.

The Criterion Collection version of His Girl Friday is out now.

John McArthur
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