Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: His Girl Friday: Special Edition (1940)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - She learned about men from him!

Considered by many to be the best of Howard Hawks' comedies (Bringing Up Baby, I Was A Male War Bride), His Girl Friday was adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's oft-filmed Broadway smash "The Front Page," with a screenplay by Charles Lederer. Hawks changed the sex of one of the amle leads, and revamped the spoof of newspapers and news hounds into a hilarious and sophisticated battle of the sexes and battle of the exes. When ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell, never better) announces she's leaving the newspaper world behind to settle into domesticity with a stuffy fiance (Ralph Bellamy), her demanding editor and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is determined to keep her on staff and win back her heart in the process.

Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated NR; 92 min.; $24.95; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Film Critic & Author Todd McCarthy; Four Exclusive Featurettes; Vintage Advertising; Theatrical Trailers; Talent Files; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Cary Grant - Graham McCann

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/B-

Of all the various film genres, few have more potential pitfalls related to longevity than does comedy. What one generation finds amusing may fall flat in later years; humor tends to be in tune with the era in which it appears, and this is especially true when the work in question relies on dialogue for its wit. Sure, physical pieces like those of Charlie Chaplin or the Three Stooges might translate well to future generations, but would something language-intensive still hold up decades later?

In many cases, the answer is “no”, but in relation to 1940’s His Girl Friday, the reply is a resounding “definitely!” While the clothes and settings show their age, the rest of the movie generally does not, as the material remains nicely fresh and vibrant after six long decades.

HGF adapts the successful stage play The Front Page for the screen with one major variation: one character - hot-shot reporter Hildy Johnson - is played by a woman instead of a man, and her editor Walter Burns becomes not only her boss but also her ex-husband. Since I never saw any stage or film versions of The Front Page, I can’t relate how greatly this alters the project’s dynamics, but it feels natural and well-integrated here; no seams show due to the modifications.

As the movie starts, Johnson (Rosalind Russell) announces to Burns (Cary Grant) that she’s quitting the paper to marry sweetly bland insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Throughout the rest of the film, Burns schemes to recapture Hildy both as reporter and spouse. Though the outcome is never in doubt, it’s a fun ride as the picture covers a busy day in the life of these characters, especially as their interactions are compounded by their coverage of a controversial execution slated to occur the following morning.

Grant and Russell display tremendous chemistry in their roles. The two have a cattily chummy relationship and the sparks frequently fly between them. One can easily believe that the two have been close for years due to the attitudes displayed by the actors; both Grant and Russell offer fine performances that offer some of the movie’s best aspects.

HGF required some adept and quick-witted actors for its leads because it includes some almost-insanely rapid-fire dialogue. This is a film well-suited for DVD because a) you’ll want to watch it again to hear what you missed, and b) you may want to activate the subtitles so you’ll pick up on everything said. The lines are quite clever and delightful throughout the movie and they keep you on your toes; you pay a great detail of attention to make sure you don’t miss anything.

The movie managed to seem especially modern in the way it utilized unusually self-referential techniques. It was one thing for Burns to refer to “Archie Leach” - Grant’s real name - but altogether more audacious when Burns describes Baldwin as resembling “that fellow in the movies - you know, Ralph Bellamy”. It’s a twist that could have backfired but seems funny and charming here.

Challenge to readers: can anyone name other movies that have provided similar references? I can only think of Rosemary’s Baby in which the character played by Angela Dorian states that many people say she looks like actress Victoria Vetri but she doesn’t see the resemblance. The gag stems from the fact that Dorian and Vetri are the same person; the actress just used different names at times.

Speaking of connections, HGF features two veterans of Disney animation in supporting roles. We find Cliff Edwards - Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio as news writer Endicott, and Billy Gilbert - immortalized as Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs plays goofy messenger Pettibone. Actually, to call both “veterans” may be a mistake; Snow White preceded HGF by more than two years, but it actually beat Pinocchio to screens by a few weeks. However, Edwards’ work on the animated feature had to predate his live-action performance since cartoons take so long to make, so I stand by my declaration of his veteran status!

In any case, I thought this link to Disney classics was just another fun aspect of His Girl Friday. However, the film doesn’t need trivia games to make it entertaining, as it holds up quite nicely after many decades. It’s an amusing and quick-witted anti-love-story that sparkles due to fast-paced dialogue and warm chemistry between its stars. His Girl Friday was a very pleasant surprise.

The DVD:

His Girl Friday appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While it frequently shows its age, for the most part the film looked quite good and it usually maintained a solid picture.

Sharpness seemed consistently positive. Throughout the movie, it appeared crisp and well-defined. Virtually no softness could be seen as I witnessed a wonderfully clear and accurate image. Some minor examples of moiré effects appeared due to checked jackets, but these seemed fairly insignificant and they didn’t interfere terribly with the picture.

Black levels seemed nicely deep and rich, and contrast appeared quite strong. Shadow detail was consistently clean and smooth throughout the movie. At no time did I see any particular heaviness or thickness in the low-light situations; they looked appropriately dense.

As one might expect from such an old movie, print flaws presented the most significant problems during HGF. However, considering the age of the material, these defects seemed pretty minimal. I saw light grain throughout the and also detected some speckles, a little blotchiness, and some small white flashes. At times, frames seemed to skip as well. However, the print betrayed no major flaws like tears, large debris or heavy concentrations of minor defects. Ultimately, His Girl Friday looked simply terrific for a film of its vintage.

The DVD also displayed similarly strong audio. The film’s monaural soundtrack seemed nicely clean and clear at all times. Dialogue was distinct and relatively natural, and I noted no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were crisp and acceptable realistic and showed no distortion. HGF featured almost no score; a few brief snippets of music appeared on a couple of occasions but these were so minor that they might as well have been non-existent. During those short periods, however, the music sounded fine and displayed no concerns. Make no mistake - you won’t be dazzled by the audio of His Girl Friday. However, it holds up nicely for a 60-year-old mix and suitably complements the visual material.

His Girl Friday features a nice package of supplements. We start with a running audio commentary from film critic and author Todd McCarthy. He touches on a wide variety of topics that relate to the movie and the careers of its principals and he relates a solid history of the picture. I learned how it adapted and altered The Front Page and also found out a nice mix of additional information. The track’s weaknesses stem from too many empty spaces, and McCarthy also occasionally tends to do little more than describe the on-screen action. However, for the most part the commentary supports the film nicely and added to my appreciation of the movie.

Four featurettes appear on the DVD. Included are “Cary Grant: Making Headlines” (four minutes and 55 seconds), “Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop” (three minutes and 10 seconds), “Howard Hawks: Reporter’s Notebook” (three minutes and 15 seconds), and “The Funny Pages” (three minutes and 25 seconds). All of these are similarly constructed. They provide brief but breezy and moderately informative overviews of their subjects. Obviously the first three concern the different principal participants, while the final one discusses the history of The Front Page and HGF. The programs lack depth but they were interesting and entertaining enough to make them worth watching.

A few minor extras round out the collection. We get “Talent Files” for Hawks, Russell, Grant and Bellamy. As is typical of Columbia-Tristar DVDs, these are very sketchy and present little information beyond some extremely basic biographical notes and “selected” filmographies which omit some titles; for example, Bellamy’s fails to mention his appearance in 1990’s megahit Pretty Woman.

Next up are a few different promotional materials. We find original theatrical trailers for HGF plus Born Yesterday, It Happened One Night, and Pal Joey. In the “Vintage Advertising” area, we discover six lobby cards and three posters presented in a stillframe format. The DVD’s booklet also provides some brief but mildly informative production notes.

All in all, the DVD release of His Girl Friday offers a solid little package. The movie itself was delightfully funny and entertaining and except for some politically incorrect material, most of it has barely aged over the last six decades. The DVD presents a nicely clean and clear picture plus relatively strong sound and a minor complement of interesting extras. Fans of classic comedies will be very happy to add His Girl Friday to their collections.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top