DVD as Reference Library: His Girl Friday on Criterion
By Tony Williams.
Since companies have decided to issue features accompanying DVD reissues of films available on VHS and Laserdisc in the past, the value of these additions vary with each product. For some distributors, they are extras of little value except to add padding to sell product that many already have in their libraries. Yet other firms often realize that an educated market also exists outside major retail buyers, and that the selective viewers appreciate insightful commentary about the film they have purchased once more, commentary that adds to the special status of the film especially if the extra material is not padding but critically insightful towards appreciating the work. Such an item is this special Criterion 2 disc version of Hawks’s newspaper commentary, His Girl Friday (1940) that contains not only this very familiar work but also a recently discovered print of the 1931 The Front Page that was Lewis Milestone’s preferred version. Previously, The Front Page was only available in public domain VHS copies so it is a pleasure to see this version in a new restoration to compare with Hawks’s later version. Yet, although some of the additional material is valuable, others are superfluous and future Criterion reissues may be advised to concentrate on more substantial critical features rather than the three minute supplements “Howard Hawks: Reporter’s Notebook,” “Funny Pages”, and “Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop” that vary little from the usual Entertainment Tonight inconsequential mini-segments. However, we must still be grateful for the fact that Criterion’s cover art work has reasonable images of Cary Grant and Russell rather than the hideous representation of Simone Simon in their recent Cat People reissue.
To my non-DVD Beaver viewing eye, the restoration appears to fit into the usual high standards maintained by Criterion, so I will say little on this or other critical aspects of the film that are treated in standard works by Robin Wood, John Belton, Gerald Mast and others which the reader should already be familiar with. Instead, I will review this copy in terms of its status as a critical text that enables viewers to gain insights into both this film and the nature of its earlier, also familiar, version. Like any book, a DVD has the potential for being a work open to critical examination and it is a pleasure to see companies such as Criterion and Olive recognizing this and providing additional material similar to that 1996 Penguin Books edition of The Quiet American by Graham Greene, edited by John Clark Pratt, that also provides valuable supplementary material, as well as other edited critical editions of writers such as Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville that need additional information to understand the text. In an era when most people are forgetting Hollywood’s heritage, history, and once famous actors, these guides are very important.
The first disc contains the film, an archival interview with Howard Hawks about the film compiled from two documentaries made about his work, a very meticulous and valuable interview with David Bordwell who not only speaks about the film against his understanding of the classical Hollywood narrative system but also refers to a key 1998 essay on this film by colleague Lea Jacobs concerning the nature of the rapid-fire dialogue delivery. The delivery is accessible and informative with Bordwell addressing the viewing audience in the best classroom traditions of clear and concise delivery, a technique also shared by Joseph McBride in his many DVD audio presentations. Disc 2 contains the restored version of The Front Page that stands on its own in comparison to the later Hawks version. Despite the tendency of Hawks champions to underrate it, the film plays as a good cinematic adaptation of the Broadway original that starred Lee Tracy as Hildegarde Johnson and Osgood Perkins (who would make one of his rare screen appearances in Scarface the following year) as Walter Burns, but display that early mastery of sound narrative where mobile camera movement and rapid-dialogue complement each other following the surprising change from silent to acoustic cinema. The Front Page contains many examples of the mobile camera, one shot following Walter Burns left to right as he walks past the print room to find Louie, a movement complementing Hildy’s farewell visit to the newspaper office in the opening scene of His Girl Friday. The mobile camera shots are integral to the vertiginous movements of the Milestone version that captures the zany depiction of the original stage play, and one contains a subtly maneuvered 360-degree panning shot around a card table. They contribute to the action and are never flamboyant. Pat 0’Brien and Adolphe Menjou both prove themselves masters of 1930s rapid screen dialogue. Also featured on this disc is a very informative feature on Ben Hecht by film historian David Brendel as well as another on the restoration of The Front Page.
This DVD also contains three radio adaptations, two from The Front Page and the third from a 1940 broadcast of His Girl Friday featuring different actors in the main roles. As with other Criterion radio adaptations, they are of interest in documenting the adaptation process that radio necessitated in the same way as cinema demanded several changes in its form of transmission in terms of acting delivery, historical background, and ideological issues. All three drop Mollie Malloy from the action. Although Helen Mack’s role in the 1940 film cannot veil the earlier associations of Mae Clark’s more blatant “hooker with a heart of gold” stereotype, Mollie’s absence is not just due to not wanting to offend a family radio audience but also implicitly reveals that the world of 30s journalism is a “man’s world” and Hildegard/Hildy has to show that s/he is good enough to remain. Mollie’s role is marginal anyway and can be sacrificed without affecting the course of the narrative. The 1937 Lux Radio version dominated by the hectoring presence of Cecil B. DeMille features actual newspaper columnist Walter Winchell as Hildy and James Gleason as Burns. It is surprising how good Winchell is in the role suggesting that the Hecht-MacArthur play captured several real-life factors in its adaptation. The Mayor is also eliminated and the famous closing line – “The son of a bitch stole my watch” (re-articulated by Walter Matthau in the 1974 Billy Wilder film version) – is changed or dropped in other versions. In 1937 Gleason comments, “The squat-eyed weasel stole my watch.” Menjou is allowed to utter it in the 1931 film but an accompanying sound affect virtually erases the profane word. The 1946 CBS radio version reunited 0’Brien and Menjou in their original screen roles but the dialogue appeared slow, muted, and tired with none of the rapid-fire delivery of the original film. With a voice-over narrative introducing the action, Hildy and Walter meet in a tavern for a final drink rather than the former fleeing from the latter, and the final line changed to “The dirty bum stole my watch.”
Another deletion from the different radio versions was reference to the fact that Earle Williams shot a black policeman and that the date of execution was designed to get the black vote in the election. Democratic and Chicago politics have not changed much in the intervening 80 years or so. This is eliminated from both the 1940 and 1946 version suggesting this period’s ideologically motivated attempts to make African-Americans “invisible” unless they were singers like Lena Horne or comedians and dancers. The September 30, 1940 Radio version proves conclusively that Grant and Russell were the ideal players for Hawks’s version since neither Claudette Colbert as Hildy nor Fred McMurray as Walter Burns can match their cinematic predecessors both in acting and rapid-fire delivery. As the hapless Bruce Baldwin, Jack Carson is too abrasive an actor to play the wimpish role that Ralph Bellamy does to perfection.
Finally, this DVD does have a fold-out version of a booklet but, unlike their practice for The Cat People DVD, Criterion can be forgiven here. The fold-out is in the nature of those old, non-tabloid newspapers with essays (or journalistic copy?) by Farran Smith Nehme on His Girl Friday and Michael Sragow on the discovery and restoration of Milestone’s director’s cut of The Front Page. I can almost smell newsprint from this copy so one wonders if this effect is deliberate or not. Are Criterion going to attempt a restoration of Mike Todd’s “Smell-0-Vision” project Scent of Mystery (1960)? Anyway, this supplement provides cast and credits, transfer information, and stills from both film versions including “The Front Page Onstage!” that has seven photos from the original 1928 production. Also included is that poignant poem from Roy V. Bensinger played by Edward Everrett Horton at his most prissy in the 1931 film version.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).