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By Phil Hall | September 19, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 251: “His Girl Friday” (1940 comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell)

LAST SEEN: Available on several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As a public domain title.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is an “official” DVD version – and a countless number of more-than-adequate bootleg dupes.

Here is a lesson that is never taught in film studies courses: just because a film is considered to be a classic does not automatically mean that you have to like it. Indeed, many people often feel inadequate or defensive because they don’t respond positively to something that the majority of film lovers enjoy.

Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, and everyone has a right to an opinion on someone else’s opinion. But no one has the right openly belittle and malign other people’s opinions – you can have a polite disagreement without resorting to name calling and other sorts of abuse. Film critics, who traffic in opinions, routinely get hate mail from people who resent a contrary minority view.

I am rambling on this notion in advance of my announcement that I am not a fan of this week’s film, the 1940 Howard Hawks production “His Girl Friday.” Yes, I am well aware that the film is considered one of the great works of screen comedy, it has been cited on numerous lists as being one of the funniest flicks of all time, it is listed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, etc.

But, quite frankly, I never found the film to be all that wonderful. I am not saying it is a crappy film – I acknowledge it is well made and offers some fun performances. Yet I could never truly embrace anything about it – the film always left me cold and never raised any genuine laughs.

“His Girl Friday” is gender-bent remake of “The Front Page,” the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about scheming news reporters. The play, which was celebrated for its rapid-fire wisecracking dialogue and daring subplots with racial and left-wing political residue, was made into a 1931 film starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien. But the film was a bowdlerized version of the stage show and was hampered by the stagnant filmmaking style that was typical of too many films in the early sound movie era.

In 1939, “The Front Page” saw an unlikely return to the screen. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, was eager to engage director Howard Hawks for upcoming projects. Hawks pitched Cohn on “The Front Page,” but Cohn was not enthusiastic since the Menjou-O’Brien version was made only eight years earlier. Hawks was insistent, so Cohn suggested casting Cary Grant and Walter Winchell as the leads. Having Grant in the film was a no-brainer, as he was among the top stars of the day, but Winchell was a radio commentator and newspaper columnist with no acting experience – why Cohn wanted to tap him was never clear.

In any event, Hawks had his own casting idea. He told Cohn that he was a party where he wanted to show the brilliance of the Hecht-MacArthur text. Hawks read the part of Walter Burns, the morally dubious newspaper editor, but he asked a female guest at the party to read the part of Hildy Johnson, the conflicted male reporter. Hawks was convinced the tension between Burns and Johnson was more electric when it was a male-female fight, as opposed to a battle between two men.

Cohn, who was happy to have Hawks at his studio, agreed to the gender switch on the Hildy Johnson character, but insisted on having Cary Grant as Walter Burns. Hawks had no problem with Grant, but he was bedeviled in casting the right actress to play opposite him. His initial choice, Carole Lombard, was unavailable. Other leading ladies saw the script and passed on it – Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne all turned it down. (Some sources claim Jean Arthur was cast but was suspended by Columbia due to a contract dispute.)

Much to Hawks’ chagrin, Cohn insisted on bringing in Rosalind Russell, the MGM actress who starred in the 1936 Columbia release “Craig’s Wife.” Hawks was not pleased with this selection and word got to Russell, who brashly confronted the director by stating: “You don’t want me, do you? But you’re stuck with me, so we might as well make the most of it.”

To its credit, “His Girl Friday” presents a semi-taboo (for 1940) subject of divorce as the central point of the plot: Grant’s Burns and Russell’s Johnson are a divorced couple, and she is planning to marry a decent if dull insurance salesman named Bruce Baldwin (played by Ralph Bellamy). Burns does everything he can to keep Johnson’s would-be bridegroom out of the picture, including having him arrested on phony wristwatch stealing charges. Beyond that tinkering, “His Girl Friday” is pretty close to the original version of “The Front Page,” complete with its supersonic dialogue deliveries. (Charles Lederer adapted the Hecht-MacArthur work for the screen.)

Indeed, most consideration of “His Girl Friday” comes from its dialogue. Here are some of the funnier lines:

Bruce Baldwin: [talking about Walter] I like him; he’s got a lot of charm.
Hildy Johnson: Well, he comes by it naturally – his grandfather was a snake.

Hildy Johnson: [speaking to Walter on the phone] Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!

Walter Burns: You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.

Walter Burns: You’ve got the brain of a pancake. This isn’t just a story you’re covering – it’s a revolution. This is the greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley.
Hildy Johnson: It’s the other way around.
Walter Burns: Oh, well, don’t get technical at a time like this.

Are you laughing? Personally, I never found this even vaguely amusing. I always felt that “His Girl Friday” mistakes sarcasm and putdowns for genuine comedy. Even a couple of “inside” jokes that were inserted into the film (Grant comments how Bruce Baldwin looks just like Ralph Bellamy and he later refers to someone named Archie Leach – Grant’s real name) only distract from the film rather than enhance it.

Still, a lot of people liked it – “His Girl Friday” was a major hit in its day. Curiously, it received no Academy Award nominations, most likely because it opened in January 1940 (it is never a good idea to start the year with Oscar fodder). Even more peculiar was Columbia’s neglect in renewing the film’s copyright – it lapsed into the public domain and has been widely bootlegged for years. Although an official version has been released by Columbia on DVD, there is no shortage of perfectly acceptable dupes circulating on bargain basement labels and on Internet web sites.

But…that’s if you want to see it. My opinion, FWIW – it’s nothing special. So I’m the odd man out on this one.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Nicholas D'Amico says:

    Not the only one. While I loved the original 1931 version, this one has always left me cold. Same thing with SOME LIKE IT HOT. And DETOUR. And GONE WITH THE WIND. You are not alone, Phil.

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