Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday receives a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, presenting it in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a high-definition scan of a 35mm fine-grain master, which was sourced from a 35mm original nitrate negative and other duplicate sources where the negative was too badly damaged.
It’s more than likely we’re getting an older master here but even if that’s the case it holds up quite well. Detail is strong and the image remains sharp and crisp, at least where the source allows, and the fine details, like the fine patterns that can pop up on clothing or background objects come through nicely. Film grain is present, though it admittedly looks a bit clunky and is not as well-defined as I would hope. Still, contrast is nice, gray levels are distinct, and black levels are pretty rich and crushing isn’t a concern.
Restoration work looks to have been quite thorough and there isn’t a lot of damage remaining, though there are some noticeable issues. The most obvious issue is related to instances where a different print had to be used in place of a negative. These moments are rare and usually happen for only a few frames, but the image does go a little softer and contrast can look to be boosted a little. Otherwise, the print is in fine shape, with the only other bad offender of note being some mild pulsing or flickering here and there.
Despite some minor issues, and the fact it could probably look better, it’s still a pleasing image, a marked improvement over the previous DVD edition. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion puts together a rather interesting special edition for the film, with content spread out over two discs. The first disc starts with Hawks on Hawks, a 10-minute segment put together from a 1972 audio interview between Hawks and Bogdanovich, as well as a short clip from a filmed 1973 interview between Hawks and Richard Schickel. Through this edited segment (featuring photos over the audio-only portions) Hawks talks about the development of His Girl Friday and explains why sound films didn’t feature overlapping dialogue previously, and why it was so hard to execute. Also covered is The Front Page, the play and the original 1931 film, which was the basis for His Girl Friday. Hawks mentions its previous reputation for being fast, which no longer held up when compared to Hawks’ version, Criterion even aiding this statement with a side-by-side comparison of similar scenes between the two films, focusing on dialogue pacing and edits. His Girl Friday is clearly the quicker of the two by a fair margin. The interview was already nicely edited together itself but I really liked the visual aids that Criterion felt inclined to edit in.
Another nicely put together feature is a visual essay by David Bordwell called Lighting Up with Hildy Johnson, offering an in-depth examination of classical Hollywood storytelling techniques and he uses His Girl Friday as the gold standard here for his thesis. He talks about the story structure (usually intertwining what are really separate stories into one), editing style, and what he describes as a somewhat mean-spirited yet romantic undertones. He also covers a few other interesting areas not directly related to the main subject matter, specifically how a film like His Girl Friday became a sort of standard for film school courses, and then offers a quick look at the various genres Hawks worked in. I found it a very breezy featuring, moving fairly quick at 25-minutes, but what I found most promising were some of the clips Bordwell uses from some of Hawks’ other films, Scarface and Twentieth Century in particular: they look to have been take from new, fairly impressive restorations. Hopefully that bodes well for releases of those titles in the near-future, from Criterion or otherwise.
Unfortunately the new content specific to His Girl Friday ends there and Criterion then reuses a number of featurettes that appeared on previous DVD editions: On Assignment: “His Girl Friday” (about 9-minutes), Howard Hawks: Reporter’s Notebook (about 3-minutes), Funny Pages (about 3-minutes), and Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop (also about 3-minutes). I can’t say any of them are terribly in-depth, though you get basic run-downs of the film’s production (On Assignment), Hawks’ career (Reporter’s Notebook), the original play The Front Page, the 1931 film adaptation of said play, the concerns over this remake (Funny Pages), and Rosalind Russell’s career (Inside Scoop). There are some interesting bits of information, though again they’re fairly basic studio featurettes.
Criterion then concludes the disc with the film’s teaser trailer and theatrical trailer, along with a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film featuring Fred MacMurray as Burns and Claudette Colbert as Johnson (she was also considered for the film version before the role went to Russell). The 59-minute adaptation of course rushes through some scenes and drops others but it is otherwise very faithful to the film.
What may be of great interest to viewers, though, is that Criterion also includes Lewis Milestone’s 1931 film adaptation of The Front Page on the second dual-layer disc, which has received a new 4K restoration scanned from a 35mm safety print provided by the University of Nevada. Kino has also released the film on Blu-ray but what’s interesting about Criterion’s presentation, other than the new 4K restoration, is that it’s actually a different version, put together from different takes, and is probably closer to the original North American theatrical release (one feature on this disc actually explains why that is). I admit to preferring His Girl Friday simply because of Grant and Russell, but this one’s still a fun adaptation of the fast-talking play, though as another feature points out, slower than the Hawks remake. The two adaptations are very similar, though differ a bit in timelines, while The Front Page also show more of the details in the central prison escape.
The digital presentation for the film (presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and delivered with lossless PCM audio) is also rather impressive. Grain is sharply rendered and it looks very filmic, and the restoration work has cleaned it up quite thoroughly. Its shortcoming, unfortunately, is that the source materials are weak to begin with, looking quite soft and fuzzy. Despite all the beauty and clarity of the digital presentation itself, the image overall is still fuzzy. In the end, the digital transfer and presentation looks better and more filmic than His Girl Friday’s, but that film still looks sharper and a bit more pleasing in comparison.
Criterion then loads a few supplements specific to The Front Page on the disc, starting with Restoring The Front Page, a 24-minute program about the history of this specific restoration, which first started with gaining access to Howard Hughes’ archive of materials, getting the print of the film, and going from there. What surprised everyone involved, though, was the film was different than the better known Library of Congress version, using different takes and edits. They researched why this would be and learned that it wasn’t uncommon for different versions to be made for different markets using different takes from the original negatives, then putting together multiple negatives that would be then dispersed over to those markets. It was discovered with this film that there was a North American version, a UK version, and a “rest of the world” version. They go over some of the differences between this version and the Library of Congress version. Most of the differences are subtle, such as line deliveries, positioning, or editing, but there are a few large ones, the bigger one being a moment where one of the reporters flips “the bird” in the Library of Congress version: the reporter performs a less “offensive” gesture here, further suggesting this version was intended for North America as the audience would have been more sensitive to that shot.
This was all rather fascinating but the feature gets even more fascinating when it arrives to the audio portion of the restoration. The film was released during a transition period where theaters were moving from playing audio from supplied records to playing the audio directly from the film print. The audio on the print was rough but they were also able to get their hands on the original metal discs used to press the records that would be distributed to the theaters. Since the records degraded over time the more they were played, getting one of the original metal plates, in pristine condition, proved invaluable.
Overall it’s a fantastic restoration feature, one of the more interesting ones I’ve viewed filled with great information about how the Studios first handled the move to sound films and how they distributed their films around the world.
Criterion next includes a new 26-minute piece about Ben Hecht featuring historian David Brendel. Brendel talks in-depth about Hecht’s early career as a reporter and how that experience (including an actual prison break he covered) and the people he met played into the basis for The Front Page. Brendel then gets into his move to Hollywood as a script writer and then eventually as a script doctor. It’s not a flashy piece, more a talking head discussion with photos and clips but for those interested in Hecht’s career and work it’s a decent starting point.
Also included are two radio adaptations of the play. The first is a 1937 Lux Radio Theatre presentation of the play, running 59-minutes, and features Walter Winchell and James Gleason. The other adaptation is a 31-minute one featuring the stars of the original film, Pat O’Brien and Adolph Manjou reprising their roles. The latter one ties itself more to the film version (more because of the stars) but is an incredibly condensed version, rushing through the proceedings. The former one is a specific adaptation of the play, and though it condenses some scenes and dialogue it sticks truer to the play. There is also an interesting historical bonus to the 1937 version: the program opens with an announcement that a planned guest, Amelia Earhart, was unable to make it because she had not returned from her “historic flight.” They plan on having her for the program the following week. As most know Earhart would disappear, and it appears it was a few days after this airing.
Criterion then includes an insert for this release, though go a rather creative route. Somewhat similar to what they did for their releases of Ace in the Hole, the insert is presented as a full fold-out newspaper, printed on something closer to a newspaper stock, just a little sturdier. There are two full sheets, an “A” section and a “B” section. The “A” section features an essay by Farran Smith Nehme on Hawks’ twist to adapting the play and admiring its quick pace and lack of dependence on music. The “B” section, which has a pinkish hue to the paper, features an essay by Michael Sragow, who goes over the play, this film adaptation, and this particular version’s fascinating restoration. It’s a rather clever and fun presentation.
Shockingly Criterion has not carried over Todd McCarthy’s audio commentary from the previous Sony DVD, though still carried over the rather mediocre featurettes. I haven’t listened to the commentary admittedly, but I’m at a loss as to why they wouldn’t carry it over. Though I enjoyed the features for His Girl Friday they still felt like the release was missing something and the commentary could have filled that gap.
As it stands, though, I was still happy with this release. The inclusion of The Front Page and then a great feature on the restoration are certainly rather big additions on their own. For that reason alone I was quite happy with what Criterion has put together here. 9/10