Howard Hawks was attracted to the purity of succinctness. The filmmaker had no patience for handwringing, self-pity, artless exposition, or for any formal element that could be interpreted as self-consciousness. He didn’t like bullshit, unless it was stylish bullshit that furthered a cause, satisfying function. Hawks’s characters share the same predisposition, as they’re iconoclasts who’re actualized by their perfection of work, which allows them to reside outside of their society from a vantage point superior to that of the mainstream suckers who subscribe to the traditional, identity-marginalizing actualization of creating a nuclear family.
The saps in Hawks’s world, for which the filmmaker has no sympathy, believe in proffering clichéd, obligatory romantic sentiment, failing to understand that the camaraderie found working alongside your fellow human is deeper: more inherent, truthful, and matter-of-fact. The politics of Hawks’s art are an implicit, irresolvable mixture of libertarianism and socialism, as best encapsulated by Rio Bravo’s plot mechanics: John Wayne’s sheriff would never ask for help, because that would be contemptible, but he also shouldn’t have to, as his fellow humans should be right in the fold anyway.
Hawks’s characters wouldn’t be caught dead making a big deal out of something, showing vulnerability (though it leaks out anyway), other than to offer an exclamation of awe before a big opportunity, and Hawks similarly resists acts of bald directorial emphasis. The editing in Hawks’s films is quietly brilliant, working in tandem with the more overtly amazing in-camera editing of his framing. Characters move in a manner so as to seemingly naturally form the through lines of the images, physically complementing the verbal action of the stylized dialogue. Hawks’s films carry you through their plots on a river of carefully subsumed craftsmanship.
His Girl Friday is one of Hawks’s most perfect realizations of this aesthetic. The protagonists are reporters for a Chicago newspaper, intelligent, über-competent professionals who know how to wage social warfare while appearing to shoot the breeze. At the beginning of the film, Hildy (Rosalind Russell) is about to leave her editor, Walter (Cary Grant), who’s also her ex-husband, because she wants to live as an actual “human being.” This sentiment, repeated a few times throughout the narrative, suggests that Hildy has come to doubt the existentialism of her true calling, which is usually the emotional conflict driving Hawks films and their stories of professionals rekindling their professionalism. Hildy is falling prey to sentimentality, and Walter must remind her of her destiny, calling on their intricate, instinctual private language as a couple forever in simpatico.
So the film is driven by Walter asserting to Hildy that she stay with the paper as well as him by extension, though Hawks has pointedly little interest in their romance as a separate endeavor from their writing. In this film’s world, only a schmuck would require the sort of pitifully unoriginal affirmation that Hildy’s new suitor, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), is all too willing to provide, rendering him unworthy for admission into Hildy and Walter’s rarefied shark tank. As these characters make their respective cases, volleying legendary dialogue back and forth at a bewildering clip, Hawks arranges them in tableaus of subtly shifting geometry that indicates power, or illusions thereof.
In Hildy and Walter’s first scene together, set in Walter’s office, they pace around one another like prize fighters, initiating and halting their strolling in tandem with whoever’s winning or losing the coded debate. Walter offers to let Hildy sit in his lap and she resists, lounging languidly on a table behind and above him in a repose of astonishing sexual power and daring. Eventually, Hawks frames them in a two-shot—a theoretically plain composition for such a nimble formalist—until it’s understood that the characters are too exhausted for fancy choreography. They’re crouching together to save energy, figuratively punching close into their opponent’s frame. Every sequence in the film is directed with such volcanic, resonant ingenuity.
Hawks’s belief in work as the self-justifying almighty leads to a certain thorniness in His Girl Friday. Hawks has refreshingly little patience for preaching, and he doesn’t express an opinion on the legitimacy of the news story that occupies Hildy and Walter, which involves their efforts to opportunistically free a white man who lost his job and killed a black cop. (In a deliciously caustic detail, Hildy provides the killer with an alibi that involves a perversion of the socialist idea of “production for use.”)
This news story also drove the film’s source material, the landmark 1928 play The Front Page, but the latter’s mercenary qualities weren’t colored by the cuteness of Hildy and Walter’s romantic crisis. (Both reporters were men in the play and in Lewis Milestone’s more faithful 1931 film adaptation.) The contrast of two men’s deaths—and a woman’s suicide attempt—with a comedy of remarriage is gleefully, debauchedly callous: Hawks’s blitheness, about a black victim as nothing more than an inciting incident for a white press to manipulate political protocol, has a tart edge, particularly when seen through the prism of our bleak contemporary political spectrum. His Girl Friday isn’t a dusty old classic; it’s alive and electric, ready to bite, a work of art that’s been paradoxically neutered in reputation by its justifiable acclaim.
This image offers a pleasing mixture of grit and clarity. There's a sizable amount of grain present, which is unusual for contemporary restorations of older films, giving the picture a refreshing tactility. The film looks confidently old, only with a stronger sense of detail. Blacks are rich, and background clarity heightens the bold geometry of the compositions. Textures are vivid, particularly in clothing, which is important for a film that's built so explicitly on the minute codes and gestures of the characters. The pristineness of the soundtrack is revelatory, allowing one to carefully parcel the words being fired out by the actors with machine-gun bravado, informing the film with an aural vitality that reemphasizes not only its modernity, but its prescience.
The most exciting supplement in this package is a new 4K restoration of Lewis Milestone's The Front Page, an earlier adaptation of the 1928 play that represents a significant step in the development of recording dialogue in the emerging sound cinema. Milestone's film is also instructive in illustrating what Howard Hawks brought to the property by contrast, particularly a fluidity and union of blocking and performance. The Front Page is inescapably creaky in comparison to His Girl Friday, though it's worthy on its own terms, offering evocative, quasi-expressionist imagery and pungent dialogue.
A new interview with film scholar David Bordwell wonderfully complements both films. Bordwell elaborates on the development of His Girl Friday out of The Front Page, discussing the huge roles that Hawks and Hecht played in fashioning a variety of classic Hollywood genres, such as the gangster film, the biography, and the romantic comedy. It's especially refreshing to see Hecht's role emphasized in this director-crazy field of ours, which is further affirmed by a featurette devoted solely and informatively to him.
Another featurette documenting the restoration of this version of The Front Page goes well beyond the usual anecdotes about where materials were discovered, outlining the social and logistic complexity of reassembling films that often existed in multiple versions so as to satisfy a variety of state- and country-specific censorship boards. There's also a too-brief archive conversation between Hawks and filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich, as well as several other archive supplements and multiple radio adaptations of The Front Page, one of which features Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in the lead roles. Trailers and a booklet with essays by film critics Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow round out a superb package.
This is a gorgeous, well-contextualized restoration of one of the greatest and most mercenary of all American comedies.