Most of you will be more familiar with the remakes of this great play: “His Girl Friday” in 1940 with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1974 “The Front Page.” There was another production in 1988 with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner entitled “Switching Channels,” which I haven’t seen and probably won’t. But this first film version is a treat and makes me wish I could have seen the original stage play. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the play based on their experiences as crime reporters in Chicago, and I need to find a copy of the play.
Howard Hughes produced the movie and Lewis Milestone (of “All Quiet on the Western Front” fame) directed. The cast is filled with recognizable faces and voices. And in my opinion, Pat O’Brien is the star. He snaps out his dialogue with the rest of the wisecracking reporters and is an impressive Hildy Johnson. Look for the scene where he’s carrying on two conversations into two telephones - very clever work. Adolph Menjou plays the devious Walter Burns, silent screen actress Mary Brian is O’Brien’s love interest, and Mae Clarke, of Jimmy Cagney grapefruit fame, is the streetwalker with a heart of gold.
Other notables are Edward Everett Horton, a hilarious germaphobe, George E Stone as the hapless anarchist, and Frank McHugh, Clarence Wilson, and Slim Summerville. Don’t miss the brief appearance by Francis Ford as Carl, a detective, not because he’s spectacular but because he’s the brother of director John Ford, who famously placed him in small roles in most of his films. (Francis was John’s older brother and was a silent film actor and director in his own right before the advent of sound.) Gustav von Seyffertitz plays Professor Max J, Engelhoffer, who diagnoses the anarchist: “dementia praecox!”
The directing and cinematography (Glen MacWilliams) are amazing for a 1931 film. Watch for the camera quickly moving from reporter to reporter as they make their telephone calls. One of my favorite shots shows the long telephone table as each reporter leans in from the opposite side to make his call. Milestone was an early user of camera panning and has some amazing camera angles. He moves the camera throughout the set and varies between long shots and close-ups very effectively. Sound quality could use some cleaning up but just get over it.
Menjou was nominated for Best Actor, Milestone for Best Director, and the movie for Outstanding Production (now called Best Picture). They lost to Lionel Barrymore, Norman Taurog, and Cimarron, respectively.
It’s a dramatic film that at the same time introduces the concept of “screwball comedy.” If you’re looking for themes or morals, try political corruption, communist hysteria, anarchists, sleazy reporters, and work vs. family, against the backdrop of lightning-quick, witty dialogue. It’s fast and funny, and although I’m a fan of “His Girl Friday,” this movie definitely rates a watch. Don’t miss the last Menjou line when the typewriter bleeps out the offending word. And keep watching through the ending credits for a nice little visual and audio tidbit.
“I have too many things to do . . . getting ready for the hanging.”
“Tell her nothing! She’s a woman, you fool!”
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