His Girl Friday: Columbia Classics – Volume 4 (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Mar 13, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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His Girl Friday: Columbia Classics – Volume 4 (4K UHD Review)


Howard Hawks

Release Date(s)

1940 (February 13, 2024)


Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: B+

His Girl Friday (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


[Editor’s Note: Though we’re reviewing the films in the set one by one, His Girl Friday is currently only available on physical 4K disc in Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 4 box set. It’s available on Amazon by clicking here, or on any of the artwork pictured in this review.]

Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 4 (4K UHD)

While it’s easy to criticize the Hollywood of today for releasing a seemingly endless stream of sequels and remakes, it’s just as easy to forget sometimes that there’s really nothing new under the sun. Remakes are as old as the cinema itself, and they even predate the feature film era. The first 1896 Georges Méliès short Une partie de cartes was actually a remake/rip-off of the Lumière brothers short Partie d’écarté (perhaps it was his revenge for the fact that they refused to sell their camera equipment to him). Filmmakers have been recycling ideas ever since then, and Hollywood has never been an exception to the rule. Yet there’s an art to remaking other works that’s akin to recording a cover version of a song. Some of the best covers completely reinvent the original, and even supplant it in the popular consciousness. When Aretha Franklin recorded her own version of Otis Redding’s Respect, she made it decisively her own—even Redding had to grudgingly admit that she ended up taking the song away from him. The best cinematic remakes have done something similar, becoming so indelible that the originals end up being overshadowed. Such is the case with the Howard Hawks version of The Front Page, which he immortalized as His Girl Friday.

The Front Page began life as a successful 1928 Broadway play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It takes place in the press room of a prison where newspaper reporters are biding their time until Earl Williams is executed for the murder of a policeman. Ex-reporter Hildy Johnson stops by to say goodbye to rest of the boys before he runs off to get married. When Williams escapes, Hildy finds himself unwillingly drawn back into the business, especially since his conniving former editor Walter Burns is willing to do anything to keep him on staff, including sabotaging his upcoming marriage. Eventually, Hildy discovers that he was really married to the news business the whole time.

The Front Page was first brought to the screen in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, who offered a relatively straightforward adaptation. When Howard Hawks brought his idea for a remake to Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, Cohn wasn’t particularly thrilled, but Hawks had an ace up his sleeve: having Hildy Johnson played by a woman instead. Hawks saw The Front Page as a love story anyway, and since he wasn’t any more comfortable with homoeroticism than Breen office of the Motion Picture Production Code would have been, swapping genders for one of the characters seemed perfectly natural to him. Cohn still had his doubts, but Hawks wasn’t wrong. Cohn had suggested Cary Grant to play Hildy Johnson, but Hawks thought that Grant would be better as Walter Burns. Casting Johnson was a little more tricky, but once the sparkling Rosalind Russell took the part, everything clicked. Add in Ralph Bellamy as Hildy’s hapless fiancé Bruce Baldwin, John Qualen as the equally hapless Williams, Helen Mack as Williams’ girlfriend Molly Malloy, Abner Biberman as Burns’ henchman Louis, and Billy Gilbert as the Deus ex machina who inadvertently saves the day, and everything else fell into place as well.

Almost everything else, anyway. While the gender swap is one of the most celebrated changes in His Girl Friday, Hawks wasn’t quite done yet. The Front Page was noted for its rapid-fire dialogue, but It still wasn’t rapid enough Hawks. He took things to the next level by letting the dialogue overlap, but he kept the important details comprehensible by employing a trick that he explained to Joseph McBride in Hawks on Hawks: “All you need is a little extra work on the dialogue. You put a few words in front of somebody’s speech and a few words at the end., and they can overlap it. It gives you a sense of speed that actually doesn’t exist. And then you make people talk a little faster.”

As a result of changes like these, when Hawks remade The Front Page, he ended up taking it away from Lewis Milestone, and arguably from Ben Hecht as well. That’s especially ironic considering that Hecht ended up helping Hawks with the screenplay in an uncredited capacity, in exchange for Hawks helping him with a different project. The screenplay for His Girl Friday is credited to Charles Lederer, who had also contributed some additional dialogue to The Front Page. Lederer would go on to work with Hawks on several more films, so they were clearly simpatico, but there’s no doubt that both Hecht and Hawks had their fingers in the final shooting script as well. The biggest contribution that Hawks made (aside from the legendary gender swap) was the result of something that was near and dear to his heart: the concept of professionalism.

Hildy Johnson is supposed to be one of the best reporters in the business, but the reasons why are never made clear in either the play or in the 1931 film. Hawks added the crucial scene where Hildy interviews Earl Williams, showing how skillfully she manipulates him to generate the quote that she needs for an effective story. More importantly, Hawks used professionalism to define the relationships between the three main characters in the romantic triangle. To put it bluntly, Bruce Baldwin never stood a chance with Hildy, because she’s out of his professional league. He may be somewhat professional in terms of his skills as an insurance salesperson (although that’s a debatable point), but Hildy and Walter’s professionalism are in perfect sync with each other because it’s the same kind of professionalism, working toward the same goal.

Hawks delineated their respective relationships by using one of his favorite visual techniques: the cigarette gag. Smoking always defines the relationships in a Howard Hawks film. When Hildy first returns to the newspaper offices, Walter ends up tossing her a cigarette and makes her light it herself, confident in the fact that while their own marriage may have fallen apart, she’s still a part of his life that he can take for granted. Once he finds out that she’s leaving for good in order to marry Bruce Baldwin, he panics and invites both of them out to lunch. At the table, he assumes his old comfortable familiarity with her. When she lights her cigarette first this time, he takes her hand with the match in order to light his own. Bruce, meanwhile, says that he doesn’t smoke. With that admission, his fate is sealed, and the ending of the film becomes a fait accompli. The scene demonstrates that Bruce was never a part of her world, and so he can never really be a part of her life.

That’s because while Hildy may long for the traditional role of wife and homemaker, that longing is weak tea compared to her magnetic attraction toward a good story. She’s a professional, after all. His Girl Friday may end up being a love story between Hildy and Walter, but the love that they share is more in terms of mutual interests than it is out of any real deep affection for each other. The savage joy that Walter exhibits while manipulating Hildy and Bruce is just an extension of his love for manipulating the truth in order to get a good story, and while Hildy is initially irritated by his machinations, she ultimately recognizes that it’s just an outgrowth of the professionalism that they both share. They’re both yellow journalists who deserve each other, and frankly, the sweet-natured but ineffectual Bruce deserves something better.

That’s one reason why the gender swap proves so interesting in His Girl Friday. Changing Hildy into a woman may retain the heteronormative view of relationships that was acceptable to Hawks and the censors of the day, but it doesn’t completely eliminate the homoerotic elements from the original story. Strong female characters are often defined in terms of masculine characteristics (see anything directed by James Cameron), but while Hildy does retain her essential femininity throughout the film, it’s Walter’s perception of her supposedly masculine skillset that attracts him to her. He never treated her like a woman in the first place (he wouldn’t even hold a door open for her), because in his mind, she’s a newspaperman, and that’s why he loves her. The role of Hildy could have been played by a male actor after all, and it wouldn’t have made any real difference to the story. Mind you, Hawks would have rejected that interpretation (when McBride asked him about critics pointing out the homoerotic subtext in his films, Hawks responded that “It’s a goddamned silly statement to make.”) Yet the subtext is still there, even in an ostensibly heterosexual relationship like the one between Hildy and Walter.

That subtext also helps to explain the ending, which has been criticized for having Hildy Johnson return to a seemingly subservient role for Walter Burns. On a superficial level, that looks a bit regressive for a character who had previously been such a force of nature of her own. Yet it’s not her feminine side that’s being submissive, but rather her masculine one. She’s also not submitting to him at all, but instead to her own drive as a reporter who is perpetually in search of a good story. Her feminine side is still there, as are her dreams of a conventional married life, but it’s the newspaperman in her that’s once again become locked to the whims of Walter. She’s just acknowledging the reality of who she is, and of who he is as well. The thing that holds them together isn’t heterosexual norms, but rather a deeper bond that transcends gender. The reality of His Girl Friday is that Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns really do deserve each other, on every possible level. The ending was predestined from the moment that she walked back into his newspaper office.

Cinematographer Joseph Walker shot His Girl Friday on 35mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. As Grover Crisp lays out in his detailed restoration notes, His Girl Friday was the subject of a photochemical restoration back in 1991, working from the original nitrate negative and a nitrate print. The 35mm fine-grain masters that were produced from that were used as the source for all subsequent SD and HD home video releases. This new 4K restoration was based on new 4K scans of the original negative done by Cineric, Inc. in New York, which also handled the restoration work, including generating new digital frames to replace a few that were missing from all available film elements. Additional restoration work and grading were performed at Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, including new High Dynamic Range grades in both Dolby Vision and HDR10.

The results are as impeccable as you would expect given everyone who was involved. While there’s only so much detail available on the original negative, there’s still a slight uptick in perceivable resolution compared to the previous 2017 Blu-ray from Criterion. There’s more clarity to the weave in Cary Grant’s suit, as well as in some of the other textures. That also means that the text of the articles in the background newspaper seen during the opening credits is actually readable this time—the articles themselves, not just the headlines. The focus falls off toward the edges of the screen, but it’s clear enough in the center. The focal plane of the lenses that Walker used for the main shoot was equally shallow, so there’s quite a bit of unavoidable softness in parts of the frame, but the primary plane of focus is always crisp and clear. (This isn’t quite the deep-focus cinematography that Jean Renoir and Orson Welles favored.) Everything looks immaculately clean, the regenerated frames are imperceptible in motion, and the grain always looks natural and unaffected by compression artifacts. The grayscale is flawless, as are the contrast, black levels, and shadow detail—there’s also a slight uptick of fine detail in the darkest portions of the frame. His Girl Friday looks simply gorgeous in 4K, which isn’t surprising considering that everything was done under the aegis of the inimitable Mr. Crisp.

Primary audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. The source for this track was the original optical tracks on the nitrate negative, with audio restoration work completed at Deluxe Audio Services in Hollywood. Any clicks or pops have been eliminated, and noise or hiss has been reduced to barely audible levels. Distortion from the original elements is minimal, and the dialogue is always clear and comprehensible—if you can keep up with it, that is. (Though it’s worth noting once again that Hawks was careful not to allow overlapping dialogue to overwhelm the most important lines.)

Additional audio options include German, Italian, Spanish (Spain), and Spanish (Latin America) 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles options include English, English SDH, Arabic, Chinese (Traditional), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin America), Swedish, Thai, and Turkish.

Sony’s 4K release of His Girl Friday is the first film in their Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 4. The set also includes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer vs. Kramer, Starman, Sleepless in Seattle, and Punch-Drunk Love. The packaging is similar to the other three volumes, with two wings that open up, each of which houses three films in individual Amaray cases with slipcovers. (The inserts use the original theatrical poster artwork, while the slipcovers offer new artwork.) At the back of the box is a separate compartment that houses an 80-page hardbound book featuring essays on each film by different authors (in this case, the illustrious Julie Kirgo) as well as individual restoration notes by Grover Crisp, Rita Belda, and the late James Owsley, who passed away in 2022.

All of the films in the collection include a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, most of them based on the same 4K masters as the UHDs (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Kramer vs. Kramer are the exception.) There are no extras on the UHD for His Girl Friday (not even the commentary track), but the following extras are included on the Blu-ray only:

  • Audio Commentary by Todd McCarthy
  • Screwball Style: The Iconic Costumes of Robert Kalloch (HD – 16:17)
  • Breaking the Speed Barrier: The Dialogue of His Girl Friday (HD – 12:39)
  • Lighting Up with Hildy Johnson (HD – 25:04)
  • Ben Hecht: The Hack of Genius (HD – 25:43)
  • On Assignment: His Girl Friday (SD – 8:46)
  • Cary Grant: Making Headlines (SD – 4:51)
  • Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop (SD – 3:09)
  • Howard Hawks: The Reporter’s Notebook (SD – 3:17)
  • The Funny Pages (SD – 3:23)
  • Vintage Advertising (SD – :56)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:50)
  • Re-Release Trailer (HD – 1:22)

The commentary track was originally recorded for Sony’s 2000 DVD release of His Girl Friday, and it features former Variety critic Todd McCarthy, who wrote the 1997 biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. McCarthy provides some background about the play The Front Page and the original 1930 film, and notes some of the differences between them and His Girl Friday, including how Hawks came up with the idea for the gender swap with Hildy Johnson. As a biographer of Hawks, McCarthy also talks about what set him apart from other directors of the era, and discusses his working methodology on this film. Hawks wasn’t known as a visual stylist, but McCarthy points out some of the subtle visual tricks that he employed to define the relationships between the characters (including the cigarette gags!) This commentary isn’t as wall-to-wall as the dialogue in the film itself, since McCarthy pauses occasionally, but there’s still some interesting information to be had here.

Two new extras have been included on this release. The first is Screwball Style: The Iconic Costumes of Robert Kalloch is a biography of the legendary costume designer hosted by Kimberly Truhler, author of Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s. She examines Kalloch’s entire career, with a natural emphasis on His Girl Friday, and notes what set his work apart from the rest. (While it’s never referenced in the film, Truhler points out that Rosalind Russell’s iconic striped suit in the opening scenes was actually pink and black, and she explains why she thinks that’s significant for this version of Hildy Johnson.) Breaking the Speed Barrier: The Dialogue of His Girl Friday is hosted by Jeremy Arnold, author of the Turner Classic Movies books The Essentials Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Arnold focuses on the rapid-fire dialogue in the film, and the techniques that Hawks used to make it work without ever being incomprehensible. He also gives full credit to both Grant and Russell for being able to pull it off.

Lighting Up with Hildy Johnson was originally produced for the 2017 Blu-ray from Criterion. It’s an appreciation of His Girl Friday by the late film scholar David Bordwell, although he points out up front that it’s not going to be an orthodox appreciation. Orthodox or not, it’s still carefully organized, divided into the following chapters: How to Be a Hawksian, Now You’re Talking, Becoming Classical Classic, The Big Switcheroo, Reverse Engineering a Classic, Cutting: Visible and Invisible, and Figures in a Frame. In barely 25 minutes, Lighting Up with Hildy Johnson manages to provide both an overview and an analysis of His Girl Friday, examining it from within and without. Bordwell passed away two weeks after Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 4 was released, so watching this interview now is especially poignant. His contributions to film scholarship were immeasurable.

Ben Hecht: The Hack of Genius was also produced for the Criterion Blu-ray. It’s a biography of the iconic screenwriter hosted by “Hecht expert” David Brendel. Brendel explains how Hecht’s views of journalism in The Front Page were shaped by his own experiences as a journalist. Hecht really wanted to be a novelist, but the success of The Front Page shaped his career in return. The rest of the extras date back to the various DVD releases of His Girl Friday. Out of all of them, On Assignment: His Girl Friday is the only one that offers much of interest, featuring interviews with authors David Thompson and Molly Haskell. On Assignment: His Girl Friday, Cary Grant: Making Headlines, Rosalind Russell: The Inside Scoop, and Howard Hawks: The Reporter’s Notebook are all pretty basic puff pieces, and the Vintage Advertising unfortunately hasn’t been upgraded from SD.

His Girl Friday (4K UHD) His Girl Friday (4K UHD)

Missing from the 2017 Criterion Blu-ray is Hawks on Hawks, which was a combination of two different interviews with the director from 1972 and 1973, as well as the 1940 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of His Girl Friday. Of course, the biggest omission is that Criterion’s set included a second disc with the 2016 restoration of The Front Page, plus 1937 and 1946 radio adaptations of the film, as well as a restoration featurette. That’s definitely a disc that you’ll want to keep, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sony’s new 4K restoration is the only way to watch His Girl Friday going forward. The challenge with boxed sets like Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 4 is that they tend to include films that people want to own alongside ones that they don’t, but while everyone’s mileage will vary, this version of His Girl Friday makes the whole set worthwhile for me. Then again, I learned how to be a Hawksian many decades ago, and I make no apologies for that fact.

- Stephen Bjork

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