There are few films I know as well—or love as much—as Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), the director’s fast and furious remake of The Front Page. I’m also well acquainted with the great Mildred Pierce (1945 ) starring Joan Crawford and directed by Michael Curtiz. But the new Blu-ray editions of these classics offer a feast of special features that deepened my appreciation of both pictures. That’s the beauty of the Criterion Collection’s ongoing work in this field.
His Girl Friday features a video essay by the erudite David Bordwell about the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking as practiced by Hawks, with clear and illuminating examples from the movie. I never thought about how the filmmaker staged scenes to allow for overlapping editing points…but it’s never too late to learn. The disc also includes excerpts of filmed interviews with Hawks, who was famously matter-of-fact in discussing his work. The ultimate bonus feature is the newly-unearthed “director’s cut” of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 production The Front Page—the source for the gender-switch remake His Girl Friday—and a thorough examination of how the alternate version of this early talkie was uncovered by the University of Nevada Las Vegas (which acquired the Howard Hughes archive) and restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The career of prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht is examined in a first-rate interview with Hecht expert David Brendel. And, as always with Criterion releases of vintage Hollywood movies, there are radio adaptations (from 1937 and 1941) and insightful essays, by Farran Smith Nehme and Michael Sragow. Criterion has even included breezy bonus features about Hawks and Rosalind Russell produced by Sony for its first video release of the film years ago. Needless to add, His Girl Friday has never looked or sounded so good.
[A personal sidebar: the first actor I ever met on my maiden voyage to Hollywood was comedian and character actor Billy Gilbert, who gives a hilarious performance in this film as the dopey messenger Joe Pettibone. I asked him how he managed to stand out when he was surrounded by expert scene-stealers at the top of their game. Billy’s wife Ella, who spoke for him by this time, explained that Howard Hawks told the other actors to “back off” and give Billy his turn. They did, he came up to their level of performance, and his two scenes in His Girl Friday are unforgettably funny.]
Mildred Pierce is also a splendid presentation. The disc includes a wonderful time-capsule interview with an unusually relaxed Joan Crawford from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show and a Today show conversation with author James M. Cain. The “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller conducts a delightful interview with the film’s Oscar-nominated costar Ann Blyth, taped in 2002 after a screening of the film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. But the highlight for me is a conversation between two brilliant critics: Molly Haskell, well-known for her essays on women’s portrayals on film, and Robert Polito, the celebrated writer who is an expert on Cain and film noir. Their stimulating, spontaneous back-and-forth raises provocative ideas about the nature of the story and characters and offers ample food for thought. You can also revisit Peter Fitzgerald’s 2002 documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, which includes revealing comments from friends, costars, and daughter Christina Crawford, and read an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.
I love learning new things about films I cherish. Criterion maintains its reputation with these new releases and whets my appetite for more.