Another Lewis Milestone milestone in the wake of All Quiet: the talkie of the play that invented the talkies. Was ever a better cast assembled for a single film? One of the most important films ever made, though public domain status has diminished it by wide availability in hideous quality dupes. Only a pristine restoration will be enough to stop people yammering about how it's good but His Girl Friday is better. No way. His Girl Friday is just lovely, but this is American history photographed in flashes of lightning, every bit as much as Birth of a Nation. It's also funnier than Birth of a Nation, a film which, for all its points of interest, doesn't have Walter Catlett in it.
Via the army of New York writers brought in to give the new movies a voice, Hecht and MacArthur's script is the prototypical essence of the snappy, New York style of dialogue and situation that were used as the model for talking pictures.
From this play, and very often in the words of Hecht or MacArthur themselves, who stayed on in Hollywood, comes every subsequent sophisticated comedy and romantic drama, and comes too the rhythms of Capra and Sturges and screwball comedy.
More tangibly, it gave the movies an abiding interest in the activities of newspaper reporters as surrogates for the audience, mediating between the higher and lower strata of society and standing up for unpretentiousness and common sense. In thrillers and horror films, the journalist tracking down clues along with the cops, often breaking the case, usually a smart aleck, and just as often female as male, became standard: Lee Tracy (from the Broadway cast of Front Page) and Glenda Farrell made careers of it. The Front Page is responsible for the savvy reporters and dumb cops in Monogram horrors of the forties as much as for the brittle society comedies with Carole Lombard or the frank boy-girl banter of It Happened One Night.
The virtues it bequeathed American cinema are all literary virtues, narrative virtues; none of them is cinematic. Making the movie of the play itself seemed almost symbolic, a necessary formality, since by 1931 its influence on the talkies was omnipresent and long-absorbed. I think Milestone got the job because he was one of those directors who had acquired a reputation for specifically cinematic panache, and therefore might find something new and surprising in the property. (He didn’t much, in the event; Rouben Mamoulian would have been the best bet, I think.)
Still, in script and performance it remains a terrific movie, as energetic and melodic as it ever was, and the definitive version of the play,even allowing for the clever use of sound effects to obscure the offending language of the play's sensational closing line. (And which would not travel intact to the screen until Billy Wilder's likeable remake of 1974.)
Watch the pressroom scenes here; watch this incomparably impressive ensemble cast, each exactly the right man for the part: George E. Stone, Walter Catlett, Edward Everett Horton, Pat O'Brien, and Frank McHugh (as Mac McCue!), just embarking on a career that would basically be a series of variations on the same role, so indivisible from the character did he seem.
Then, of course, there is Adolphe Menjou, an actor for whom précis history seems to have prepared the niche of romantic smoothie-cum-red baiter, but who was in truth one of the most talented actors who ever lived, with a compulsively naturalistic style of delivery and a rare gift for playing unprincipled men of great external sophistication. (Leslie Halliwell, with customary astuteness, calls him "the Walter Matthau of his place and time.") Cary Grant is his usual charming and funny self in His Girl Friday - rarely, in fact, will you find him funnier or more charming - but he's not Walter Burns. This is Walter Burns, right here.
To watch this fizzing, rattling, pirouetting film, its dialogue an endless string of bounces and rebounds in which the ball is never allowed to drop for a moment, is to be in at the birth of something, and only occasionally would the subsequent generations get it as effortlessly right as here.