Blu-Ray Review: His Girl Friday & The Front Page: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection add the Hollywood comedy classic His Girl Friday to their UK catalogue. Not content with merely upgrading this old favourite for Blu-Ray, they’ve included the first film version of the play on which it was based, The Front Page, which was produced by Howard Hughes. I’ve included reviews of both films below.

I’m going to review the films in reverse chronological order as this is the order in which I watched them and, let’s be honest, His Girl Friday is the film most people will be buying the Blu-Ray for. The Front Page is even classed as a special feature on the box, which is quite surprising – it could have easily been marketed as a box-set as the older film deserves your full attention.

His Girl Friday

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on a Play by: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Country: USA
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1940
BBFC Certificate: U (although the disc is rated 12)


We like to moan about remakes these days amidst nostalgia-tinted exclamations that “they don’t make them like they used to”, but the Hollywood system was even more rigid and dominating back in the ‘good old days’ than it is now. There were plenty of remakes, sequels, knock-offs and cash-ins in the golden age (roughly 1930-59). It’s just that we only remember the good (or at least most popular) films several decades on. That’s not to say none of the remakes or sequels were any good though. A number of films now regarded as classics were remakes. Ben Hur had already been made in the 20’s before the hugely successful 1959 version came out for instance. Alfred Hitchock even remade one of his own films when he chose to update The Man Who Knew Too Much in Hollywood in 1956, using his British 1934 film of the same name as a template (which is the better version is up for debate on this though). One classic I didn’t realise was a remake until recently is His Girl Friday. Long considered one of the greatest Hollywood comedies of the era, it was based on a popular Broadway play that had already been produced by Howard Hughes almost 10 years previously as The Front Page (which was also the title of the play). The original story and most of the dialogue was kept in tact, but the most notable difference was that Howard Hawks’ 1940 version swapped the gender of the film’s protagonist.

So the male lead Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson from The Front Page became the female Hildegaard ‘Hildy’ Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday. The film sees her come back to the newspaper office where she used to work as a reporter to tell her boss and former husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that’s she’s leaving town to get married to her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – the gender of this role was reversed too of course – the early 30’s weren’t ready for same-sex marriage stories yet) and won’t be returning. Burns wants her back professionally and personally though, so schemes to give her a taste of a hot story breaking in town. Initially refusing, Hildy can’t resist after a while and gets drawn deeper into the political mess surrounding the proposed hanging of a supposed ‘commie’ who shot a police officer. She desperately tries to get the story tied up before her train is due to take her, her fiancée and mother-in-law to a new life, but juicy nuggets keep dropping in her lap and Burns tries every trick in the book to keep her hooked.

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Blu-Ray Review: Fright Night

Director: Tom Holland
Screenplay: Tom Holland
Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys
Country: USA
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1985
BBFC Certificate: 18


Halloween might have been and gone and Christmas is around the corner, but Eureka have gone against the grain to choose the Holiday season to re-release a cult classic horror favourite, 1985’s Fright Night on Blu-Ray (with a dual format edition to follow in April). Written and directed by Tom Holland, it was popular enough to not only spawn a sequel in 1988, but also a remake in 2011 starring Colin Farrell, Richard Tennant and the late Anton Yelchin. When the remake came out I wanted to see the original first, but never got around to it, so never saw either. So this re-release gave me the perfect chance to play catch up.

Fright Night sees typical teenager Charlie (William Ragsdale) grow suspicious of his new next door neighbour, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). After seeing him and his lodger Billy (Jonathan Stark) carrying a coffin into their house in the middle of the night, he’s sure something isn’t right. Then he sees a fanged Jerry seducing young women who turn up dead and thinks he spots him turning from a bat into a man. So Charlie is certain his neighbour is a vampire. Unfortunately no one believes him of course, so it’s up to him to put an end to his reign of terror. His girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) don’t believe him either, but are worried about his sanity and what he might do to his ‘innocent’ neighbour. So the two team up to help prove Jerry is human and the only way they can think of to do this is to enlist the support of washed up horror star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), of whom Charlie is a massive fan. Meanwhile, Jerry and Billy do their best to mess with Charlie and take the three youngsters and cowardly old actor out of the equation.

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Blu-Ray Review: Day for Night – Criterion Collection

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, Suzanne Schiffman
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 15


Films about filmmaking always tend to be popular with critics and I must say I’ve always been a fan of them myself. From the razor sharp satire of The Player, to the noirish brilliance of Sunset Boulevard, to over the top daft takes on the genre like Bowfinger, there’s a lot to enjoy from the film industry poking fun at or shining a mirror on themselves. French new wave legend François Truffaut turned his hand at making a film about making a film back in 1973, Day for Night. It was hugely popular at the time, winning numerous awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and The Criterion Collection have chosen it as their latest release on Blu-Ray in the UK. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager, but I had fond memories of it, so was keen on giving it a rewatch.

Day for Night charts the production of ‘Meet Pamela’, a soapy-looking drama about a young woman who’s torn between her fiancée and his father. Truffaut plays the on-screen director who tries to keep the machine rolling during a shoot fraught with problems. The cast are divas, the crew are getting off with each other left-right and centre and little goes to plan. Mid-production things start to level off, but several disasters towards the end lead to some wild compromises.

It perfectly captures the madness of making a film – the problems; major and minor, the fakery and the beauty. Despite so much going wrong during the fictional production, it still made me desperate to get out on set, being a filmmaker myself. This is a testament to the great balancing act Truffaut pulls off between poking fun at the industry’s inherent absurdity and writing it a love letter at the same time. A closing bit of dialogue perfectly sums it up, when a reporter asks the prop-man (the only person willing to talk to the press) if the shoot was difficult, and he answers “no, it went fine and we hope audiences enjoy watching it”, despite the multitude of catastrophes they went through.

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Blu-Ray Review: Little Shop of Horrors (1986) Director’s Cut

Director: Frank Oz
Screenplay: Howard Ashman
Based on a film written by: Charles B. Griffith
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Bill Murray, Levi Stubbs
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min (theatrical cut) 103 min (director’s cut)
Year: 1986
BBFC Certificate: PG


I think I’ve mentioned this in a review before, but I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. I love music and love films, but putting them together too blatantly doesn’t always work for me. I think it’s mainly the stereotypical squeaky clean Rodgers and Hammerstein style that I don’t go for though as there are a couple of musicals I truly adore. Singin’ in the Rain is one of them and another is Little Shop of Horrors. The more often I watch it, the more I come to feel it’s my favourite musical. Yet it’s a film that’s largely only ever been available to watch in a form not originally intended by its director. Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors was written and first shot with a particularly downbeat ending in line with the original short story, non-musical Roger Corman film and off-Broadway stage version. However, the bleak finale didn’t go down well with test audiences and the producers forced Oz to re-edit and reshoot the ending to be much more sugary.

Now I’ve never had a problem with the happy ending I’d seen several times previously, even though I was aware of how it originally concluded. Nevertheless, I was always intrigued to see Oz’s intended version of the film and my wish has been granted by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment who have released Little Shop of Horrors in a Premium Collection version, complete with the director’s cut, which is what I chose to watch for this review.

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Blu-Ray Review: Diner

Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin
Country: USA
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1982
BBFC Certificate: 15


I tend to review screeners of interesting films I haven’t seen before here, but when I’m offered Blu-Ray special editions of old favourites it’s hard to say no. Warner Bros. have recently introduced a new Premium Collection series, exclusive to UK HMV stores, and the first batch of 10 titles include three films I’d class as particular favourites of mine, alongside several other classics. The three dear to my heart, which I’ll be reviewing over the coming weeks, include Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Shining (the Extended Edition, not previously available in the UK) and Diner. Kicking off my reviews will be my thoughts on the latter.

Barry Levinson’s Diner follows a group of college-age friends in 1959 Baltimore as they hang out, primarily in the open-all-night Fells Point Diner. Each man is at a pivotal point in their life, be it about to get married, stuck in a marital rut already, facing impending parenthood within a strained relationship, on the verge of getting in trouble with the law or the wrong crowd, or simply not knowing what to do next with their lives as they prepare to dive headlong into adulthood.

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Blu-Ray Review: The In-Laws – Criterion Collection

Director: Arthur Hiller
Screenplay: Andrew Bergman
Starring: Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Richard Libertini, Ed Begley Jr., James Hong, David Paymer
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1979
BBFC Certificate: PG


This was a blind watch for me. I didn’t know anything about the film before the press release was sent. I’d heard of, but not seen, the remake and didn’t realise that was based on another film film anyway. Criterion can generally be trusted to release quality titles though and the cast was appealing, so I took a gamble which I’m happy to say paid off.

The In-Laws is a comedy about two father-in-laws to be; uptight Jewish dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) and crazy Italian American criminal/government agent Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk). The film opens with a daring open air robbery of some federal reserve plates (stamps used to print money), which soon make their way into the hands of heist mastermind Vince, who rushes straight from the scene to have dinner with the parents of his son’s fiancée. Here, Vince’s wild mood changes and crazy stories about giant, baby-carrying flies don’t impress potential in-law Sheldon, who wants to call the wedding off. His daughter talks him out of it, but the next morning Vince shows up at Sheldon’s surgery asking for a favour. He wants him to break into his own safe and bring him the contents. Sheldon is somehow talked into it and from then on his life is thrown into a ridiculous spiral of chaos, taking the duo all the way to South America where Vince plans to sell the plates to a crazed general. Vince claims he’s a CIA agent and this is all part of an elaborate plan to bring the general down, but Sheldon (and the audience) aren’t convinced.

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Blu-Ray Review: Here Comes Mr. Jordan – Criterion Collection

Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, Seton I. Miller
Based on a Play by: Harry Segall
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Rita Johnson
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: U


Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a film from 1941, based on a play called Heaven Can Wait, that spawned not only a sequel (Down to Earth in 1947), but a remake in 1978 (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s Heaven Can Wait), another in 2001 (Down to Earth starring Chris Rock) and even a remake in India in 1968 called Jhuk Gaya Aasman (English: The Skies Have Bowed). Some suggest it also helped kick start the mini-boom of guardian angel films in Hollywood during the 40’s and early 50’s, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Angels in the Outfield. With the original film hitting the UK list of Criterion Collection titles today, the question is, does it still hold up today?

Here Comes Mr. Jordan tells the story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), known as ‘the flying pug’ in his burgeoning career as a boxer. Whilst living up to his name and flying himself to his next fight, Joe crashes his plane and dies. His spirit is taken by messenger up to a cloudy runway to be flown up to heaven, but Joe complains to the angels that it isn’t his time and it turns out it isn’t. The messenger picked him up too early as Joe would have survived the flight and lived another 50 years. On learning that Joe’s body has been cremated, the angels, led by Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), try to make up for the clerical error by allowing him to enter the body of someone else recently deceased.

They pick out a crooked, wealthy businessman, Bruce Farnsworth, who’s just been murdered by his wife (Rita Johnson) and her lover. Joe is reluctant to take over this identity at first, until he meets Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), an attractive young woman who pleads to Bruce to help her father who he had sold worthless bonds to. Joe promptly chooses to become Bruce and pays the money back to all the small business owners he’d screwed over. This angers his business associates of course, but also his wife, so Joe has to work to keep this new body alive whilst wooing Bette and also trying to kickstart his boxing career in his new body.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Ninth Configuration

Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Based on a Novel by: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, William Peter Blatty
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 1980
BBFC Certificate: 15


William Peter Blatty is best known for writing the novel and screenplay for the hugely successful horror film, The Exorcist, but it’s not well known that prior to that he made his name writing comedies such as A Shot in the Dark (co-written with Blake Edwards). To follow up The Exorcist however, Blatty went in a bizarre new direction, taking cues from both sides of his career. He took a book called Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane he’d written in 1966, wrote a new version called The Ninth Configuration, released as a novel in 1978, and then turned that into a screenplay which would become his directorial debut, released in 1980.

The Ninth Configuration is an unusual film that sees military psychologist Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) sent to a remote mansion where a group of mentally ill and AWOL soldiers are being kept under observation. Supposedly the army couldn’t fathom why so many of its men were returning home from Vietnam with mental health problems and wanted to see if they were faking or not and what could be done about it in either case.

Once there, Kane finds the patients more troubled than he imagined and, following an interesting theory about Hamlet from one of the patients, he decides to indulge their strange requests and fantasies. One patient in particular catches his interest during this time, astronaut Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). He completely snapped just before being due to pilot a rocket to the moon and now questions the existence of God in amongst his wild behaviour. Kane is determined to prove the existence of God to Cutshaw by giving a true example of self-sacrifice to help others, but in doing so, he starts to crack himself.

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Trailer: Men & Chicken

A lot of people get confessional, or get hit on the head (often both at the same time) in Anders Thomas Jensen’s farcical comedy, Men & Chicken Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro and many other familiar Danish faces, the film is about a pair of socially-challenged siblings who discover they are adopted half-brothers in their late father’s videotaped will. Their journey in search of their true father takes them to the small, insular Danish island of Ork, where they stumble upon three additional half-brothers—each also sporting hereditary harelips and lunatic tendencies—living in a dilapidated mansion overrun by barn animals. Hitting ensues.

Drafthouse films acquired the film, and have cut a domestic trailer for the film which they are releasing very soon.

Blu-Ray Review: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Director: Russ Meyer
Screenplay: Roger Ebert
Based on a Story by: Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer
Starring: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett
Country: USA
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 1970
BBFC Certificate: 18


Russ Meyer is an unusual character in the history of American cinema. His first feature film as a director (after working as a combat cameraman in WWII) was The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). Widely acknowledged as the first commercially viable American ‘skin flick’ (or softcore porn as the films are more commonly known these days), it grossed more than $1,500,000 in the US at the time of its release from a budget of a mere $24,000. This success spurred Meyer on to make a name for himself as the ‘king of the skin flicks’, producing dozens of successful exploitation films that always featured incredibly buxom female stars, even when his films started to mix in other genres and become wild action-packed romps.

What’s interesting and unusual about Meyer is that, despite his reputation for making what were pretty much porn films, he actually became respected as a filmmaker in many circles. One of the key reasons for this was that he showed all the traits of being a true auteur. He worked as director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and film editor on many of his films, giving him a huge amount of control over the end product. His films had a recognisable style because of this. As well as the large-breasted stars, his films had a punchy editing style and bold, well composed cinematography. He made exploitation movies that actually looked good and were well put together, unlike many of the ‘skin flicks’ that would follow in his wake.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls represents an unusual point in Meyers career though. After Easy Rider, which was cheaply produced by a bunch of young ‘hippies’, became a huge unexpected success for Columbia Pictures, the other studios wanted in on the action. A number of the companies believed that giving money to young directors, fresh out of film school, would produce exciting counter-culture movies that the nation’s youth would flock to see (which is what kick-started the 70’s New Hollywood movement). 20th Century Fox’s plan though was to give a large budget to an already successful indie director with a reputation for making commercially successful genre films for very little money. The director they chose was Russ Meyer and the film he made was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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