Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wednesday's Question: Jack Lemmon or Rosalind Russell
It's not often that opposite sexes get a chance at the same role, but that's the case with the character Hildy Johnson, in the play "The Front Page," which was put on the big screen in 1940 as "His Girl Friday" and in 1974 as simply "The Front Page." The story centers around a star reporter (Hildy) leaving the newspaper life for good to take up marriage. But the day Hildy's train is leaving also happens to be the date of a major execution, and his editor Walter Burns will do everything he can to get one last story out of him.

For the 1940 version, legendary director Howard Hawks wanted to add a battle of the sexes/old flame touch to the hilarious tale, so he changed the Hildy character to a woman. This worked well, with Hildy acting as fiery editor Burns' (Carey Grant) ex-wife. Not only is Burns trying to pry Hildy away from her new beau to serve his newspaper, but also because he hates seeing her with anyone less than him.

In 1974, equally-legendary director Billy Wilder did a straight adaptation of "The Front Page," but with the advantage of having Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as his two top players. Matthau's grating, dry wit was perfect for the Burns role, and Lemmon's honest and genuine likability was key for playing Hildy.

So what way would I have it? Having Hildy as a woman certainly worked with Grant alongside, as he was always at his best when shining his narrow smile at a female co-star, and it added a comedic touch that may have been lacking with another man. But Lemmon is obviously a more gifted comedic actor than Russell, and that is never more clear than near the end in the 1974 version when Hildy insinuates what exactly he and Molly Malloy (Carol Burnett) were doing behind the locked doors of the pressroom. The scene is a riot and in Russell's version, a joke is never attempted.

In this case, I would lean toward the Lemmon/Matthau combination simply because their comedic chemistry was that much better than Grant/Russell. But when comparing the movies, I would always choose "His Girl Friday," simply because its stripped-down production makes it seem more like the play it was intended to be, whereas Wilder's version is so over-the-top in its slapstick that it almost takes away from the movie.

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