Stop the presses – I want to get off.
His Girl Friday, the 1940 screwball comedy featuring Rosalind Russell’s iconic performance as “newspaperman” Hildy Johnson, is a cinema classic.
The Front Page, the 1928 play that the film was adapted from, is one of the great American stage comedies.
Alas, what the Shaw Festival has chosen to present at its flagship theatre this summer is an unhappy hybrid of the film and the play that mixes their two similar, but ultimately different styles. It’s cobbled together by playwright John Guare, then studded with his own heavy-handed interpolations.
Director Jim Mezon gives the script – which Guare has questionably revised from the 2003 version that premiered in London – a superb production with a wonderful cast. But, for fans of the originals, the ultimate effect is of being robbed, twice.
Nicole Underhay stars as Hildy, the Chicago Daily Record’s star crime reporter, who is about to leave the newspaper life behind to become a housewife to an insurance salesman in Albany.
Benedict Campbell plays Walter Burns, Hildy’s Machiavellian editor – and ex-husband – who will stop at nothing to get her back on the beat.
Leave thoughts of Russell and His Girl Friday co-star Cary Grant at the door, and you’ll find two original takes on the familiar characters. Underhay brings a surprisingly naturalistic cool to Hildy, anchored by real heart. Campbell, meanwhile, lets his manic energy flow with glee – and stumbles only when he had to be a believable romantic lead. (It doesn’t help that Guare flattens Hildy and Walter’s unconventional relationship into cliché.)
Under Mezon’s clockwork direction, the press room at the Chicago courthouse is perfectly controlled chaos. The ink-stained rabble moves rapidly from poker games, to hooting and hollering at a passing secretaries, to manning the lines madly as they call in stories to their tabloids in a journalistic version of broken telephone.
As in the earlier versions of this story, Hildy gets tricked into covering one last death-row story before heading off to get married.
Guare has moved The Front Page’s action out of the colourful and corrupt Chicago of Prohibition and mayor “Big Bill” Thompson to just before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, however. (“Look, it’s Aug. 31, 1939,” observes one of the reporters, in a line that’s representative of the playwright’s sense of subtlety.)
Alas, Guare hasn’t added the Nazis imminent invasion of Poland as a quiet backdrop. Instead, he’s put it in as a litmus test for the characters. Everyone we’re not supposed to sympathize with, at some point, delivers a speech saying, in effect, that this Hitler fellow is not so bad.
Rather than being a sweet insurance salesman who wears rubbers even when it’s not raining, Hildy’s fiancé, Bruce, becomes a mother-mollycoddled fascist – though Kevin Bundy’s gradually more frantic performance is the funniest thing in the production. Bruce’s mother, played by Wendy Thatcher, is not only a member of the Hitler fan club, but is also saddled with an overemphasized dislike of women authors, an unfunny Guare add-on that bogs down the climax.
And, naturally, instead of trying to prevent the execution of a crazy anarchist who killed a black cop, Hildy and Walter are now trying to stop a young Jewish immigrant (Andrew Bunker) from being sent to the gallows for killing a pro-Nazi cop in self-defence. They’re now prone to lectures about truth and American ideals in between zingers. In the supporting cast, a parade of character actors have a heck of a time. Ric Reid is a hoot as the hypochondriac Bensinger, and, though I found him overly broad, Lorne Kennedy brought down the house as a small-minded messenger from Saskatchewan.
I guess we’re are officially over any snobbery about turning movies into plays, now that Canada’s two largest festivals dedicated to the classics have stuck film adaptations on their main stages this summer ( 42nd Street at Stratford; His Girl Friday here).
But the fact is many people make pilgrimages to these festivals expecting to see Canada’s top actors perform in the best plays from theatrical history – not subpar scripts riding on the coattails of cinematic glory.