‘Hildy Johnson used to be a man’ – Cecil B. DeMille

After their success as Hollywood movies, both “His Girl Friday” and the hit Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play that inspired it, “The Front Page,” were adapted for radio — and more than once. A few of the productions are available as MP3 files, so I’ve attached a sampling here.

Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Walter & Hildy in His Girl Friday

As someone who saw both films several times before hearing the radio versions, I wonder how first-time listeners would react if they didn’t have the visual memory of the films. Maybe some of my students will try them in that order.

Whether he’s Hildebrand (in “The Front Page”) or she’s Hildegarde (in “His Girl Friday”), do Hildy’s City Hall poker-playing pressroom cronies give newspapermen the same unflattering image on radio that they do in the films? Does voice alone give a strong enough impression of Walter’s charisma — or whatever it is? Can Fred MacMurray compete with Cary Grant or Adolphe Menjou in that role?

The Front Page — Lux Radio Theater 1937 (Click the series name to download or to play the file on an iPad or other device that doesn’t show a player icon.)
Like the original film, “The Front Page” radio edition made it into the world a few years before its Hildy-is-a-lady reincarnation. This hour-long version is memorable for having a real newspaperman playing Hildy, if not for his acting. Walter Winchell of the New York Daily Mirror already had brought his tabloid Broadway column to his own radio program, memorable for his staccato “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea…” intro over a clicking telegraph key. James Gleason, as Walter, gets third billing after the actress who plays Hildy’s fiancee.

It might be interesting to compare some of the dialogue with the original. Was it Winchell or a scriptwriter who made Hildy’s critique of journalism refer to readers as “a million nitwits and their wives” instead of the gentler, “a million hired girls and motormen’s wives” that I remember from “His Girl Friday”? (Winchell’s critique of journalism is about 12 minutes into the program.)

Historical note: That June 28, 1937, broadcast opens with an announcer mentioning that pilot Amelia Earhart, scheduled to be on the show, had “not yet completed” her round-the-world flight, but was expected to be on the program the next week. Her last verified radio transmission was July 6, after which she had officially disappeared.

The original stars of the 1931 film, Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns, the role that brought him an Oscar nomination, did a half-hour Academy Award Theater adaptation on radio in 1946, an impressive compression of the original three-act play. (Lee Tracy, who played Hildy on Broadway, also played the role in a radio version, but so far I haven’t found an online source for that performance.)

The Front Page — Academy Award Theater 1946

The other “original cast,” Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, present a compressed version of their already fast-moving “His Girl Friday” in this 30-minute 1941 adaptation of the 1940 film.

His Girl Friday — Screen Guild Theater 1941
But that wasn’t the first radio version. The film came out in January 1940; that September, Lux Radio Theater already had it on the air with a different cast.

His Girl Friday — Lux Radio Theater 1940
Not Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, this version has Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, and a tongue in cheek opening address from the famous producer and director, Cecil B. DeMille. He sets the scene and reminds the audience of the main difference between the two plays: “Hildy Johnson used to be a man.”

All of these MP3 files are from the Old Time Radio collection at archive.org. The films “The Front Page” and “His Girl Friday” are also at archive.org as streaming or downloadable video files. If the dialogue is too fast for you, a His Girl Friday script is online at The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb).

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in Hildy Johnson, j-heroes, movies, newspapers, reporters, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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