Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns on the air
by Bob Stepno
Radio couldn’t show the feet on the desks or the poker game in the courthouse newsroom. But the broadcast adaptations of The Front Page and His Girl Friday conveyed at least some of the originals’ mixed messages about the press.
An example from the script of His Girl Friday:
… You’re a newspaperman.
That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go some place where I can be a woman.
I know you, Hildy, and I know what it would mean. It would kill you.
A journalist! Peeking through keyholes — running after fire engines — waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if they think Hitler’s going to start a war — stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that got chased by apemen! I know all about reporters — a lot of daffy buttinskies going around without a nickel in their pockets, and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives will know what’s going on! No, Walter, I’m through.
Both the film “His Girl Friday” (1940) and the hit 1928 play and 1931 film that inspired it, “The Front Page,” were adapted for radio more than once. A few of the productions are available as MP3 files. In the list below, click the series name to download or to play the file on an iPad or other device that doesn’t show a player icon.
The original play was by former newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur, a send-up of journalistic excesses and urban political corruption, based on their experiences in Chicago a decade earlier.
In all cases, the adaptations stay close to the basic outline: Hildy Johnson, reporter, wants to quit the business and get married. Walter Burns, editor, doesn’t want to lose his star. In the background, there are a convicted man, a hangman’s scaffold, a courthouse newsroom full of cynical reporters, and an incompetent and corrupt sheriff and mayor.
The dialogue is rapid-fire — but possibly slowed down a bit for radio, which couldn’t rely on raised-eyebrows and double-takes to underscore punchlines.
Both the movies and the radio adaptations couldn’t be as naughty as Broadway, even cutting a famous “son-of-a-bitch” punchline as the final curtain came down. Radio scriptwriters also may have skipped a double-entendre here or there.
Are the radio adaptations still fun for new audiences, or do they mostly serve as reminders for people who already saw the play or films? I’ve written a bit about Hildy’s gender-change here and may add more discussion at a later date.
His Girl Friday — Screen Guild Theater 1941
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant present a compressed version of their already fast-moving film in this 30-minute 1941 adaptation of the 1940 film. But that wasn’t the first radio version. The film came out in January 1940; in September, Lux Radio Theater had it on the air with a different cast.
His Girl Friday — Lux Radio Theater 1940
Not Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, this hour-long version has Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, and a tongue-in-cheek opening address to the press from Cecil B. DeMille. (Coincidentally, Colbert did get to play a reporter a few years later in “No Time for Love” — with MacMurray as her non-journalist leading man.) Jack Carson has the Ralph Bellamy role as Hildy’s intended, Bruce Baldwin.
Rosalind Russell was back in 1944 for another radio production, on the Goodyear Tire Co. series, The Star & the Story, according to radio historian Jerry Haendiges’ log of available and unavailable episodes. Alas, he marks that one unavailable.
As with the original films, “The Front Page” (with a male Hildy Johnson) made it to the air a few years before the Hildy-is-a-lady re-incarnation. This hour-long version is memorable for having a real newspaperman playing Hildy: Walter Winchell, whom producer Cecil B. DeMille introduces as, “The most original, most highly paid, most copied and most widely known among reporters.”
Walter Burns is played by James Gleason, no stranger to Hollywood’s versions of newsrooms in “Meet John Doe” and other films.
The Front Page — Lux Radio Theater 1937
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. Fifteen years difference in ages didn’t mean much on radio.
The Front Page — Academy Award Theater 1946
(Lee Tracy, who played Hildy on Broadway in 1928, also played the role in a 1951 radio version for “Philip Morris Playhouse,” possibly written by the same writing team as the 1948 Dick Powell series, David Friedkin and Morton Fine. So far I haven’t found an online source for that performance, just listings in radio historians’ logs from Jerry Haendiges and Digital Deli and others. They report that in 1942 the same series also did “His Girl Friday” with Paulette Goddard in the Rosalind Russell role as a female Hildy Johnson.)
Ford Theater’s 1948 production may have come closest to the 1928 Broadway original, thanks to the script treatment by the distinguished critic, editor and playwright Gilbert Seldes, the younger brother of journalist George Seldes and one of the first critics to take seriously “The Lively Arts” of popular culture.
Gilbert Seldes was later to become the first director of television for CBS News and founding dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also the father of actress Marian Seldes.
Ford Theater was a high-quality anthology series that ran for only two years, just as television was beginning to cut into the audience for evening home entertainment.
The Front Page (ABC) — Also in 1948, ABC radio tried out an updated version of The Front Page as a 13-week summer series. Good newsroom-background sounds set the opening scene, not unlike the start of the movie “His Girl Friday,” but the similarity ends quickly. With familiar radio voices Dick Powell, starring as reporter Hildy, and William Conrad, as a rather diminished editor Walter Burns, this was neither the original “stop-the-hanging and keep Hildy from quitting” plot nor the anything-goes Roaring Twenties setting. A Truman era Front Page!? Scripts for eleven episodes are listed among the papers of writer Morton Fine archived at UCLA, but transcription recordings of the series are rare.
A June 3, 1948, episode survives in the Old Time Radio Researchers group online library as “The Frightened Swede,” with Hildy tipped off that his Swedish roots could get him a story from an eccentric old man giving away $10 bills on a street corner. Powell even gets to speak a couple of lines in Swedish. The story is more reminiscent of some “Night Beat” human interest plots and — with a murder in the plot — Powell’s movie and radio detective roles (Rogue’s Gallery, summers 1945 & ’46 and Richard Diamond, 1949-53). Powell and Conrad’s portrayals had little in common with the fast-talking Walter and Hildy newsroom rascals of the “Front Page” play and movies. They even show some restraint in their reporting.
Their paper is called the “Examiner,” not the original play’s “Morning Express.” It competes with a “Tribune,” represented by some tavern banter between Hildy and a Tribune reporter, as well as Walter’s calling Hildy on the carpet when the Tribune gets a story first.
Fans of media technology may be interested in the presence of a new high-tech-in-1948 tape recorder as a plot device. In the end Hildy gets to solve a murder, but he’s still more Dick Powell, detective, than Hildy Johnson, reporter.
All of these MP3 files are from the Old Time Radio collection at archive.org.
Copies of the films are also available for streaming or downloading at archive.org:
For more about the movies, including two more recent re-makes, see the Internet Movie Database, IMDB.com