Largely remembered (when remembered at all) for serious war dramas (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT/’30; A WALK IN THE SUN/’45; the underrated EDGE OF DARKNESS/’43), Lewis Milestone earned the first (and only!) Best Comedy Director Oscar® in 1929 for TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS/’27. Made in the wake of Raoul Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY/’26, the over-produced WWI prison escape buddy pic is now rarely shown, but does make Milestone seem less unlikely a choice for Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur’s legendary Chicago newspaper dramedy. The famous story (ace reporter plans to ankle job for marriage, but not if his wily boss can stop him) has been picked clean for years. (Even by its authors, who ‘borrowed’ their template for GUNGA DIN/’39.) Nowadays, best known with a gender-switched lead via Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY/’40; the original version is poorly served by Billy Wilder’s dispiriting 1974 remake, made in the cutesy wake of THE STING/’73. Which is all to say that this Early Talkie, now restored to reasonable condition on KINO DVD, is a real find; a gorgeous antique that honors the play in a hilarious & blisteringly tough fashion that still has you gasping at the audacity of Chicago city politics & newspaper ‘ethics.’ It not only hasn’t dated, it’s ahead of current headlines. (They do say ‘colored’ rather than African-American and everyone dresses better; elsewise, spot on.) Milestone seems utterly determined to blast thru the technical restrictions of the Early Talkie period, taunting his cameramen with impossibly fast moves and flaunting some technical flourishes. Not all of them work, and the soundtrack hasn’t come up as well as the picture. For that matter, Milestone always shot sound film as if he were still making silents . . . with dialogue tacked on. So, don’t look for that early Frank Capra rhythmic swing & pace you’d find perfected the following year in AMERICAN MADNESS/’32, which shares this film’s lead, Pat O’Brien, in excellent form. But even Capra couldn’t have cast it any better. Masterly perfs from a bevy of class character acts, and in Adolphe Menjou a triumphant turn as editor Walter Burns. A film so devilishly joyous, so heartlessly funny, it may have you second-guessing if Hawks’ version is the improvement everyone claims it to be.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: One of the DVD EXTRAs is a radio version from June 28, 1937 with Walter Winchell in for Pat O’Brien as reporter Hildy Johnson. But you may hit the repeat button when they announce the No-Show Special Guest . . . Amelia Earhart! Delayed in the air by her world spanning flight, she’s announced as being rescheduled for next week’s program. That would have been July 4th . . . and Earhart went missing July 2nd.