Yes, sometimes remakes can improve on the original film.
We’ve sighted The Maltese Falcon on as the best example of that. The third Hollywood version of the Dashiell Hammett novel, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, is usually listed in the top 20 films of all time.
And in 1939 another classic was born with the remake of The Front Page. Originally the Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur play which had been filmed in 1931 with Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien as Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, was to be a straight remake. That’s them in the photo above with Mary Brian.
But the story goes that during auditions, director Howard Hawks‘s female secretary read reporter Hildy Johnson’s part and the director ordered the script be rewritten to make Hildy female. Sceenwriter Charles Lederer then suggested she be the ex-wife of the character of editor Walter Burns. Lederer kept most of the original dialogue and all of the characters’ names were left the same. But, of course, Hildy’s fiancé became a male, named Bruce Baldwin.
Cary Grant was always first choice for the part of Walter Burns, but the new, female Hildy Johnson, was a more difficult casting decision. Many of the actresses Hawks wanted were unavailable. Carole Lombard‘s salary demands were too high. Jean Arthur turned the part down and even went on suspension rather than play it. Others too, including Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert declined. Eventually Rosalind Russell was cast.
Today it’s inconceivable to think anyone else could have played Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. Russell seems born to have played the role.
The movie is noted for rapid fire dialogue and overlapping lines. This of course had been done on stage in 1928 when the play first premiered and the playwrights had demanded it. But even though the rapid fire pace had been kept in the 1931 film version, the overlapping dialogue wasn’t done until this film.
The actors were allowed to ad-lib in many scenes. Grant enjoyed this, throwing in a line about Archie Leach (his real name). Russell later said she hired writers to give her punch lines she could ad-lib to make her part equal to Grant’s.