The Front Page (1931)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian
Synopsis: Adapted from the 1928 stage play, this comedy follows Hildy Johnson, an investigative reporter looking for a bigger paycheck. When an accused murderer escapes from custody, Hildy sees an opportunity for the story of a lifetime.
The writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur drew heavily on their own experiences as Chicago journalists for the hit stage play The Front Page, which has now been adapted for the screen on four occasions. The most famous, and highly regarded, of these four movies is His Girl Friday (1940), in which the character of Hildy Johnson is transformed into a woman in order to provide love interest for her jealous editor Walter Burns. Billy Wilder tried his hand at the story in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, but Hecht and MacArthur’s dialogue was of its time and designed to be delivered at a breakneck pace which Wilder chose to discard. In 1988 came Switching Channels, the final (to date) and least successful version, in which all the character’s names are changed and the lead reporter is once again a woman. So, of all these versions, this, the original, stands as the second best — which is some achievement considering it was filmed when talking movies were still in their infancy.
Director Lewis Milestone seemed conscious of the talkie nature of the movie, and did his best to give Glen MacWilliam’s camera an unusually high degree of mobility for a film of its era, particularly in the early scenes before the action becomes confined to the press room of a Chicago courthouse in which an assortment of jaded reporters await the execution of one Earl Williams (George E. Stone), who has been found guilty of killing a black policeman, and whose case has subsequently become a source of political capital for the city’s mayor (James Gordon) and sheriff (Clarence H. Wilson). This cynical bunch of journalists while away the time playing poker, cracking jokes and, at one point, making a cruel prank phone call to the victim of a flasher. One of their number is missing, however, and ruthless editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) is desperate to find him. However, chief reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is determined to give up the life of journalism for a new career as an ad writer in New York, where he plans to set up home with his wife Peggy (Mary Brian). In fact, while Burns is phoning around trying to locate Johnson, the reporter is buying a wedding licence with the future Mrs Johnson.
However, Hildy makes the fateful mistake of dropping by the courthouse to say goodbye to the reporters who have been his wise-cracking companions for so long. While he’s there, the condemned man Earl Williams makes a break for it — which is a story Hildy finds impossible to resist, especially when Williams almost falls into his lap and must be hidden in the roll-top desk in the press office if he’s to avoid discovery long enough for Hildy to file an exclusive story. The trouble is, Peggy’s growing increasingly impatient as she waits for him in a cab outside, and Burns is putting on the pressure to get Hildy to change his mind about moving to New York.
The first thing that strikes you about The Front Page is the quality of the writing. The advent of sound wasn’t only a trying time for actors afraid that their voices or accents spelled the end of their career — it was also something of a jolt for screenwriters who, instead of composing the florid prose used on title cards in the silent era, now had to put realistic dialogue in the mouths of those anxious actors. Presumably that’s why Hollywood plundered the stage in search of usable material in the early days of talkies. The mordant humour here pulls few punches, even for a pre-code movie, and the reporters’ lack of humanity is almost disturbing to watch at times. These guys have no regard for each other or human life in general, having been in the job so long that they’ve become immune to sentiment or sympathy. The politicians, too, place so little value on the life of a man sentenced on the basis of dubious evidence that they suppress a reprieve so that the innocent man’s hanging can go ahead before the forthcoming elections.
It’s a pretty grim picture of a world in which those who show any spark of human warmth or decency are brushed aside by people who have little interest in a truth that messes with either their beliefs or their deadlines. It’s therefore a measure of the quality of Hecht and MacArthur’s writing that they frequently flirt with the darkness without ever submerging their audience in it completely. The tone remains light throughout, no matter how distasteful the subject, thanks largely to a style that pre-dates — but is recognisable as — screwball comedy. That means everyone bellows their lines at double-quick speed, which is just as well considering the atrocious sound quality of most prints available today.
The large cast features some notable names, many of whom are always fun to watch. Adolphe Menjou, already an established Hollywood player by 1931, tackles the role of Johnson’s scheming editor with relish and bags the movie’s killer final line, while Pat O’Brien, in his first starring role, proves himself a useful light leading man, even though he was to spend most of his lengthy career in character roles. Mary Brian as O’Brien’s love interest has little to do, but Mae Clarke makes the most of her smaller but more memorable role as Williams’ ill-fated girlfriend. Also amongst the supporting players are such familiar names as Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh and Slim Summerville. Even Clark Gable is reputed to be one of the extras, although his part has never been confirmed. Either way, more than eighty years after its initial release, The Front Page remains an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work that has somehow weathered the ravages of time better than two of the later versions. It’s just a shame nobody cares enough to finance a much-needed restoration…
(Reviewed 11th January 2014)