#50) The Front Page (1931)

#50) The Front Page (1931)

OR “All the Film That’s Fit to Print”

Directed by Lewis Milestone

Written by Barlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Class of 2010

This post is based on my viewing of the Domestic print (aka the “A” print), and is an updated and revised version of my initial post.

The Plot: “The Front Page” is a fast-talking comedy about reporters in the heyday of the printed press. On the eve of the hanging of political prisoner Earl Williams (George E. Stone), Chicago newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) announces to his tough-as-nails editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) that he’s leaving the business to live happily ever after with his fianceé Peggy Grant (Mary Brian). When Williams escapes the jail and takes refuge in the Criminal Courts press room, Hildy knows a scoop when he sees one and is torn between his love and his career. What follows is some classic screwball hijinks that sound awfully similar to another movie…

Why It Matters: The NFR praises this film for its “strong performances” and for having “one of the best screenplays of the 1930s”. The write-up goes on to highlight “Front Page” as an example of an early movie that “realiz[es] the capabilities of sound technology to invent new film narratives”.

But Does It Really?: On its own, “The Front Page” is a perfectly fine time-capsule of the pre-Code era that managed to get a few decent laughs out of me 90 years later. That being said, it’s hard to judge “Front Page” on its own merits when you have “His Girl Friday” just around the corner, surpassing this movie on almost every front. Throw in the discovery of two different prints of this movie, and “Front Page” seems more like an historical NFR choice rather than an artistic one. Presently, the cultural significance of “The Front Page” can be summed up by its Blu-Ray release: as a supplemental feature to “His Girl Friday”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Um…everything? This movie is jam-packed with so much ’30s jargon and dated references, even I couldn’t keep up, and I actually pay attention to this kind of thing!

Seriously, Oscars?: A modest box office hit in 1931, “The Front Page” received three Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Actor for Adolphe Menjou. Perhaps due to Milestone’s wins at the previous ceremony for “All Quiet on the Western Front“, “Front Page” lost to, respectively, “Cimarron”, “Skippy”, and “A Free Soul”.

Other notes

  • Before we go any further, a quick clarification of the multiple prints of “The Front Page”. During the silent era, many movies were shot with multiple cameras at once, with different prints using different angles of the same scene, culminating in slightly different versions of the same film. With the advent of sound, simultaneous filming was made impossible (early sound cameras were too noisy), so early talkies would use alternate takes for different prints. Documentation of “The Front Page” shows that for each scene, Lewis Milestone used the best take for the Domestic (“A”) print, the second best for the UK (“B”) print, and the third best for the General Foreign (“C”) print. For years, the B print (or possibly the C print) was the most widely available, but a discovery (and verification) of the film’s A print led to “The Front Page” getting a proper restoration in 2016.
  • Based on Hecht and MacArthur’s own experience working as Chicago newspapermen, “The Front Page” premiered on Broadway in 1928 and was an instant smash hit. Film producer/future cautionary tale Howard Hughes snatched up the film rights and offered Lewis Milestone the chance to direct following his success with “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Neither of the show’s Broadway leads – Lee Tracy and Osgood (father of Anthony) Perkins – were considered to reprise their roles for the film. Milestone wanted “Western Front” alumni Louis Wolheim as Walter Burns, but the actor died before filming commenced. Hughes vetoed Milestone’s first choices for Hildy (James Cagney and Clark Gable) opting instead for Pat O’Brien, who previously played the role in a Chicago production.
  • Speaking of Chicago, for whatever reason the censors of the day wouldn’t allow the film version of “The Front Page” to be set in Chicago (I guess to avoid accusing “The City That Works” of corruption). As the opening text proclaims, this film is “laid in a Mythical Kingdom”…whatever that means.
  • That being said, the censors obviously had no problems with the frequent sexism and occasional racist terminology sprinkled throughout this movie.
  • Oh Edward Everett Horton, how I’ve missed you. Mr. Fractured Fairy Tales appears here as Bensinger, the stuffy reporter whose germaphobia would fit right in during today’s pandemic lifestyle. Bensinger definitely would have worked from home before it was mandated.
  • The rest of the reporters get a decent amount of screentime, though none of them leave a big impression. Among them is actor Walter Catlett, best remembered today for his work in “Bringing Up Baby“, and his vocal performance as Honest John the fox in “Pinocchio“.
  • Of course you can’t have a movie where the lead character is referred to as “Mr. Burns” without making me think of the “Simpsons” character. I’d give anything to see Adolphe Menjou steeple his fingers and declare something as “Exxxxcellent“.
  • This movie is definitely in the “Applause“/”Hallelujah” category of early sound films trying to stay visually dynamic with the new technology. There’s plenty of inventive camera angles and dolly shots to help “open up” the play, plus some intercutting between scenes and at least one jump cut. Kudos to everyone involved.
  • This movie is covering a lot of subjects that would have been definite no-nos in the Code era: political corruption, Communism and “the red menace”, yellow journalism, not to mention a few jokes about sexual perversity. “His Girl Friday” may be the better movie, but “Front Page” has a lot more pearl-clutching in its dialogue, which I found more entertaining.
  • Pat O’Brien is definitely one of your standard-looking All-American leading man types. With his jet black hair he kinda looks like Steve Martin in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”.
  • This movie has another one of my favorite early movie tropes: Censoring by interruption. “Here’s a feature on the manhunt that’ll knock you right on your – excuse me, miss.”
  • Having “His Girl Friday” to compare this movie to definitely has its pluses and minuses. For one thing, it’s interesting to watch this story without a love triangle, making it more a tale of corruption and power than just a rehash of “The Awful Truth”. On the other hand, while this movie retains the fast talking of its source material, there’s little to no overlapping dialogue. Everyone talks fast, then pauses while the next person speaks, and then hurries through another line. It’s like watching a train travel in quick short spurts: the speed is there, but not the momentum. 
  • O’Brien and Menjou have a lovely rapport with each other. It’s just a shame you have to wait until the second half of the movie to see it.
  • “Get back in there, you Mock Turtle!” Wait, I thought Cary Grant ad-libbed that line for “His Girl Friday”. Is nothing real anymore!?
  • The film’s finale retains the original ending, with one noticeable difference. The play’s curtain line “That son-of-a-bitch stole my watch!” remains, but is partially censored by Burns resting his elbow on a typewriter’s carriage, causing the ding of the bell to obscure the most offensive part.
  • As for the two widely available prints, the A print is the overall better movie, with tighter editing and better delivery. The B print, however, is worth a viewing for the curious; its lackluster timing compensated for with alternate lines, and a shot of one reporter flipping off the mayor!

Legacy

  • While largely forgotten today, “The Front Page” has its devotees who champion it for depicting the kind of fast-talking reporters associated with this era of film. Some historians even go as far as calling “Front Page” the first true screwball comedy, even though that subgenre is typically reserved for romantic comedies.
  • Lewis Milestone’s directing career was hit or miss after “Front Page”, but he does have one more movie on the NFR, the 1945 war drama “A Walk in the Sun“.
  • Howard Hughes’ film career continued with another NFR movie set in not-Chicago with a Hecht/MacArthur screenplay: “Scarface“.
  • Nine years after this film’s release, another famous Howard – Hawks – was considering a remake, with the goal of making “Front Page” faster and funnier. While there are different accounts of how inspiration struck, Hawks’ key difference with this remake was the gender-swapping of Hildy, making him Burns’ ex-wife. The resulting movie – 1940’s “His Girl Friday” – is widely considered one of the rare remakes that surpasses the original.
  • Aside from its most famous remake, “The Front Page” received a more faithful update in 1974. Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and reuniting Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Hildy and Burns, this “Front Page” seemed like a recipe for success…”seemed” being the operative word. Like the 1931 version, the ’74 “Front Page” has all the essential elements, but nothing fully gels.
  • The original stage version of “The Front Page” still gets revived on Broadway from time to time. A 1960s revival saw MacArthur’s wife Helen Hayes in a supporting role, an 80’s revival starred John Lithgow and Richard Thomas, and a 2016 revival featured an all-star cast led by Nathan Lane and John Slattery.
  • In addition to its revivals, “The Front Page” was musicalized in the 1980s as “Windy City”. The New York Times review used words like “mundane”, “mediocre”, and “forgettable”, which explains why no one’s heard from “Windy City” since.
  • While the film maintained its status as an underrated classic for decades, it wasn’t until 2014 – and the discovery of the original “A” print – that things got interesting. This video from the California Film Institute does a very succinct job of explaining the differences, perhaps too succinct because the narrator talks really fast.

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