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The Front Page (1931) Review, with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien

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Hildy Johnson
Pat O’Brien
Walter Burns
Adolphe Menjou
Peggy Grant
Mary Brian
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Bensinger
Edward Everett Horton
Earl Williams
George E. Stone
Molly
Mae Clarke
Released by United Artists | Directed By Lewis Milestone

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Digging through his desk, Bensinger finds a discarded woman’s slip.
  • Plenty of dark jokes about sexual deviancy, murder, and mayhem.
  • Most of the main characters have an absolutely callous respect for life or dignity, with most readily willing to let a dubiously sane man die just for their own gain.
  • “I was in love with someone once. It was my third wife.”
  • “What kind of language is that?!”
  • The final line contains an audible crash behind it to censor the word ‘bitch’.

The Front Page: Fourth Estate Gone Wild

“This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.”

The Front Page is a classic. I’m talking about the original stage play here, the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur scripted work that made its debut in New York in 1928 and became one of the American masterworks. It’s been filmed with minor adjustments a healthy number of times, such as when Billy Wilder put Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon in it in in 1974, and it’s been filmed with major adjustments, such as gender flipping it for the alright Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell flick His Girl Friday (1940). And then there’s been the updates, like the cable television-set better-left-forgotten Kathleen Turner/Burt Reynolds vehicle Switching Channels (1988). It’s had an even longer life on the small screen and stage, where it’s seen play at least once a decade.

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Why has it endured when so many of its contemporaries are seen as dated or defunct? The 1931 film version, the first and the one most contemporaneous to its depicted events, may offer some clues. Besides showcasing the zippy energy that the play relies on, it captures a sense of nihilism that the country was getting dragged into as The Depression kicked off. The only two selfless people in the film is the crazy man sentenced to death and the kindly prostitute who wants to help him. Every other character in the movie resents the two immeasurably, most unarguably frustrated as to what these two people mean to their own cynical, heartless existences.

If you’ve somehow missed every other iteration of the story (or have seen one and just didn’t know it), here’s the rundown: Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien here) is getting married. He’s not only taking on a very sweet, innocent wife (Mary Brian), but a mother-in-law who will accompany them as they move from Chicago to New York.

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There’s a big problem, though: Hildy is a newspaperman under the banner of monstrous editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou). Burns has gone to great lengths to keep good employees around, up to and including getting them arrested. Hildy runs Walter’s beat at city hall, and the betrayal is doubly painful since it’s the night of the execution of Earl Williams (George E. Stone). Williams is a mentally unbalanced communist who shot a black police officer while he was in a confused state– perfect grist for the mills for the mayor’s appeal to the African-American vote.

The other gathered newspaper journalists, including fussy Besinger (Edward Everett Horton), are cranky because Sheriff Hartman (Clarence Wilson) won’t move the execution up to suit their morning deadlines. Meanwhile, prostitute Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke) rails against the newspapermen for ignoring the fact that Earl is being crucified only for political gain. They don’t care– he’s dying for their circulation numbers as well.

Into this fray comes Hildy to say his final goodbyes, but that’s derailed once Williams escapes and the entire town of Chicago tears itself apart at the seams. As Burns swoops in and takes a place on Hildy’s shoulder as the poor man’s own personal devil, can Hildy make it out of Chicago with his wits about him? Oh, and what about Williams– does he make it out alive?

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The plot of The Front Page sounds pretty dire, but it’s a comedy, and a sharp one of that. It plays with equal parts of wordplay and outrage, gleefully taking a cadre of amoral characters and letting them loose. At the forefront is Burns, who is gleefully nasty and happy to torture Hildy. He even has Hildy’s future mother-in-law kidnapped just to keep her mouth shut– but Menjou and the character never become unlikeable. That may be because while Burns is clearly operating under a profit motive, his profits grow as his machinations bite the ass of conniving government officials, making him a weird, wonderful anti-hero.

Hildy is more likeable, a bridge between the cruel squad of newspapermen who crank call victims in their down time and the flummoxed, hopeless Molly. He knows the incompetence and evil of both the government and the newspaper, but he’s the only one with the ability to dig up his emotions as needed. In the dark jungle of amorality, Hildy is the only one still looking for a light.

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The camera work in The Front Page is dazzling. While a lot of early-30s movies were very measured and static, director Lewis Milestone moves confidently with skill. He’s clearly experimenting with connecting sound to images to horrify, amuse, and underline the story’s morbid leanings. Take the film’s opening, as we see a bag of flour meet the gallows (practicing for Earl’s eventual fate), matched by quick cuts establishing the location of the press room where most of the movie takes place. The snappy dialogue is connected by editing, including one dizzying sequence where the mocking journalists are whip panned through while the impotent Sheriff begs them to stop.

Milestone creates a breathing universe, perhaps best exemplified by the moment where Molly comes in and berates the journalists for the first time, scratching the surface of their humanity if only for a brief moment. While much of the film is set in a single room (as the stage play was set entirely there), Milestone cuts away to speakeasies and newspaper offices to give the film’s location of Chicago an extra layer of flavor. It’s a loose, ravenous atmosphere, and again speaks to why the film was so popular to adapt and re-adapt– there was no time quite like Chicago in the 20s, and the movie and the play capture that lawless, complicated world flawlessly.

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The Front Page is a well-made, zippy and energetic newspaper film. Its success started a cycle of cynical newspaper films, both dramatic and comedic, and gave starts to actors like Pat O’Brien, Mae Clarke, Frank McHugh, and more. The Front Page is one of the first movies that showed what talking cinema could do, and it’s an essential watch to see as a stopgap between silent film and the sophisticated talkies that were on their way in.

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Trivia & Links

  • For both a Best Picture nominee and a movie in the public domain, this is surprisingly underwritten about– I’m afraid it’s a case where the many remakes and the poor quality of the prints turn people off. Too bad.
  • According to Mae Clarke’s autobiography, Pat O’Brien was stunned when he learned that he’d gotten the Hildy Johnson role as he’d played Burns on stage and expected to be cast as such. He was overjoyed as being cast as the leading man as it led the way to future parts as male romantic leads.

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  • The NYU Film Notes for this one does a better job comparing and contrasting this version and the better-remembered His Girl Friday than I ever could.

There is no question that the original is by far the better film, it’s characters real flesh and blood people as opposed to the cardboard figures of the remake. Yet “His Girl Friday” is undeniably funnier; it downplays some of the political undertones, creates a frenzied pace primarily through its handling of actors and its non-stop overlapping dialogue, and some hilarious new dialogue has been added. Too, some of the supporting casting is much better […] Both films certainly have a major place in film history.

  • 20/20 Movie Reviews gives this one a mixed review, but makes a good point about its general attitude:

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.

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  • The TCMDB entry (scroll down, it discusses the Wilder version first for some reason) talks about the play’s origins:

Hecht and MacArthur, the celebrated collaborators who co-authored other stage hits and screenplays and co-directed several films of the 1930s, began their writing careers as reporters in 1920s Chicago. In his memoir Charlie, Hecht recalled their working relationship on their first joint effort, the stage version of The Front Page: “We were both writing of people we had loved, and of an employment that had been like none other was ever to be…Our procedure was established on the first day. It continued, unchanged, through 20 years of play and movie writing. I sat with a pencil, paper and a lap board. Charlie walked, lay on a couch, looked out of a window, drew mustaches on magazine cover girls, and prowled around in some fourth dimension.” To determine who would get first billing in their collaboration, the pair flipped a nickel, and Hecht correctly named it tails.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is in the public domain, so it ain’t hard to find. You can check it out on Archive.Org.

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