The Front Page (1931)
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The granddaddy of all journalism movies, United Artists' The Front Page (1931) was the first of four film versions of the 1928 Broadway hit written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Adolphe Menjou stars as bombastic Chicago tabloid editor Walter Burns, with Pat O'Brien as enterprising star reporter Hildy Johnson. About to be married, Johnson wants to walk away from Burns' smarmy publication but is lured into covering a final story about the impending, politically motivated hanging of a convicted cop killer.
Although the Bartlett Cormack/Charles Lederer adaptation remains quite faithful to the Hecht/MacArthur original, a few Hollywood inside jokes are added, with characters called "George Kid Cukor" (a kidding reference to the celebrated director) and "Judge Mankiewicz" (in honor of screenwriting brothers Herman J. and Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Director Lewis Milestone, an Oscar winner for the somber All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), showed a dazzling versatility and set a new trend in film comedies with the zippy pace and overlapping dialogue of The Front Page. The movie won Oscar nominations as Best Picture, Director and Actor (Menjou, a last-minute replacement after the sudden death of Louis Wolheim, the original choice to play Burns). The large and boisterous supporting cast includes Mae Clarke, who plays a self-sacrificing streetwalker and once named The Front Page as her favorite film.
O'Brien, who had played Walter Burns in a stock-company production of The Front Page and had only a few minor film credits at the time, titled the opening chapter of his autobiography "Thank You, Alexander Graham Bell." The reference was to a telephone call from producer Howard Hughes offering O'Brien the film role of Hildy Johnson, which led to a Hollywood career that spanned half a century.
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.
The Front Page was remade by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and featured a gender switch that made the star reporter a female. Billy Wilder reverted to the original title and concept with his 1974 version, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, while Switching Channels (1988), brought back the gender mix and sexual tension of Hawks' film, but cast Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner as TV reporters (with Christopher Reeve as the "other man"). Television itself got into the remake act. The popular series Moonlighting, which often plundered old movie plots for parodies and fantasy episodes, put series' leads Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis into the shoes of Hildy and Walter for an hour in the late 1980s. By the way, the original version of The Front Page received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou).
Director: Lewis Milestone
Producer: Lewis Milestone, Howard Hughes (uncredited)
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Glen Mac Williams
Editing: W. Duncan Mansfield
Set Design: Richard Day
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Walter Burns), Pat O'Brien (Hildy Johnson), Mary Brian (Peggy Grant), Edward Everett Horton (Roy Bensinger), George E. Stone (Earl Williams), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe & Rob Nixon