I went into The Front Page (1931) expecting a light, fun, pre-code comedy about journalists. What I got was a miserable, hateful experience that couldn’t end soon enough but instead went on for what seemed like half my life.
Directed by Lewis Milestone, The Front Page was based on a 1928 Broadway play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Botth had been journalists, and he and MacArthur based some of the characters on real-life people in the profession. The screwball comedy follows a group of Chicago tabloid journalists waiting out all night at Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. They await the hanging of a supposed Communist (played by George E. Stone) convicted of the murder of a black policeman.
Among the troupe are Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (played by Pat O’Brien) and his editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou). Hildy wants to marry his girlfriend Peggy Grant (Mary Brian). He wants to move with her to New York and get out of the journalism trade for good. The underhanded Walter doesn’t want to lose such a valuable reporter, and he manipulates Hildy to get him to cover the story anyway. High jinks ensue as Hildy struggles with his love for his fiancée and his addiction to covering thrilling news stories. The other reporters utter wisecrack after wisecrack as they write their stories with little heed to sources and facts.
Meanwhile, a streetwalker (played by Mae Clark), who was a witness for the accused man at his trial, swears the convicted man’s innocence. The crooked mayor (played by James Gordon), seeking re-election, is out to hang the accused man. The equally corrupt sheriff, played by Clarence Wilson, helps the mayor in his political scheme.
The first ding I’ll give this Best Picture nominee is a personal pet peeve: It feels like a play. It can be difficult for some stage shows to open up to a movie scale, but it’s necessary. Even a mostly one-room drama like 1957’s 12 Angry Men (also available through Criterion) shouldn’t come off like a play (it doesn’t). The Front Page admittedly tries to avoid this trapping, and succeeds in the early minutes of the movie. Soon, though, we spend almost all our time in the press room, which is drab, boring and tiring to look at after 101 minutes.
But do you know what I really, really, really hate about this movie? The characters. Except for the women, every last person is an immoral, sexist, insensitive, unfunny doo-doo head. I wanted them to all die so I didn’t have to keep watch them yammer on and on and on while they give a bad name to my chosen profession.
The portrayal of journalists as unethical jerkfaces who make up stories as they go and who don’t care if someone apparently dies or not is insulting. So much so that I wanted to reach into my TV screen and strangle every last one of those darn reporters. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur were just aiming their satirical pen at tabloid journalists specifically and not all journalists. But I doubt it. I’m fine with exploring the darker and unethical sides of journalism, but such a blanket portrayal is inaccurate and harmful. Any story saying “If you are part of [insert race/group/sex/profession here], you are immoral and horrible” is narrow minded, ill-informed and bigoted. None are things I have the time or patience for.
A change of profession wouldn’t have helped, though. They would still be horrible characters. I still wouldn’t care about their lives, job or problems. They might’ve been saved if they had actually been funny. Here are some of the groan worthy lines:
1. Is it true that you took the part of Lady Godiva for charity seven years ago? Hello? She cut off!
What? Her hair? Tell her I’ll be right over.
2. Hey, this looks good. An old lady just phoned the detective bureau and claims that Earl Williams is hiding under her piazza.
Tell her to stand up!
I’ll admit there are some funny lines:
1. That jail is reeking with germs. Oh, believe me. The Board of Health is going to hear about the sanitary conditions over there through my paper. It’s amazing to me that those prisoners can live long enough to be hung.
2. Now, Pete, how about a favor that certain party is asking? Once and for all, will you hang this person at 5 a.m. instead of 7? It can’t hurt you, and we can make the City Edition.
Roy, we can’t hang a fella in his sleep just to please the newspaper.
Mostly, though, they just rattle off the least funny, fast-paced, 1930s dialogue I’ve ever heard.
Their are three positives that came out of this viewing experience. The cinematography is at times kinetic. There are wonderful tracking shots throughout that take us through different environments, like a newspaper printing facility, that are dynamic and stand apart from many other early-1930s films and their static cameras. There also some strange shots with the camera spinning around showing different characters’ faces as another character is disoriented. I don’t love them but they’re interesting and a smidge daring.
I also enjoyed the small peak into the logistics and the workers of 1930s newspapers. The film doesn’t do much of this, but the brief minutes we see of it at the beginning of the movie was slightly informative.
Finally, besides it’s satiric and critical view of journalism, The Front Page also takes a scathing, but still comical, look at politics, namely the willingness of politicians to manipulate situations, the public and the lives of others for their own gain. This seemed far more true than the constant journalism bashing. Some might say I’m only being easy on it because I’m not a politician. But it’s actually because, unlike with the reporters, there’s only three political characters portrayed in the film: the mayor, the sheriff and, off-screen, the governor. The former two are corrupt, while the latter, from the little we can grasp, seems to be of higher moral standards. It’s not like they show 10 politicians and they’re all terrible. Instead, there’s a balance.
There are a few remakes of The Front Page: a 1974 film directed by Billy Widler and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; a 1988 film called Switching Channels starring Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve; and 1940’s His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Maybe I’ll check those out some time. Not right away, though. The idea of watching anything else related to this film right now makes me mad.
A restored print of Milestone’s preferred U.S. cut of The Front Page is streaming on The Criterion Channel.