Monday, April 04, 2011
This story is laid in a Mythical Kingdom
By Edward Copeland
Those words grace a title card before the credits for the 1931 version of The Front Page, literally set against the turning pages of a newspaper begin. The first screen version of the hit Broadway comedy (produced by Howard Hughes) about Chicago newspapermen covering an impending hanging written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur turns 80 years old today. It would go on to be revived three times on Broadway and remade three times on film, in one case accomplishing the rarest of things. The 1931 version remains a very good film and, typically, remakes of good movies fall flat on their ass but its first remake, 1940's His Girl Friday, actually improved on it. The same could not be said for the two later remakes, one of which was even directed by Billy Wilder. We may speak of the other films later, but today we salute the first film incarnation with Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns and Pat O'Brien as Hildy Johnson.
Since His Girl Friday is one of my favorite films of all time, the story of The Front Page plays quite familiarly to me and since I've the seen the original several times as well (though not recently), I decided to focus on different aspects upon my return trip for this 80th anniversary piece. First, for those who might know the story only through His Girl Friday or aren't acquainted with the story at all, a brief plot summary. The main conflict concerns Walter Burns, editor of The Morning Post, a Chicago tabloid, who doesn't want to lose his ace reporter Hildy Johnson, who is planning to leave the state and start a new life after getting married. It's set against the backdrop of the impending execution of a particularly controversial convicted killer that has been politicized by the town's mayor and sheriff who face re-election and the governor, who belongs to the opposite party. The key difference, and what really made His Girl Friday work even better, is that they made Hildy a woman and Walter's ex-wife. In the original, Hildy is a man and as great and funny as The Front Page is, something strange lurks in the idea that a newspaper editor would be so possessive of his reporter that he'd want to thwart his marriage and his exit to another state and a better job just to keep his hooks in him. It isn't just Hildy that the Walter of The Front Page acts this way about either. The boys in the criminal courts newsroom mention the time another reporter tried to leave the Post and Walter tricked him into a fight so he'd get arrested and thrown in jail on assault and battery charges and only Walter could bail him out provided he returned to his job.
Synopsis out of the way, what stood out the most to me this time about The Front Page was how exceptional Lewis Milestone's direction was. In the very first year of the Oscars, they had for the first and last time the category of best comedy direction and the prize went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights, a silent which, despite its title, actually was set during World War I. To show how diverse he could be, he won best director again two years later for another WWI tale, that year's best picture, All Quiet on the Western Front. The following year, he received his third and final best director nomination for The Front Page and a quite deserved nomination it was. The fast-paced, overlapping dialogue that everyone tends to credit as an invention of Howard Hawks in His Girl Friday really can be found nine years earlier in Milestone's The Front Page, albeit not executed by as interesting actors as in His Girl Friday. In fact, I think the inability to match that pacing doomed Wilder's 1974 remake and was just one of the many reasons that the 1988 remake Switching Channels starring Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner resulted in such a disaster. That isn't Milestone's only contribution though. As he showed in Western Front, he also happened to be one of cinema's early visual masters. When it gets to the point in the story when condemned man Earl Williams (George E. Stone) escapes and the reporters in the criminal courts press room clear out, Milestone combines a wonderful montage of their editors back at their newspapers calling for them as he keeps cutting back to a continuous pan of the unmanned phones in the press room. One of my other favorite shots comes later in the film when Hildy and Walter (O'Brien, Menjou) try to keep everyone out because they are hiding Earl in the press room and Hildy's fiancee Peggy (Mary Brian) shows up to see why Hildy hasn't made it to the train station. Peggy argues with Hildy who tries to flee her walking backward, still clutching his typewriter, while they circle Burns who is giving orders over the phone at the same time he interjects his own comments in Hildy and Peggy's dispute.
This Front Page also existed in that glorious pre-Code era where it could get away with lots of things films just a handful of years later wouldn't be able to do. It opens with gallows humor — literally. We open with a closeup of a large sack of flour whose slogan reads "SUNSHINE FLOUR INSURES DOMESTIC HAPPINESS." The camera pulls back to show that it's being used to test the rope that will be used to hang Earl Williams the following morning. As it's released and the bag of flour drops through the platform, one man tells another to make certain that the rope works well enough this time. "Last time the guy bounced up and down like he was on a rubber band." The man insists he allowed for the proper weight, but the guy below says the last condemned inmate added weight like they all usually do by stuffing himself during his last meal and "The sheriff wants his neck to snap this time." The noise below disturbs the men of the press who can see and hear the scene a few stories above from the criminal courts press room. One thing that does set The Front Page apart from its remakes, even His Girl Friday, is that the other reporters are more distinctive as characters. Not that they have their own stories, but they stand out more as individuals, especially with standout character actors such as Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh, Slim Summerville and others filling the roles.
In another pre-Code touch, the character of Mollie Malloy, the woman abused by the members of the press by having befriended Williams, actually refers to herself as a streetwalker where I don't remember any of the other movie versions coming out and calling her a prostitute. I know they didn't in His Girl Friday and it's been a long time since I've seen the Wilder version with the horribly miscast Carol Burnett. Switching Channels is such a wretched piece of filmmaking that I only saw that once and checking IMDb, every character's name was changed and I don't recall a Mollie Malloy equivalent anyway since they tried to update it by setting it in the world of cable news. One other thing I always find interesting is the slight physical resemblance between Stone as Earl Williams here and John Qualen as Earl in His Girl Friday, though the characters are quite different otherwise. In the 1931 Front Page, Mae Clarke played Mollie and, as in the two other versions in which her character appears, she does take the dive out the window as a distraction, so it makes the grapefruit Clarke took to the face from James Cagney the same year in The Public Enemy not seem as bad. While the reporters' portrayal comes off as callous and cruel in His Girl Friday and even Wilder's 1974 version, they prove to be even harsher and more heartless in the original. As Mollie tells them at one point, "If you were worth breaking my fingernail on, I'd tear your faces off." In the very first scene of the film, we see the reporter McCue (Frank McHugh) calling a peeping tom victim on the phone and harassing her while the other newsmen in the room shout lewd remarks. She finally hangs up on him when he asks if she played Lady Godiva once for charity. The films, to say the least, do not offer the most noble or shining examples of The Fourth Estate. Even the ostensible hero of the piece, Hildy Johnson, who actually seems to be a good reporter who strives to get the facts right while the other reporters have no qualms about making up stories as trivial as what Williams will be having for his last meal, isn't above chicanery to get what he needs. Granted, it's a story from the days of yellow journalism, but one has to wonder if more truth managed to sneak out then than now when so many government reporters seem to be little more than stenographers.
The most famous supporting actor playing one of the reporters is the incomparable Edward Everett Horton and, as in many of his films such as the countless Astaire-Rogers musicals in which he took part, he's the standout here as Roy V. Bensinger, a germ-obsessed, prissy writer who isn't quite as nasty as the rest and who owns that rolltop desk that proves so pivotal in the plot (and holds his rhyming dictionary as well). We first meet Bensinger when he returns from a trip to the "death house" where Earl Williams awaits his execution and the conditions drive Bensinger batty, saying they are so awful they need to be reported to health authorities. "It's amazing these prisoners live long enough to be killed," he tells the other reporters. Of course, he becomes a victim of Walter Burns' scheming later when he and Hildy have hidden an escaped Earl Williams within his rolltop desk and need to sneak it out of the building, so Burns hires Bensinger to get him out of the building while telling his man Duffy to look over his work, tell him it stinks and stick him somewhere else. It's one of the things Walter does that makes Hildy want to get as far away from him as possible, though Burns argues than it will teach Bensinger for leaving his newspaper without giving notice.
What I'd also forgotten and that sets the 1931 Front Page apart from later versions stems from a racial undercurrent in the storyline. Now, no African-American characters appear in the film (though one slur term for them is used) but Earl Williams has been painted by the corrupt mayor and sheriff (James Gordon, Clarence H. Wilson) as a communist who took part in a demonstration and killed an African-American police officer as part of their plan to woo the black vote for re-election the week following Williams' execution. Of course, it's mostly lies, printed by the always willing-to-run-anything press. The truth comes out when a few hours before his execution, the sheriff is forced to make Williams meet with another psychologist, one Professor Englehoffer (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who suggests re-creating the crime so the sheriff hands Earl his gun and William promptly shoots the professor in the gut and escapes.
As Earl ends up being hidden by Hildy (with Mollie helping at first and eventually Burns), he tells his story. He was a man who had been fired from his job after 14 years and was at wit's end. He declares, "I'm not a Bolshevik, I'm an anarchist." Earl also begs for people to let him die. He wants to go back and await the hangman's noose, but there are too many people with too many agendas to let that happen. "Better to die for a cause than the way most people die — for no reason." Hildy's problem is that as much as he hates Burns and the job he does, he is addicted to the job and every time a new development falls into his lap, he can't stop himself from calling it in to Walter and trying to write it up so they can scoop everyone, even if it results in alienating fiancee Peggy further and even watching as Burns has his crooked henchman Diamond Louie (Maurice Black) abduct Hildy's future mother-in-law (Effie Esler).
Hildy tries his best to escape Walter's net, which starts out with Burns offering cash to anyone who can find Hildy, who at the time is obtaining his marriage license with Peggy. Hildy dreams of moving to New York where he has a job lined up with an ad agency for $150 a week. Peggy's bright enough to know that he's too addicted to the news game to give it up easily, no matter how hard Hildy tries to convince her. "Ever climbed out of the sewer and smelled the cool, fresh air? You are the cool, fresh air," Hildy tells her. When Peggy does bust in on the newsroom in that one scene and Hildy tries to explain that it's a big story, she does sort of put him in his place with a line of dialogue that seems particularly timely even today. "It's always a big story, the biggest story in the world and the next day you can't remember what it was about," she tells him. It reminds me of when we were transfixed as the Iranian people took to the streets protesting their stolen election and fraudulent dictatorship only to have it instantly vanish from view the moment Michael Jackson dropped dead and sucked all the air out of the news for a week or more. O'Brien does fine as Hildy, but it's Menjou's Burns who steals the show. It earned him an Oscar nomination, though as good as Menjou is, he's no Cary Grant. The Front Page itself also earned a best picture nomination. The only one of the five nominees from 1930-31 I haven't seen is East Lynne, but of the four I have, The Front Page wins by a mile and the fact that Cimarron won best picture at all is ridiculous. If not The Front Page, Skippy or Trader Horn deserved it before that dusty Western.
As The Front Page ends, Menjou's Burns even manages to charm Peggy and convince her that he's not all bad. As a wedding gift, he gives Hildy his golden pocketwatch engraved, "To the finest newspaperman I've ever known Walter Burns" and tells him he can scratch his name out and put in his if he likes. They drop the sound, so you can't hear the last word of the final punchline, which Walter Matthau at least got to deliver in Billy Wilder's version, when Burns calls Duffy and tells him to radio ahead to the train's first stop and give the sheriff Hildy's description and have him arrested. "The son of a bitch stole my watch."
His Girl Friday remains my favorite, but this 80-year-old version of a play which premiered in 1928 is pretty damn good as well. I've never seen The Front Page staged in its play form, but it would have been fun to see either of its last two Broadway revivals since the 1986 revival's Walter Burns was John Lithgow and, even more intriguing, the very successful 1969 revival starred Robert Ryan as its Walter Burns. When is that time machine getting built for me already?
Labels: 30s, Astaire, Burt Reynolds, Cagney, Cary, Ginger Rogers, Hawks, Hecht, Howard Hughes, Lithgow, Matthau, Menjou, Milestone, Movie Tributes, Musicals, Oscars, Remakes, Robert Ryan, Silents, Wilder