With The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s ode to the Mythical Kingdom, the world of newshounds was translated to the movies by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Given their own experience hammering away at copy, they locked in on the newsroom parlance going so far as to base many of the characters on their associates. Having not seen the play, it’s difficult to know what liberties were taken.
Many might already know it was reworked as His Girl Friday and it’s true The Front Page serves as the fitting prototype for all of these newsroom pictures of the day. Lewis Milestone does an admirable job trying to liven up the stage beats and the camera does move laterally more than I was expecting. When Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) makes his fateful exit from his “office,” it’s hard to forget the host of reactions to his departure with time stretched out by the magic of cinema.
Likewise, the talking picture still feels youthful, learning what it means to move, as Adolphe Menjou huffs around his office looking for his best story scribe Hildy. They provide the central dynamic for the story to rest on as conniving editor Walter Burns tries with all his might to hook his best writer before he quits the business to go off to New York with his fiancee and her mother, never to be seen from again. Burn’s last chance to nab him is the biggest local story: The hanging of a man named Williams. More on that in a moment.
It should be noted that the most immediate alteration Howard Hawks made was to make Hildy Johnson — not an altogether masculine name — into a woman, who in the Hawkian mode, is capably one of the boys. What it did was ratchet up the contentious romantic dynamics between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who elevated the screwball antics to their zenith. It was a stroke of genius.
After oozing so much about their chemistry, it’s hard to fairly evaluate Grant and Russell’s predecessors. To be fair, I’ve nothing against Pat O’Brien but he’s simply not the most intriguing nucleus when placed together with Menjou. O’Brien did his best work opposite a charismatic lead like a Cagney or even Walter Huston.
Also, Menjou hardly has the caddish charm of Cary Grant. In fact, the meat of their performances feels staid and conventional in comparison. I know this is dangerous, but it’s an unavoidable trap.
It is easy to be complimentary of the picture in other areas. The Front Page really sings in the adjoining spaces because even more so than His Girl Friday it thrives on being an ensemble piece carried over from the stage. The majority of its time is spent in the writer’s room with the colorful gallery of working stiffs and this is where all the action is anyway.
Between cards and puffs of smoke, they’re on the telephones nosing around for a story. Walter Catlett, the bespectacled veteran, is at the center of the action, anchoring the community with his quips. Floating on the fringes around a host of wisecrackers are the likes of Frank McHugh and then Edward Everett Horton. The beloved character player is unmistakable as his typical boob, a germaphobe named Benzinger. He writes for The Tribune.
The rest of the plot will be familiar to anyone who is aware of Hawks’ film. Williams is sentenced to be hung for killing a colored man in a city where the colored vote counts. There’s a sense that we are talking about a vague approximation. The fact we never hear more commentary on the crime and that our cast is entirely white is certainly a sign of the times and another potentially worthwhile caveat.
Mae Clarke reached immortality by getting a grapefruit squashed in her face, but she also performs as the first cinematic Molly Malloy — the one person willing to intercede on Williams’s behalf. The other fact worthy of mention is Clarence Wilson, the bald, pipsqueak making the rounds of the newsroom. It took me a moment to figure out that he’s supposed to be the police chief. In his trembling hands, law and order don’t have a prayer.
When it’s all said and done, it’s hard not to see the voluminous shadow cast by His Girl Friday. Sure, it technically came after but its reputation looms large. The Front Page isn’t a bad picture. It’s still in the nascent days of Hollywood. Lewis Milestone does a decent job of visualizing the stage play, and the cast is ripe with all sorts of colorful talents. The dialogue flies. There’s no problem in that department. From hamburger sandwiches to peeping in teepees, to Jack London-style journalism, you get all sorts. This is the beauty of the bustling environment drummed up. We get to be passive observers of the world.
However, if there is one area of critique to hone in on it’s mainly the leads. To be frank, in weighing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien as a unit, there’s just no comparison. These feelings are my own — totally subjective as they may be — but their screwball chemistry cannot be topped. The Front Page still remains as an important historical marker, if only partially because of its relation to the later film. It definitely speaks more of His Girl Friday than it proves a critique of Lewis Milestone’s movie. In fact, aside from All Quiet on The Western Front, Milestone probably deserves a lot more respect than he usually garners.