Based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, The Front Page was the first of several adaptations to hit the big screen.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur penned the 1928 play. Unfortunately, the 1931 film could use something of a restoration for its picture. I understand the film is over 90 years old and also preserved by the Academy Film Archive. However, the picture is too grainy when watching on streaming. I watched it recently on Paramount+. Make no mistake that the film is still watchable it can be a bit hard on the eyes. As a side note, the film is in the public domain because the copyright was not renewed. The play will enter the public domain in 2024.
Lewis Milestone directs behind the camera. He was among the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age. All you need to do is take one glance at his filmography–the man directed the first adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, which went on to win Best Picture and Director. He directed films across a wide variety of genres. Speaking of remakes, he directed the first Ocean’s 11 film before Steven Soderbergh would direct a remake in 2001.
The gist of The Front Page is no different than that of His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is a star reporter for the Morning Post and editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou). The film doesn’t particularly mention Chicago but the play and subsequent remake is set there. Meanwhile, there’s a big story about convicted murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone). Is he really guilty or is he potentially innocent? Burns wants Hildy on the case but he is planning to marry Peggy Grant (Mary Brian). Lo and behold, Williams makes his escape from prison and ends up hiding out at the Morning Post with Burns and Johnson’s aid. It might not be “ethical” but they’ll do whatever they can for a story!
In watching the film, you can see how they gender-flipped the latter remake. Where Burns is the editor here, he’s the ex-editor in the later remake. Honestly, gender-flipping and then adding the romance angle just makes His Girl Friday a better film. That’s not to take into account Cary Grant’s performance, which beats out Menjou and O’Brien in this film. In any event, there’s a universe where it might be Clark Gable in the Hildy Johnson role. Unfortunately for movie audiences, Howard Hughes clearly underestimated Gable’s Hollywood future.
Milestone and cinematographer Glen MacWilliams do their best to prevent the film from feeling too theatrical on screen. This has been one of those problems that have plagued any play moving from the stage to the screen. They’re either successful on opening it up for the screen or keeping it way too close to the theatrical roots. Milestone and MacWilliams do just about anything that they can think of, whether it’s a tracking shot, looking down from above, or filming actors where light shines in through the windows.
The Criterion Blu-ray of His Girl Friday includes this film so I have no excuse for putting it off for so long. Because of the 31 Days of Oscar broadcast, I decided to stop putting it off and check it out. After all, it did get a trio of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (Adolphe Menjou). It may have been one of the best pictures of its time but it doesn’t stand a chance next to the remake. I have Billy Wilder’s 1974 remake, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, on hand but have not made it that far into Wilder’s biography. A viewing is expected this year. Funny enough, March 4 marks the 35th anniversary of another remake, Switching Channels.
The Front Page is a strong film because of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s source material but it’s also a lesser film because of His Girl Friday. The existence of the 1940 screwball comedy makes it nearly impossible to watch this film without thinking of it. For what it’s worth, this is not the same as Cecil B. DeMille and other filmmakers remaking their own silent films into talking pictures as they say.
DIRECTOR: Lewis Milestone
SCREENWRITERS: Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer
CAST: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Walter L. Catlett, George E. Stone, Mae Clarke, Slim Summerville, Matt Moore, Frank McHugh, Clarence H. Wilson, Freddie Howard, Phil Tead, Gene Strong, Spencer Charters, Maurice Black, Effie Ellsler, Dorothea Wolbert, James Gordon
United Artists released The Front Page in theaters on April 4, 1931. Grade: 3.5/5
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