The Front Page (1931)
Dir. Lewis Milestone
Starring: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O'Brien, Mary Brian, Mae Clark, Frank McHugh,
Edward Everett Horton, Slim Summerville, Clarence Wilson, George E. Stone,
Frank McHugh, Maurice Black, Clarence H. Wilson, Gustav von Seyffertitz
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Bro-o-o-omance, nothing really gay about itEveryone knows and loves the Howard Hawks-directed screwball romantic comedy His Girl Friday, a great picture about shady Chicago editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and his attempts to keep his best reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from getting married and leaving the newspaper business, especially when a big story is breaking; the hanging of a convicted murderer who claims innocence, escapes and hides in the courthouse press room. Of course, Walter loves Hildy and deep down she loves him too. If anything, Walter's real modus operandi is to scuttle the marriage of Hildy to her straight-laced fiancé played by Ralph Bellamy.
Not, that there's anything wrong with being gay
Shouldn't be ashamed or hide it
I love you in the most heterosexual way.
- Chester See & Ryan Higa
How many of you are familiar with The Front Page? Based on the hit play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and directed by Lewis (All Quiet on the Western Front) Milestone, it's a great picture about shady Chicago editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) and his attempts to keep his best reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien) from getting married and leaving the newspaper business, especially when a big story is breaking; the hanging of a convicted murderer who claims innocence, escapes and hides in the courthouse press room. Walter loves Hildy and deep down he loves him too. If anything, Walter's real modus operandi is to scuttle the marriage of Hildy to his straight-laced fiancé played by Mary Brian.
Even though The Front Page falls within the relaxed pre-Code days and all manner of not-so-subtle homoeroticism could have crept into the film, this is never the intent (well, not mostly). The Front Page might well be the first BRO-mance in American cinema. Walter and Hildy have no intention of sucking face or slamming their respective schwances up each other's Hershey Highways (though if given half the chance, they might).
They love each other, like men - REAL MEN! And not to disparage homoeroticism at all, but to describe Walter and Hildy's love, allow me to present a few more lyrics from the See/Higa song:
If I loved you more I might be a gayMilestone's film, produced by Howard Hughes, fell into public domain and has been duped and duped from dupes from dupes and then from other dupes so many times over the years, that inferior copies have had a clear effect upon making the picture seem creaky and vaguely unwatchable.
And when I'm feeling down
You know just what to say
You my homie,
Yeah you know me
And if you ever need a wingman
I'd let any girl blow me off
Cuz you're more important than the rest
Not anymore. With this restoration we can now delight in what really makes this picture tick. And boy, does it tick. Like a time bomb and then some.
In the play, all of the action takes place in the courthouse press room. Director Milestone and screenwriters Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer (the latter being the scenarist responsible for His Girl Friday) stay relatively true to the play, but occasionally open things up, but only in the most naturalistic manner. The dialogue blasts a few million miles per second and the milieu is appropriately grungy, replete with plenty of garbage strewn about and clouds of cigarette smoke.
The cast is full of terrific character actor mugs, wrapping their lips around the sharp-edged lines with all the snap, crackle and pop money could by. These men are inveterate bad husbands, gamblers, drunks, lice of the highest order, BUT they are great journalists, laying in wait for the kill like a pack of hyenas.
Milestone's camera brilliantly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the setting without choking us on theatrical sawdust. His camera moves deftly and fluidly, but when he needs to, he lets it sit to let the great dialogue do the talking - knowing full well that there's nothing more cinematic than scintillating banter. On stage, the importance of the telephones connected to the reporters' various outlets could not be stressed enough, but with Milestone's direction, it's not only paramount, but his coverage of moments when the men all grab the phones has the rat-a-tat-tat power of a machine gun.
Pat O'Brien, who spent most of his career as a happy go lucky Irishman and/or priest, gets a rare opportunity here to indulge in his manner-than-manly qualities as Hildy. The dapper Adolphe Menjou is easily matched with Cary Grant's eventual shot at the role of the scurrilous newspaper editor Walter Burns. A supporting standout is the persnickety Edward Everett Horton as the fey reporter with a cleanliness fixation. Mary Brian acquits herself beautifully as O'Brien's lady in love and Mae Clark (known as the Baron's wife in James Whale's Frankenstein and as the moll whom Chaney pulverizes in the face with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy delivers one of the film's best performances as Molly Malloy, the hapless hooker with a heart of gold who desperately attempts to protect the innocent killer. She's so moving, it's hard not to get choked up over her selflessness and kindness.
Where The Front Page really crackles is its deeply black humour and satirical jabs at the entire business of both the media and politics. One hilariously nasty scene has reporter Frank McHugh questioning a woman victimized by a Peeping Tom while all the other guys in the press room bellow out catcalls and lewd, rude remarks. Another scene has a boneheaded Austrian psychiatrist (a great little cameo by Gustav von Seyffertitz) ordered to do a final examination of the falsely convicted killer. He wants the killer to recreate his crime and moronically requests the sheriff's gun (who even more moronically gives it up) and then hands the loaded pistol to the condemned man who, partially in fear and partially under hypnosis, fills the court-appointed psychiatrist full of lead. Even more hilarious is when Walter gets his hired thug Diamond Lou (a deliciously sleazy Maurice Black) kidnap Hildy's future mother-in-law to keep her trap shut when she discovers the secret behind the big scoop the boys are onto.
Bitingly funny and oddly prescient is the fact that the poor condemned man is being railroaded by the Mayor and Sheriff to garner the African-American vote since the murder victim was one of Chicago's very few Black police officers. Neither clearly cares about any of this, save for getting re-elected. To see a film 85 years old, a comedy no less, dealing with such charged political material makes one realize just how bad and empty most comedies are today.
Dark political humour aside, The Front Page, like its gender-switching remake His Girl Friday IS about love: love for the newspaper business, love for the company of other men and most of all, love between Walter and Hildy. Don't get me wrong, The Front Page allows us, like the cake we can have and eat it too, male-female romance in addition to the aforementioned manly BRO-mantic hijinx. I have to admit, though, that the machinations of Walter Burns to keep Hildy Johnson in the business, as well as a remarkable scene where the two men begin to reminisce about all their adventures together, IS downright warm, funny AND romantic.
For those who know and love His Girl Friday, The Front Page makes a lovely companion piece. You might even learn to love it just as much. If you don't know either, watch Milestone's film first, then Hawks', then cherish both forever.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
The Front Page is available on a gorgeous Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber. The picture and sound have never looked this good, however, the source material will eventually require an insanely meticulous, frame-by-frame going-over to remove over 85 years of wear and tear. The extras are simple, but such a thing of beauty, that this is probably one of the outstanding Blu-Ray home entertainment releases of the year. In addition to the inclusion of promo materials, two original radio broadcasts (one starring Walter Winchell) and a great little documentary about the Library of Congress film restoration program, this release features one of the best commentary tracks I've heard in years for any classic motion picture. Filmmaker, historian and home entertainment producer Bret Wood delivers a track that's entirely free of the usual crap on these things: no stupid anecdotal stuff, tons of great info about the film that even I didn't know before (and that takes some doing) and I thoroughly appreciated the variety of sources he uses (including whether they're corroborated or not). Wood's track is not only superbly researched, but his delivery is also terrific: clear, enthusiastic, but without sounding like a fanboy and NOT (thank God) sounding dry and academic. This is a stellar Blu-Ray that's well worth owning. It's a keeper!!!