When it comes to films about journalism, I only have two favourites, The Front Page, and its sister version, His Girl Friday.
I know I should choose Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men, but the fact of the matter is that The Front Page is a well-constructed and well observed study of a reporter’s mindset.
Originally written for the theatre in 1928 by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it played a big part in introducing the general public to the cynical world of the self-serving newspaperman, an image that still remains today, some 90 years later.
Hecht was a newspaperman before becoming a novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter. When he and MacArthur adapted The Front Page for the silver screen in 1931 it became an immediate smash hit and is today considered one of Hollywood’s best farces.
The plot is about a well-seasoned reporter, Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, who has quit the cutthroat newspaper business to get married and work in the comparatively comfy world of advertising. But only a day after walking away from his job he stumbles across a major scoop – an exclusive interview with a murderer, ensconced in a rolltop desk, who has escaped from death row. Everyone is running around looking for the escapee, but only Hildy knows where he is.
The urge to scoop his fellow hacks is just too tempting, and Hildy’s ruthless editor, Walter Burns, cajoles him into covering the story.
Hildy thinks it will be his last scoop before wedded bliss awaits him. This act of not walking away because he’s married to both the job and his editor kicks off the action.
The 1931 film, directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, looked so close to perfection when it was released that it was thought by many that nothing would ever surpass it. But nine years later, Howard Hawks took on the task of a remake with the intention of directing an updated version of The Front Page. But when his female secretary read Hildy Johnson’s lines during an audition it was a lightbulb moment for him. The script was immediately re-written to make Hildy the ex-wife of the cunning editor, Walter Burns. Nothing else was changed in the script, apart from the fact that Hildy now had a fiancé instead of a fiancée.
Cary Grant became Walter Burns who not only wanted his ex-wife to cover the story but to have her back in his life again. Suddenly, the dynamics of The Front Page was supercharged with the battle of the sexes, but nothing else really changed. By bringing in Rosalind Russell as Hildy, a ready-made feminine name, Hawks created a more contemporary feel to the story by introducing a no-nonsense woman. She was better than the men in a traditionally male field and like her male predecessor was equally bitten by the bug to scoop the other reporters.
The 1931 film captured the darkness of cynical journalist banter much better than His Girl Friday as there was more freedom in Hollywood then, but the latter film had the additional romantic touch to make up for it.
As most film buffs know, His Girl Friday, is remembered for its speed of wit, with Hawks ignoring the convention of a script page per minute of screen time and doubling it to two pages per screen minute. It could only be achieved by overlapping dialogue that was never longer than a line each for Grant and Russell. This gave the movie its high adrenaline rush, something that Billy Wilder purposely left out when he remade The Front Page in 1974, even though it had also existed in the original 1931 version.
While the Wilder film was described by some critics as flat and lacking energy, Walter Matthau’s devious Walter Burns was for me the ultimate portrayal of the egomaniac. And Jack Lemmon also produced a faultless performance as the old newshound Hildy, who can’t resist breaking a top story. The lure of the scoop is already in his eyes before he even explains to his fiancée that he might be late meeting her at the railway station.
At the end of the day, the magic goes back to Hecht and MacArthur’s original script. Whether The Front Page can be updated again, as it was in 1988 with Switching Channels, remains to be seen. But imagine fake news in the hands of Walter Burns? Adorable!
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