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The definitive fever-pitch newspaper comedy, Ben Hecht and CharlesMacArthur's 1928 play The Front Page is a cornerstone of thescrewball genre, serving as the foundation for several big-screen classics.Beyond the official adaptations, the play's scheming editors, corruptpoliticians and slang-slinging journalists provided the inspiration forinnumerable imitations that followed in its wake, transforming thefast-talking, conniving reporter into a bona fide cinematic icon.
In 1974, sharp-witted director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity(1944) revisited Hecht and MacArthur's Jazz Age saga, injecting it with afresh supply of comic give-and-take with the help of legendary screen duoJack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (in their third pairing, after TheFortune Cookie (1966) and The Odd Couple (1968).
Hecht and MacArthur's play was, in the words of a 1931 Motion PictureHerald article, "noted for its profanity and virility," ingredientswhich were downplayed in most film versions, due to the threat ofcensorship. Wilder was less concerned with the boundaries of good tasteso, when he and longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment1960) began work on their screenplay, they immediately restored the roughlanguage and spicy double entendres that had once scandalized Broadway.For the first time, The Front Page would reach the screen as it hadbeen originally written.
In Wilder's 1974 version, Lemmon stars as Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson, a talented reporter who --after falling in love with a young organist (Susan Sarandon) -- decides toquit the Chicago Examiner and move to Philadelphia. Meanwhile,Hildy's ruthless editor, Walter Burns (Matthau), uses every conceivableploy to keep the reporter from leaving town. This raucous battle of willsis suddenly intensified when a meek Communist, Earl Williams (AustinPendleton), escapes from death row and practically lands in Hildy's lap.Thus Hildy embarks on a madcap race against time to protect Williams,deceive the other reporters, thwart a corrupt mayor (Harold Gould) andsheriff (Vincent Gardenia), and break the front-page news of Williams'splight, all before meeting his beloved Peggy at the train station.
Howard Hughes was the first to bring the play to the screen, independentlyproducing a film version directed by Lewis Milestone in 1931 (with PatO'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in the leading roles). An equally famousadaptation was released nine years later: Howard Hawks's His GirlFriday (1940). Hawks changed the sex of the fleeing journalist, sothat crack reporter Hildy Johnson is a woman (Rosalind Russell), trying toescape the editorial clutches of Cary Grant, investing the film with agreat deal of romantic tension. The same device was used in the 1988 filmSwitching Channels, starring Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds.Wilder, however, wanted to retain to the men's-club spirit of the brash andunrelenting original, and reunited Hildy with his long lostmanhood.
Themselves veteran newspapermen, Hecht and MacArthur worked at rival papersin 1920s Chicago, but never collaborated until years later, when they metagain in New York. The refined MacArthur had a fondness for the dramaticstage, while the rough-and-tumble Hecht had a more hard-boiled approach tostorytelling. The blending of these two sensibilities provided the playwith a perfect mixture of theatrical craftsmanship and underworldatmosphere, a mixture that is a crucial factor in every big-screenadaptation of the text. Curiously, The Front Page was theplaywrights' second collaboration. Their first effort, TheMoonshooter, was never produced, as the manuscript was accidentallyleft on a train while the besotted duo were indulging in a particularlyreckless tour of Prohibition New York.
A foul-mouthed ode to Chicago in the 1920s -- the renaissance of tabloidjournalism and political corruption -- The Front Page pays homage toseveral memorable figures of the period. Walter Burns was a thinly-veiled caricature ofWalter Howey, the editor of the Chicago Examiner duringMacArthur's employment there. "He wore a polka-dot bowtie, neat linen anda pressed suit," Hecht later recalled, "had a soft, benevolent look and air(but) he could plot like Cesare Borgia and strike like Genghis Khan." Thecorrupt Mayor of The Front Page is a winking homage to Big BillThompson, who presided over Chicago during much of the 1910s and '20s,governing the city according to his own system of campaign contributionsand political favors.
Wilder's effort to be faithful to Hecht and MacArthur's play came from hisdeep sentimental attachment to the period of The Front Page. Hisclassic Some Like It Hot (1959) is also set in gangland Chicago andis filled with similar characters, events and risque humor. In scriptingThe Front Page, Wilder and Diamond expanded the stage-bound storywith scenes that relished the historical setting. In one sequence, Burnsvisits the silent-movie theatre where Peggy plays the organ sing-a-longwith a follow-the-bouncing-ball song. Later, in an epic homage to theslapstick era, the entire police force is launched on a Keystone Kops-stylechase, filling the streets of 1929 Chicago with an army of vintage ModelA's and T's, sirens blaring. Wilder's fondness for the subject and settingis perhaps most evident in the film's opening title sequence, which depictsthe process by which a newspaper page is created, from the setting of typeby hand to the running of the thunderous high-speed presses.
Wilder was no stranger to the journalism genre. His 1951 drama Ace inthe Hole, follows an opportunistic reporter (Kirk Douglas) who furthershis career by exploiting the misfortune of a man trapped inside a cavern,turning it into a media circus. Unlike the carefree romp of The FrontPage, Ace in the Hole is a scorching indictment of irresponsiblejournalism. Together, the two films demonstrate the range of Wilder'scynical wit and gift for social commentary -- two sides of the same coin,exploring the idea of yellow journalism with two remarkably differentresults.
The decision to remake The Front Page in the 1970s may have beenprompted by the success of another male-bonding film: George Roy Hill'sOscar-winning The Sting (1973), a clever Depression-era tale of thedouble-cross and the devious men who perform it. Unfortunately, The Front Page did not ignite the same audience interest as the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film. Screwball comedy with cynical twists did not play well to skeptical, Watergate-era audiences, andWilder himself later admitted that The Front Page was perhaps bettersuited to a bygone age. "The times were better, or we were a little bitmore naive," said Wilder, "we laughed easier."
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Paul Monash
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Jordan S. Cronenweth
Production Design: Henry Bumstead
Music: Billy May
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Hildy Johnson), Walter Matthau (Walter Burns), SusanSarandon (Peggy Grant), Vincent Gardenia (Sheriff Hartman), David Wayne(Roy Bensinger), Austin Pendleton (Earl Williams), Allen Garfield (Kruger),Charles Durning (Murphy), Herb Edelman (Schwartz), Harold Gould (TheMayor), Cliff Osmond (Officer Jacobi), Carol Burnett (Molly Malloy).
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by Bret Wood
The Front Page (1931)
The granddaddy of all journalism movies, United Artists' The Front Page (1931) was the first of four film versions of the 1928 Broadway hit written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Adolphe Menjou stars as bombastic Chicago tabloid editor Walter Burns, with Pat O'Brien as enterprising star reporter Hildy Johnson. About to be married, Johnson wants to walk away from Burns' smarmy publication but is lured into covering a final story about the impending, politically motivated hanging of a convicted cop killer.
Although the Bartlett Cormack/Charles Lederer adaptation remains quite faithful to the Hecht/MacArthur original, a few Hollywood inside jokes are added, with characters called "George Kid Cukor" (a kidding reference to the celebrated director) and "Judge Mankiewicz" (in honor of screenwriting brothers Herman J. and Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Director Lewis Milestone, an Oscar winner for the somber All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), showed a dazzling versatility and set a new trend in film comedies with the zippy pace and overlapping dialogue of The Front Page. The movie won Oscar nominations as Best Picture, Director and Actor (Menjou, a last-minute replacement after the sudden death of Louis Wolheim, the original choice to play Burns). The large and boisterous supporting cast includes Mae Clarke, who plays a self-sacrificing streetwalker and once named The Front Page as her favorite film.
O'Brien, who had played Walter Burns in a stock-company production of The Front Page and had only a few minor film credits at the time, titled the opening chapter of his autobiography "Thank You, Alexander Graham Bell." The reference was to a telephone call from producer Howard Hughes offering O'Brien the film role of Hildy Johnson, which led to a Hollywood career that spanned half a century.
Hecht and MacArthur, the celebrated collaborators who co-authored other stage hits and screenplays and co-directed several films of the 1930s, began their writing careers as reporters in 1920s Chicago. In his memoir Charlie, Hecht recalled their working relationship on their first joint effort, the stage version of The Front Page: "We were both writing of people we had loved, and of an employment that had been like none other was ever to be...Our procedure was established on the first day. It continued, unchanged, through 20 years of play and movie writing. I sat with a pencil, paper and a lap board. Charlie walked, lay on a couch, looked out of a window, drew mustaches on magazine cover girls, and prowled around in some fourth dimension." To determine who would get first billing in their collaboration, the pair flipped a nickel, and Hecht correctly named it tails.
The Front Page was remade by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and featured a gender switch that made the star reporter a female. Billy Wilder reverted to the original title and concept with his 1974 version, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, while Switching Channels (1988), brought back the gender mix and sexual tension of Hawks' film, but cast Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner as TV reporters (with Christopher Reeve as the "other man"). Television itself got into the remake act. The popular series Moonlighting, which often plundered old movie plots for parodies and fantasy episodes, put series' leads Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis into the shoes of Hildy and Walter for an hour in the late 1980s. By the way, the original version of The Front Page received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou).
Director: Lewis Milestone
Producer: Lewis Milestone, Howard Hughes (uncredited)
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Glen Mac Williams
Editing: W. Duncan Mansfield
Set Design: Richard Day
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Walter Burns), Pat O'Brien (Hildy Johnson), Mary Brian (Peggy Grant), Edward Everett Horton (Roy Bensinger), George E. Stone (Earl Williams), Mae Clarke (Molly Malloy).
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by Roger Fristoe & Rob Nixon