One of the first classic movies I fell completely in love with was Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. That was perhaps because I wanted to be a journalist and, while the field is very different today than it was then, it was kind of fun to see my chosen profession as the subject of a comedy. I finally got around to checking out Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931) and it was striking to see what exactly Hawks changed and what survived.
The Front Page was originally a Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It’s about the relationship between Herald Examiner reporter Hildy Johnson and his boss, Walter Burns in Chicago. Johnson wants to get married and leave the newspaper business, but Burns keeps reeling him back in as there is an innocent criminal about to be hanged. Of course, Hawks famously turned Johnson into a woman in His Girl Friday, necessitating a romance between her and Burns. But even when both characters are men, it’s clear that there’s a strong bond between the two characters.
Although Milestone’s film was made at the beginning of the decade and he keeps more of the action stuck inside the court press room, there’s a clear attempt to keep the camera moving and playing with editing to make the film less stagey. It certainly works, especially compared to other movies from the early ’30s that feel like filmed plays.
Still, The Front Page moves nowhere near as fast as His Girl Friday does. And the performances aren’t that strong. Adolphe Menjou is typically great as Burns, but I’ve never been a big fan of Pat O’Brien. Edward Everett Horton is also sadly underused as the hilarious reporter who thinks he’s better than everyone else. I do wish Mae Clark had more than two scenes as the criminal’s girlfriend though.
The Front Page is a pre-code movie, so there are a lot of eyebrow-raising moments. They even got to keep the play’s famous last words: “That son of a bitch (with Menjou sliding his elbow into the typewriter) stole my watch!”
The film is currently in the public domain and can be seen below. Kino did release it on Blu-ray and I sure hope that looks better than what’s online. The Front Page was also nominated at the 4th Academy Awards for Best Picture (Howard Hughes), Best Director (Milestone) and Best Actor (Menjou).