The story may be decades old and take place in a mythical city, but so many aspects, tones, and topics covered in this classic film still resonate to this day. It is The Front Page and it is pure gold.
In 1931 eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes financed a movie staging of the hit play written by a former reporter from Chicago, Charles Gordon MacArthur, and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Taking MacArthur’s experiences covering stories for major newspapers and with Hecht translating these tales into a whole new tapestry of a story, The Front Page became an Oscar nominated movie that I have fallen completely in love with.
This simple tale is all about veteran newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson who makes plans to quit his job, run off, and marry his beautiful and lovely sweetheart. He arrives at the County Jail pressroom to bid goodbye to his former colleagues when the impossible happens. A notorious and controversial prisoner who is hours away from being hanged narrowly escapes the jail. Everyone scrambles to cover this breaking news, and Hildy joins right in. Complications upon complications ensue, especially when Hildy finds and hides said prisoner in order to get the big scoop. Yes, I just mentioned scoop. To make this mess just a bit more messier, Hildy’s boss shows up. This man, one Walter Burns, is the definition of a crusty, arrogant, ruthless, tycoon with delusions of power. In a story filled with people of varying degrees of scumminess, he is almost the scummiest.
Beneath these surface events, larger issues are presented and debated, but with no real resolutions offered. Is capital punishment acceptable, especially if in doubt of guilt? Should elected officials decide who is to be executed? How far do you go for the big story? Is it okay to blatantly lie in order to keep your job? And what responsibilities do the free press have in a democratic society? These issues and many more are pounded upon throughout the film, with valid points raised, dismissed, and referred back to continually. Much like The Wire most of the time, The Front Page showcases the issues but gives no solutions.
How often even today is being first with the news, whether it is a tragedy or idle gossip or important issues, does it all get churned up and mucked about in order to get the big story? The blaring headline, with no context or thought or history, becomes the ever present Holy Grail at all times. Basic rules drummed into my skull at Journalism School are routinely ignored just to desperately catch more attention for the news outlets. The Front Page could take place in the here and now with so little changed. And Walter Burns probably exists in newsrooms everywhere, living and thriving in the muck they helped create.
Despite all this doom and gloom prognosticating about the eternal downside to Journalism, I still wholeheartedly endorse The Front Page. While this basic tale mixed with moral issues is actually not played as a drama, but as a screwball comedy. The idea is simple, they used sugar to make us take our medicine. Acclaimed director Lewis Milestone brings an excitement and verve to this production, making it an event, virtually all taking place in one room. Milestone also directed another favourite of mine All Quiet On The Western Front just a year before this one, and all his considered skills are in full force here. As for all the remakes, this might be considered blasphemy, but everyone I have seen, from His Girl Friday to the 1970’s abomination to Switching Channels, have been remarkably inferior.
This original is the absolute best from the basic story to the larger life canvas to the greatness of the presentation. The Front Page is today.
P.S. The Front Page movie is copyright 2012 to United Artists. It is 103 minutes long and is black and white.