Overshadowed by Howard Hawks’ brilliant gender-bender remake His Girl Friday, the original 1931 screen version of THE FRONT PAGE has been sadly neglected for over eighty years. Aside from the above reason, there are others – particularly the fact that having to sell the rights and negatives to Columbia for the 1940 remake (yeah, they used to do that) put the pre-Code pic’s elements in nitrate-rotting jeopardy. Worse, the property fell into public domain, resulting in prints ranging from fair-good to WTF is that?! Happily, there’s a sorta alternative now with Kino Classics’ new Blu-Ray, mastered from some of the only 35mm materials known to be in existence. It’s a mixed bag, but with pros definitely outweighing the cons.
The raucous stage production that debuted to rave reviews and business in 1929 was a triumph for reporters-turned-playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. And why not? It was about the world they knew best – the conniving, thieving, yellow journalistic universe chock full of corrupt, snarky mofos. The uncut script still packs ’em in with laffs today (it remains one of the most revived plays in theater history).
Howard Hughes wasted no time in securing the screen rights – a savvy move, as what could be a better vehicle for talking pictures? His favorite director, Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Nights, The Racket), was recruited to guide the project and a cast of soon-to-be movie faves (Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett, George E. Stone and, supposedly, in a bit, Clark Gable) delivered the goods in droves. The women on view were the then highly popular Mae Clarke (her year, with Frankenstein, Public Enemy and Waterloo Bridge under her garter belt) and always-innocent Mary Brian. The real revelation was sophisticated Adolphe Menjou as the take-no-prisoners ruthless, quicksilver-verbal editor Walter Burns (based on unscrupulous newsman Walter Howey). Although it assured his foothold in talkies, he was a second-choice replacement for Hughes pal Louis Wolheim, who died suddenly just as filming began (Menjou was deservedly Oscar-nominated, as was Milestone, and the movie for Best Picture).
Hawks’ sex-change operation on the property was, as indicated, a stroke of genius, but, even in this pre-Code form, one can how see relatively easy the transformation was. Obvious, of course, is the O’Brien character’s name, Hildy (actually based on real-life reporter Hildebrand Johnson) – but the dialog between him and Burns isn’t all that different from some of the Cary Grant-Ros Russell exchanges. “So, you’re leaving me for marriage,” cries a jealous Menjou to O’Brien. The plot clearly resembles what would become known as the Warner Bros. Vitaphone style (as pioneered by Daryl Zanuck), and, not surprisingly, both O’Brien and McHugh would eventually be given WB contracts.
Going into the plot is nothing short of a waste of space, the narrative being so iconic; the reporters waiting in a prison press room for the execution of a meek, lovesick befuddled murderer (what Curly Howard used to term “a victim of coik-cumstances”) is but a springboard to expose American political corruption on a grand scale – but with laffs and, as Preston Sturges might logically add, “a little sex.”
Milestone’s direction is quite good – inventively and effectively disassociating the production from the then-still stodgy all-talking tableaus that graced the newly wired-for-sound picture houses. There’s quick editing to match the overlapping dialog, and a fair amount of camera movement, some of it head-shaking bizarre (careening up and down like a tilt-o-whirl and sideways like other projectile vomit-inducing carnival rides). Much credit for mastering these liberating visual jaunts must be given to the underrated d.p. Glen McWilliams, who had formidable assist from Hal Mohr who, in turn, replaced Tony Gaudio. The lightning paced one-liners and auctioneer-esque speeches that Hecht and MacArthur had refined to an art were “movie-ed up” by Bartlett Cormack (who penned The Racket) and Charles Lederer.
In the decades since its release, THE FRONT PAGE has frustrated film archivists, who strove to cobble a respectable, viewable copy. Prints would be uncovered with (obviously) the same scenes, but with different dialog. Typical Howard Hughes, rather than cut risqué stuff for various states/territories throughout the nation/globe, he filmed different editions to placate the individual censors. Of course, this is insanity, but, like I said, typical Howard Hughes. That said, no matter what evocation one lights upon, it IS a pre-Code title, so there’s plenty of sexist, racist and vicious nastiness to delight us all.
Key faves (that would all be toned-down or removed from subsequent screen versions) include Hildy being asked if his bride is white. Or the accusation of temporarily installing an African-American cop in a neighborhood where the “colored vote” counts. When the inept law-enforcement officials scour the city for the escaped dupe Earl Williams, the snarky reporters reveal that the dicks even investigated a “newborn pickaninny’s” point of entry to verify it wasn’t Williams in hiding. Naturally, the prime spouting is between Menjou and O’Brien. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a pure girl,” decrees Hildy to Burns about his beloved. “Ohhhh, yes, I would,” leers Menjou, smacking his lips – one the multitude of instances that nearly lead to blows. Finally, there’s the Fourth Estate’s evaluation of quack shrink Dr. Engelhoffer (the character actor with the always eyebrow-raising moniker, Gustav von Seyffertitz), author of “that book, The Personality Gland, and where to put it.”).
After years of suffering through god-awful prints of Hughes’ production of Scarface, it was a revelation to see the spectacular 35mm unearthed and restored by Universal Pictures, who handled the majority of the Hughes film library (which also gave us great copies of Hell’s Angels, and later kitsch pics Jet Pilot and The Conqueror). I was hoping that the Kino 35mm Blu-Ray would be of that caliber. Sadly, it’s not (again, most likely due to the years of public-domain purgatory). The print is indeed 35mm, and was uncovered from the East German Film Archive (and remastered in conjunction with the Library of Congress). Much of it IS excellent (the first time one can ever say that about this title), but there are some dupey sequences, shots, opticals, etc. Ditto, the audio (while generally miles above the earlier bacon-frying soundtracks, it still is plagued by some muffled, garbled “motorboat” bits). Don’t let that stop you pre-Code and/or FRONT PAGE fans from purchasing this edition, as it’s probably the best rendition we’ll ever see.
There’s also a plethora of extras worth mentioning. Two – count ’em – TWO radio adaptations, one (1946) with Menjou and O’Brien reprising their roles and an earlier (1937) presentation by Cecil B. DeMille, featuring Walter Winchell! Second audio commentary with film historian Bret Wood is there for those who want it. There’s even a dry, rather lackluster Library of Congress short on preservation, which SHOULD have been fascinating, but has all the appeal of a five-hour El Brendel documentary.
THE FRONT PAGE. Black and white. Full frame 1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/Library of Congress. CAT # K1820. SRP: $29.95.