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‘The Front Page’ Restored

Still from The Front Page-1931In the early
1970s the nascent American Film Institute mounted a screening series at Lincoln
Center in New York to show off some of its most important acquisitions,
including Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of the stage play The Front Page. Yet somehow, this
significant film directed by the man who made All Quiet On the Western Front and produced by Howard Hughes has
remained somewhat obscure in the decades since that showing. Inferior copies (and
copies of copies) have been available but don’t do justice to the picture.

 Now, at last,
Kino Lorber has released a restoration by the Library of Congress, drawn from
the surviving 35mm elements of this landmark early-talkie. The picture and
sound quality are as good as we’re ever likely to see. This is not merely a
reproduction of the celebrated 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play, which
would be valuable in itself, but an adaptation, credited to Bartlett Cormack
(who wrote the film version of his stage success The Racket for Hughes) with additional dialogue by Charles Lederer,
who worked with Howard Hawks on the more familiar version of this material, the
brilliant 1940 comedy remake His Girl
Friday
, in which reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson was portrayed by a
woman (Rosalind Russell).

The Front Page Poster-325Having
recently revisited His Girl Friday it
was especially interesting for me to watch this version of the
emblematic play about hard-boiled newspapermen. Not only is it a typical pre-Code
movie, filled with slang and innuendo, but apparently maverick producer Hughes
took delight in defying the censors. (There is a washroom on the set where most
of the action takes place, and while we cannot see a toilet—which remained
verboten in Hollywood for decades—there is a tin can hanging from a string in
the doorway, indicating the colloquial word for bathroom.)

  Even
whitewashing the Chicago setting of the play is undertaken with a wink in an
introductory title card that reads, “This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.”
That’s not the only inside joke: in one scene a character refers to “Judge
Mankiewicz,” a reference to Hecht and MacArthur’s fellow
reporter-turned-screenwriter Herman.              

The camerawork
is credited to silent-film veteran Glen MacWilliams—although Tony Gaudio and
Hal Mohr also worked on it—but the visual innovations that make the film so
compelling are pure Milestone. The former film editor, who already had two
Academy Awards to his credit (for directing Two
Arabian Knights
in 1927 and All Quiet
on the Western
Front in 1930)
wasn’t about to nail his camera to the floor and simply photograph Hecht and
MacArthur’s rapid-fire dialogue. He deploys ambitious tracking and dolly shots
with synchronized sound, 360-degree spins around his principals, and even has his
camera bounce up and down to the strains of a song that the reporters sing at
their desk, “landing” on a different face with each beat.

In the wake of
the 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti case, there is much talk of radicals and the “red
menace,” most of which was removed from, or soft-pedaled in, the 1940 remake.
The crooked mayor and sheriff are running for re-election with the slogan
“Reform the Reds with a Rope.” Yet anarchist Earl Williams (George E. Stone),
who is about to be hanged, is portrayed sympathetically, as is Molly (Mae
Clarke), “a common streetwalker” who took pity on him and gave him shelter in
her apartment after he killed a black policeman. The resulting hot potato could
cost the mayor and sheriff “the colored vote,” which the reporters estimate at
one million. (Political correctness is not the byword in this film, which abounds
in wince-worthy dialogue at times and even shows a reporter giving the sheriff
the finger! And the filmmakers devised a devilishly clever way of retaining the
play’s famous punchline.)

Pat OBrien Front PageThe Front Page is a fascinating time
capsule for these and many other reasons. Bret Wood’s informative commentary
track sets the film and its source material into historical context and offers
many interesting tidbits. The best known factoid is that director Milestone
originally cast Louis Wolheim (who starred in Two Arabian Knights and All
Quiet on the Western Front)
as unscrupulous editor Walter Burns and had to
replace him with Adolphe Menjou when Wolheim died in early 1931.

Menjou is
terrific, by the way, assuming the role that Osgood Perkins created on
Broadway, and so is Pat O’Brien, who sought the blessing of Lee Tracy, who
became so closely associated with the role of rat-tat-tat reporter Hildy
Johnson that he wound up playing variations of that character once he left New
York for a Hollywood career.

The other
roles are also well-cast, including Edward Everett Horton as the fussbudget
Bensinger and hawk-faced Clarence Wilson as the unctuous sheriff, but it’s
difficult for me not to think of the all-star lineup of character actors and
comedians that Howard Hawks gathered for His
Girl Friday
. Slim Summerville is amusing as the milquetoast messenger who
turns up near the end of the story, but he can’t compare with Billy Gilbert,
who’s uproariously funny as Joe Pettibone in the remake.

What matters
most is that the original The Front Page
is finally available on Blu-ray and DVD. Along with Wood’s commentary there is
a brief documentary about the preservation efforts of the Library of Congress
and two radio adaptations of the play, a breathless half-hour version from 1946
that reunites Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, and an hour-long Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring
real-life newshound Walter Winchell. All of this makes Kino Lorber’s new
release a must.

 

9 comments

  1. Maurice says:

    I was watching The Front Page on TCM this week, marvelling at the innovations of the film and the dialogue, and wondering why nobody restored the film, which is in terrible shape. Turns out, somebody has. Good news.

  2. Jim Reinecke says:

    Wonderful news, Leonard! (Also glad to see that you’re back in harness, reviewing new films as well as catching us up with developments like these.) I’ve always wanted to see this film in a restored state as some of the prints I’ve seen are rather poor. . .including a public domain VHS copy that I purchased in the 90’s that was in abysmally bad condition. Another 1931 film, by the way, where a character flashes the old international indicator of irreverence is, believe it or not, Capra’s THE MIRACLE WOMAN where one of Sam Hardy’s henchmen flips him the rigid digit in one scene. I also agree with you that Billy Gilbert’s brief appearance in HIS GIRL FRIDAY is an absolute riot. He steals the two scenes that he’s in with the greatest of ease. I saw that version with an audience at a local university some years ago and people were howling at Gilbert’s delivery and his responses to Clarence Kolb’s crooked mayor and Gene Lockhart’s bumbling sheriff and their attempts to bribe him. And let’s not forget that HIS GIRL FRIDAY contains a bit of politically incorrect material by today’s sensibilities. The Get-TV channel, which specializes in films from Columbia’s vaults, shows it frequently and always blips Roscoe Karns’ use of the word "pickaninny" in one scene. But Menjou and O’Brien make a swell team in this early version and, as you point out, Milestone’s direction as remarkably fluid. I’ll be looking forward to viewing this. Thanks for the info!

  3. Mark A. Vieira says:

    Thank you for yet another tip on an item I might have missed, given the snowstorm of info I slog through daily — as we all do in 2015. I bet Ben hecht and Charles MacArthur are smiling somewhere.

  4. Dane says:

    Would have liked to hear something about the quality of the restored picture and sound.

  5. A.M.Miller says:

    Actually Leonard, the first time a toilet was clearly shown in an American film was King Vidor’s acclaimed 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Many folks believe that for the sake of realism, Irving Thalberg requested the shot not be removed. Check it out. -A.M.

  6. Mark Heimback-Nielsen says:

    Can’t wait for this! Let’s hope Lee Tracy’s "The Lemon Drop Kid" will also get the same treatment someday. 🙂

  7. Norm says:

    Interesting evolution of what newspaper reporting used to be compared with todays left-wing spin propoganda machine. I guess the "red" menace never showed up , just check todays headlines.BTW this DVD is a must buy on several levels.

  8. Nat Segaloff says:

    Some forty years ago I ran a double feature of "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday" for a house full of my newspaper reporter friends. Not only did this tough crowd enjoy both of them, they (like you) marveled at how Hughes and Milestone got away with so many pre-code affronts. "The front Page" is still a little creaky compared with "His Girl Friday" (ten years came between them) but it must be seen as a crucial early example.

  9. Consntine Santas says:

    Fantastic job Kino Lorber and Leonard Maltin for making us aware of this find. Will order it at once!

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