In 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).
Having 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.)
The 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.