Monday, December 7, 2020

Billy Wilder's The Front Page

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) has decided to give up his career as the star reporter for the Chicago Examiner after proposing to the love of his life (Susan Sarandon). His publisher, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), doesn't plan to let Hildy quit without a fight. He needs his best newspaper man to cover the hanging of Earl Williams, who has been convicted of killing a cop. Walter will do pretty much anything to retain Hildy. However, his efforts may prove unnecessary, as Hildy finds it exceedingly difficult to walk away from one last big story.

Made in 1974, The Front Page is the third film version of the 1928 Broadway play written by former journalist Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was first adapted for the screen in 1931 with Pat O'Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Burns. Howard Hawks remade it in 1940 as His Girl Friday with Cary Grant as the editor and Rosalind Russell as his ace reporter. There have also been other versions produced for radio, television, and the screen (e.g., 1988's Switching Channels).

Lemmon as Hildy Johnson.
While it's hard to imagine Billy Wilder doing a remake, it's easy to see why the source material appealed to him: Wilder was a reporter in Berlin in the 1920s. He also thought that previous film versions of Hecht and MacArthur's play were hampered by the censors. In the book Billy Wilder: Interviews, the famous filmmaker noted: "I've yet to meet a newspaper man who said 'Oh, heck' or 'Oh, gosh.'" His screenplay, co-written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, is peppered with profanity and restores the final famous line from the stage play.

As he did with his frantic 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, Wilder pushes the pace and stops just shy of overlapping the dialogue. It's not until the closing credits roll that one realizes that most of the action has taken place in the press room at the state penitentiary.

Matthau as Walter Burns.
Lemmon and Matthau are in fine form as the leads, but The Front Page is almost an ensemble piece. Vincent Gardenia shines as a corrupt sheriff clearly out of his depth. Charles Durning, David Wayne, and Herb Edelman sparkle as Hildy's rivals at other newspapers; Wayne is especially entertaining as a fussbudget that brings his own (pink) toilet paper to the prison. Finally, there's Austin Pendleton as Earl, the milquetoast killer who somehow manages to escape during his pre-execution psychological evaluation.

If there's a criticism to be leveled at The Front Page, it's the quality of the female roles. As Hildy's fiancée, Susan Sarandon has little to do but look flustered as Hildy constantly delays their train departure out of Chicago. Carol Burnett has a better part as a prostitute who takes pity on Earl--only to be skewered in the newspapers. The scene in which she faces her "accusers"--the cynical newspaper men in the press room--could have been powerful. However, Burnett isn't up to the task and one has to wonder why such a gifted comedienne was cast in the film's truly serious role.

The Front Page isn't top-drawer Billy Wilder, but it's still a funny, biting view of the world of journalism--and just as relevant today as it was in 1974 and in 1928. Maybe it wasn't called "fake news" back then, but the manipulation of headlines and news stories is nothing new. It's just that most of today's Hildy Johnsons and Walter Burns are on cable television instead of in the newspaper business.


  1. Carol Burnett apologized to airplane passengers when this was the in flight movie.She and Sarandon may have been assigned their rolws. Both Under Universal contract I think.

  2. I don't believe I have seen this in decades, but you can't mess up The Front Page; the play is that solid. The only glitch is Molly. It is a tough role in the midst of all the goings on and if enough attention isn't paid, it can stand out in a bad way.

  3. Most of the "fake news" these days comes out of the Oval Office.

  4. I agree with Wilder's observation about old-school reporters + profanity, but I never thought the lack of it took away from the earlier two versions of this film.

    However, the Wilder version sounds interesting, especially with the cast, and I'll hunt around for it. Thanks!