The Front Page

The Front Page. Universal Pictures 1974.

Before watching the movie:

Back when I was in a film studies class, I was shown a movie titled His Girl Friday. Apparently, this movie is a more faithful adaptation of the play that movie was based on. As my professor was also apparently a fan of Billy Wilder, I’m not sure why this film didn’t come up in a way that I remember.

Also, this one has Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Carol Burnett, and Susan Sarandon, a trainload of fun people to watch. I didn’t know Matthau and Lemmon worked together outside of The Odd Couple, but the box seems to imply they were a popular comedy team.

After watching the movie:

A politically charged execution is about to take place in 1920s Chicago, and all of the local newspapers are dedicating major attention to it. At the Chicago Examiner, Editor Walter Burns wants his friend and  best reporter Hildy Johnson to cover the hanging of communist and cop-killer Earl Williams, but finds out that Johnson has chosen that day to quit, get married, and move to Philadelphia. But when Williams escapes, Walter doesn’t have to do much pushing to get Hildy to stick around and cover the story. Hildy has tickets for the evening train to Philadelphia, but the story’s going to last all night.

I must say I like the story better without the overt love triangle. In His Girl Friday, Hildy (I buy the name better on a woman than a man) isn’t just torn between the paper and her fiance, but between her fiance and the editor, her ex-husband. The removal of the love story also allows the editor to be less of a creep. Burns has less to do, but the payoff is that Hildy is clearly in it for the story. Burns’s dirty tricks are harmless, and mostly absent. I’m satisfied with Hildy’s reason to get out of the business. In HGF, she’s quitting to become a housewife, which is just what was done at the time. In this, he’s leaving because he recognizes the cutthroat nature of the business, his fiance doesn’t want him to continue, and his prospective father-in-law is offering him a job in advertising.

Carol Burnett is only half in this movie, and Susan Sarandon even less. She comes up from time to time to try to refocus Hildy on the whole “quitting and moving away” thing, but does little else. Still, I had no reason to want her to lose. Carol Burnett is the condemned man’s lover friend and most vocal advocate, in a fairly serious role. The man playing Earl Williams is hilariously soft-spoken and civil. The psychological evaluation scene is hilarious, mostly because of his delivery.

I hate to continue drawing comparisons, but I found the end more satisfying, until the “where are they now” text epilogue, which pulled a complete reversal. This is a story where neither alternative may be best, but I would have liked to see a better compromise.

Either I’m starting to see the appeal of the Billy Wilder style (he wrote and directed some great classics and some films I’d like to see more than once), or his co-writer is brilliant. I found the dialogue very funny, with hardly any of the specific scenes or lines carried over from other versions (there were four theatrical adaptations of the play in all).  His Girl Friday may be snappy, but it’s not so much funny as clever. Both are equally valid, but appreciated in different ways. Funny writing, great performances, and a compelling story all add up to an enjoyable film.

 

Watch this movie: and see why the roughest profession of them all used to be “newspaperman”

Don’t watch this movie: for the play on the screen.

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