The Front Page (1974)
Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond; based on The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth
Producer: Paul Monash
by Jon Cvack
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau serve as one of the greatest comedy duos of all time. To this day I think one of the great tragedies of cinema was that the pair couldn’t return for My Fellow Americans (1996). Yet it wasn’t just the duo’s return that got me excited, but that Billy Wilder shot a movie about Chicago newsmen.
The story involves Chicago Examiner Editor-in-Chief Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) as he’s covering the execution of Leftist and communist-sympathizer Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton), who given his affiliations, the public is ready to see put down. Burns is hoping his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) will cover the story, but as the scaffold is being set up right beneath the Examiner’s office, Hildy heads to the office, offering his resignation. He’s done with the cutthroat, bleed-it-reads newsroom, opting instead to take up a more lucrative advertising position from the uncle of his fiancee Peggy Grant’s (Susan Sarandon). Burns is furious over the decision and enters into his first of many profane tirades.
We know where it’s going, where just as Earl Williams escaped in a heated gun battle, Hildy returns to the office to pick up some things to then discover what could be the hottest scoop of the century. With Burns admonitions, Hildy agrees to write up something quick and juicy for the story, and while doing so, Earl enters the newsroom, shot in the arm, professing that the cops are trying to kill him and the public has the whole story wrong. Hildy hides him in the desk, as the colleagues make their way back into the office to get on the phone, and thus your typical “bomb under the table” slapstick ensues, all while Peggy is outside waiting for Hildy to come back down.
While we eventually get outside the office for an epic and hilarious police chase, the material’s basis on a play I think is what limits the film’s efficacy. It all seems like it’d work so much better as a play, never really seeing what’s beyond the newsroom, as with the exception of a few expository scenes, anything that extends beyond it feels a bit forced.
Beyond any of the slapstick is the analysis of news. Given that the original play was written in 1928, a bit more than a year before The Great Depression, I think in an era of ‘fake news’ and growing distrust with national media that this movie allows to remember that newspaper use to take on a similar echo chamber as today. Once upon a time there could be dozens of newspapers in major metropolitan areas, all competing for the latest scoop, and creating the most gripping headlines to attract readers. Walter Burns is not out to win a Pulitzer Prize so much as break purchase records. We see him salivating over Earl Williams death and escape, with little concern for who was shot or injured. The closing scene especially illustrates this point, as even when Walter shows his sentimental side, we see it’s all a con to get Hildy back. The movie is cynical, as the only positive aspect is Pegg’s hope that Hildy will actually quit and move away from the cutthroat business.
In an era where so many are quick to mention the demise of newspapers as a primary factor in our current search for truth, we need to remember that not all newspapers are honorable and many deserved to crash for creating similar problems. The film had me keep thinking back to Teacher's Pet (1958), and Clark Gable’s great monologue talking about how economy with words is not just for the reader, but to ensure that the newspaper can receive as much advertising revenue as possible. As Doris Day mentions in her class, writing a news story isn’t just about providing information, but doing so in a way that entertains. To write a concise and economic story goes back to Mark Twain’s attitude toward short letters. Hildy has the talent, addicted to the thrill of breaking news to the nation. He also understand that it’s all consuming power prohibits much of a life outside the newsroom.
BELOW: Can't find nothing beyond the trailer. You can't helping smiling in imagining all these dudes reuniting in 1974
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