I’m a sucker for newspaper movies. The more ink-stained and cynical, the better. My favorite is Five Star Final, in which a managing editor played by Edward G. Robinson is directed by a pandering, hypocritical publisher played by Oscar Apfel into relitigating a 20-year-old murder case for its obvious salacious qualities. The whole mess may end in a double suicide, but the advertising and circulation departments are, thank God, delighted. The best part? Forget morality, Robinson’s character is a hell of an editor, and the way he manages his staff is a thing of beauty.
That film was preceded by five months, however, by the first great newspaper picture. It was a Howard Hughes production based on a Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play that shredded insular big-city politics and was directed by Lewis Milestone, just off his shattering, Oscar-winning World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front. Milestone’s The Front Page is filled with dazzling camerawork, biting humor and a love for the free press that remains bracing.
And it’s back in circulation, in the original American release version, for the first time in decades. The version I owned on VHS, the one everyone who knows the film has seen for decades, was an international version. Yes, they used to shoot different versions for different markets. (You can’t say “bum” in England, for example.)
The Front Page is all about a hanging. The opening shots are of the prison machinery in action, with workers testing the gallows with sacks of flour. They’re snarling, indifferent to the consequences of their work except to make sure the condemned’s neck will be broken cleanly. They are treated with the appropriate contempt by the boys in the press room, one of whom spits on them, complaining of the noise.
It’s a simple situation: If the killer is hanged, the mayor gets re-elected. If he’s judged insane, the mayor loses and the governor–the mayor’s rival–becomes the great power in the state. (The city and state are modeled on Chicago, Ill. Sounds like New York, though.)
Everything goes wrong. The mayor and his chief minion, the sheriff, are bumbling idiots. The press are cynical and lazy and racist and self-interested, yet–and this is crucial–still more admirable than the politicians. They are often inhuman bastards–the way they treat the killer’s lone friend is sexist, vicious–but they’re still less odious than the politicians. (The bar’s set pretty low by the pols.)
It’s breakneck comedy with fast-talking pros Adolphe Menjou (pictured) and Pat O’Brien in the leads; Milestone, with his relentless pacing, makes them earn their salaries. Menjou’s a real shit as the editor; he’s particularly great. The supporting cast are terrific, too: George E. Stone as the anarchist killer; Mae Clarke as his prostitute pal; Edward Everett Horton as a poetry-gushing hack reporter; Gustav von Seyffertitz as a dopey psychiatrist; Mary Brian as O’Brien’s unpersuasive fiancee; Frank McHugh as a perpetually amused scribe; and the great Matt Moore as a banjo-picking reporter of tremendous sloth (my personal hero).
The Front Page is actually an “extra” on Criterion’s release of its first remake, 1940’s His Girl Friday. (Billy Wilder remade it again in the 1970s, a lousy version that has happily disappeared.) Howard Hawks’ HGF is also a great film, and a great romantic comedy. But I like my newspaper flicks sans romance.
His Girl Friday/The Front Page, a Criterion Collection release