Home Video Hovel: The Front Page, by David Bax
There’s still a jolt sometimes to watching pre-Code Hollywood movies. When we see the black and white 1.33 frame and hear the fakey mid-Atlantic accents, we still have certain expectations. So, no matter how many of these earlier films you’ve seen, when 1931’s The Front Page starts off with prison employees readying the gallows for an execution, barking about how the last guy “bounced around” because the rope wasn’t sturdy enough and declaring, “I want this guy’s neck broke!”, it’s an invigorating shock.
Lewis Milestone’s film doesn’t stop there, either. We cut directly to the courthouse press room, where slovenly newsmen make lewd jokes about the victim of a peeping Tom. They’re just passing the time until they can file their stories about the next morning’s hanging. Not Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), though. The hotshot reporter is giving up the newspaper business for marriage and a cushy advertising job in New York (though not made explicit, the film appears to be set in Chicago). As the night’s story progresses, however, Johnson keeps feeling himself pulled back in.
The Front Page, based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, is undoubtedly a comedy but what stand out is just how much the humor stings. That the reporters are cynical pigs, often depicted blatantly making up juicy and contradictory details when filing their stories over the phone, only scratches the surface. The newspapers are corrupt and so are the authority figures (the mayor, the sheriff) they cover. The only thing that makes the journalist more likable is that they are smart and corrupt while those in power are idiotic and corrupt. Amid this chaos, the only character with any real integrity is the condemned man, a communist (or maybe anarchist, depending on whom you ask) activist convicted of killing a police officer.
There are so many characters engaged in so many hilarious, sharp, crackling exchanges, the movie flies by like a bullet (almost, but not quite, fast enough that you could miss the occasional, period-signifying racial slurs). Milestone didn’t just film the play as written, though. His camera, with its zooms and tracking shots, is at times dynamic enough to match the dialogue. The Front Page is a powerhouse and, with its rakishly jaded tone, a reminder that we are no so removed today from 80 years ago.
The transfer, from 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress, is as good as can be hoped for in terms of picture. The sound bears some signs of those elements’ age, though, with fuzzy noise occasionally drowning out the words being spoken.
Special features include a short documentary about the preservation, a commentary by film historian Bret Wood and two radio adaptations, from 1937 and 1946.