Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: The Front Page (1931)
- Standing: Nominee for Best Picture of 1930/1931
- Type: Comedy, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou) and Best Director (Lewis Milestone)
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Lewis Milestone
- Studio/Producer: The Caddo Company / produced by Howard Hughes and distributed by United Artists
- Cast: Pat O’Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Edward Everett Horton, Mary Brian, Mae Clark, George E. Stone, Slim Summerville,Walter Catlett, Matt Moore, Clarence Wilson
- Production Notes: Based on the play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and adapted for the screen by Bartlett Cormack with additional dialogue by Charles Lederer, Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams
- Viewing Order: 17 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
If you can get past the first twenty-five minutes of The Front Page,you may actually enjoy it. Unfortunately, up until that point, the movie was nothing more than a rapid-fire gab fest between a group of Chicago newsmen speculating about the whereabouts of ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien). If you asked me what else they spoke about, I don’t think I could tell you; in part because the dialogue was so scattered, in part because it kept putting me to sleep (literally; it took me 3 tries to finish watching the first part of this film).
That very eve, Hildy Johnson is trying to leave the newspaper business and marry his sweetheart Peggy (Mary Brian), much to the chagrin of his editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, convicted murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone), a white man pegged as a communist, is set to hang for killing a black policeman that next morning, an event eagerly awaited by the men of the press room. However, while trying to get him to reenact his crime, the idiots in charge give him a loaded gun to show them how he did it…which he uses at their insistence, shooting one of them in the process. The frightened man escapes, causing the press and police to engage in a frantic manhunt. Hildy, on his way out the door for good, jumps back into the fray to report on the escape and gives the money he was saving for his new start to an informer so he can get the scoop for the paper. He calls his editor to be repaid the money, but Burns, seeing an opportunity to keep his best reporter around for a while, stalls. Needless to say, this does not go over well with Peggy, who’s had it with playing second fiddle to the news.
In the middle of all of this, the escaped man Williams shows up in the press room while Hildy is there by his lonesome and convinces Hildy that the cop’s shooting was accidental and that he’s really an anarchist with good intentions, rather than a dreaded communist “Bolshevik.” Hildy realizes that Williams is a pawn being used by the corrupt mayor and bumbling sheriff in an effort to gain voter support (specifically that of black voters) for their reelection. Hildy, driven by sympathy and simultaneously realizing this is the story to end all stories, attempts to keep Williams hidden in a roll-top desk until he can interview him. Assisting him conceal the man is Molly Molloy (Mae Clark), a prostitute who has befriended Williams and is sympathetic to his plight.
With a manhunt going on all around him, a convicted murderer hiding in a desk, his girl mad at him, and an editor who’s determined to keep him around, what’s a soon-to-be-ex-newspaper man supposed to do?
Behind the Scenes:
Fans of the play were worried that it wouldn’t translate well into a film with the spectre of the Hays’ code looming over them. Written by two ex-newspaper men (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), part of the play’s original appeal were the risqué jokes and profane language seen as authentic to the press room. Up for the challenge, director Lewis Milestone kept the flavor, but added less pepper to the dialogue. The result was pleasant surprise from the masses, with the assertion that Milestone pulled off the feat masterly. He was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award for it accordingly (he would not win).
The play took place on a single set (the newsroom). Milestone expanded shots to the streets and inside cars, but didn’t deviate too much from the original setting.
Hildy Johnson was one of stage actor Pat O’Brien’s first screen roles and he spends most of it shouting frantically. He’s not unlikable, but O’Brien, known to throw shade at Method style acting and embrace just learning one’s lines, was criticized for not reaching the emotional depths of the character. Edward Everett Horton delivers the wry and wide-eyed comedic performance that he was famous for and received excellent reviews for it, second only to Menjou. Mae Clark is both feisty and sympathetic as the kindhearted lady of the night Molly. The weakest link of the bunch is Mary Brian as Hildy’s sweetheart Peggy, who had probably the most experience of the bunch in talkies, but whose performance is the least natural. Neither woman’s performance was raved about in the papers, though most credit this in part to their roles being dulled down in the film.
Louis Wolheim was originally set to play the paper’s brash editor, but Adolphe Menjou ended up in the part instead following Wolheim’s sudden death. It was an interesting jump. Wolheim typically played tough guys, while up until this point Menjou’s roles were mostly that of suave, continental lovers. While I would have liked to see a snarling Wolheim in the role, Menjou handles the conniving parts of the character well. His performance, in most newspapers of the time, was pinpointed as the surprise standout and he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for it (he would not win).
If the name Hildy Johnson or the premise sound familiar, it may be because of the popular 1940 film adaption His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Rosalind Russell as Hildy and Cary Grant as Burns, Hildy’s editor and ex-husband in a romantic twist on the relationship. Charles Lederer, who had contributed dialogue to The Front Page wrote the script for His Girl Friday with help from one of the original play’s authors, Ben Hecht.
The Front Page was adapted for film again under the original name in 1974, this time starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Susan Sarandon with Billy Wilder directing.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
Before they viewed it, most expressed doubt that a successful film could be pulled off from the popular play. It seems that pleasant surprise at its execution, as well as Menjou’s eye-opening change of role, had a lot to do with catapulting it to the forefront. When your expectations are low, it makes the win much more exciting.
How does it hold up today?
Though the “boys club” aspect of the men in the press room was perhaps the main appeal of the film at the time of release, it doesn’t hold up for modern day audiences. Specifically, the treatment of Molly by the men in the press room is cringeworthy. Typical of the attitudes of the time (and even today!) that prostitutes aren’t actually people, but objects to be both used and degraded at the same time, Molly is the frequent subject of lewd and unfeeling jokes by the men. All the while, as they are taunting her for being a prostitute, they are occupying a room where photos of topless women line the walls. The hypocrisy is gross and uncomfortable to watch. Molly’s mere presence in the same room as Hildy elicits the men of the press room to assume that something sexual is going on between them, despite Hildy telling them that he was interviewing her (“What was he doing to her?” one of them cracks in response to this statement). Two go on to have this delightful interchange for Molly’s benefit while she stands by, attempting to ignore their cracks:
“Mmm smells. Eau de floozy,”
*whines* “Makes me passionate.”
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, take jabs at her good nature (she had previously cried in front of them when faced with the idea of Williams’ hanging) and remark callously, “Look out, she’ll start bawling again.”
In addition to the film’s treatment of women, the occasional racist comment finds its way into the dialogue, which refers to black people with the outdated and offensive terms of “colored” and “pickaninnies.”
- IMDb rating = 6.7 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes rating = With a vast difference in opinion between critics at 92% fresh (11 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and audiences with a 60% fresh rating, it’s worth noting that even those who liked it couldn’t help but mention they found the film dated and that His Girl Friday was a superior version of the story.
Would this be my pick for 1930/1931’s Best Picture?
This is a solid no. While nominees for director Milestone and actor Menjou seem warranted, the one for Best Picture does not. Aside from dialogue that was snappy and a well-adapted script, nothing about the overall film was noteworthy or even praised at the time as being exceptional. In addition to fair, but unexciting cinematography and set design that was mostly limited to a few desks and lewd wall art, the story hinged on the comedic aspects of the situation while glazing over the very real issues of political corruption and “red scare” hysteria, neither paying them adequate attention nor turning them into satire.
*My full 1930/1931 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched
The whole thing sounds kind of preposterous.
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Great review, Zoe! For me, the film didn’t really pick up until Mae Clarke entered the room. Love her!
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I completely agree! I’m not sure why most of the reviews of the time were unimpressed with her performance because I found it one of the best (if not THE best) of the bunch.
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I agree! I think Mae Clarke was such an underrated talent. I write about her a lot on my blog. She was a very sensitive and nuanced actor. So much more than “the dame who gets the grapefruit facial” in the Public Enemy (and her performance in that one was heartfelt and sadly underrated as well).
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