Front Page Woman (DVD Review)8 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Stars Bette Davis, George Brent, Roscoe Karns.
Launched by a catchy title that hasn’t lost any marquee allure (at least for journalists) over nearly eight decades, this Warner Bros. newshound melodrama is of a piece with 1933’s James Cagney romp Picture Snatcher in that it offers one of the more twisted views of how events of the day get conveyed to a junk-ravenous public. The earlier picture, available as a standard DVD release, found its star taking professional liberties in the death house to secretly snap an execution for the readers of his rag. In Front Page Woman, whose implied feminist angle is exploited here all the way, co-smitten Bette Davis and George Brent do get flirty on occasion yet mostly exist to stab each other in the back while competing on stories for rival publications.
The bandying here has farcical components, yet this isn’t an all-out farce of the sexes the way, say, His Girl Friday would be five years later. Thus, we’re asked to swallow a story that is played at least played marginally straight — and thus seems all the more twisted. Can you imagine, for instance, reporter A sneaking into the jury room after the deliberations and changing votes on the conveniently discarded ballots so that reporter B will discover them and report the wrong verdict in a murder trial? That’s what happens here, and I can see why the AFI Catalog for the ‘30s notes that critics of the day criticized Woman for offering an unrealistic view of the journalistic profession — although the New York Times’ terminally clueless Bosley Crowther said something of the same thing about Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole before it turned out to be perhaps the most prescient movie ever made on the subject.
But this is putting too fine a point on it because Woman is mid-‘30s Warners all the way (one can only wonder what it might have been like had it been made before the Production Code got teeth). And though it wasn’t, say, any Captain Blood from the same year, it does boast the studio’s same premier house director (Michael Curtiz) giving it speed and economy in what to film enthusiasts will be familiar fashion — and enough of it to provide total viewing comfort of the “old shoe” variety. Other cross-references from 1935 add to the fun: the Winifrid Shaw who gets messed up in a murky murder here is the same “Wini” Shaw who unforgettably introduced "Lullaby of Broadway" in Gold Diggers of 1935, the Busby Berkeley number that out-Berkeleyed them all, at least until Bus discovered those phallic Technicolor bananas in The Gang’s All Here. And this summer-of-’35 release captures a still-blonde Davis a little less than six months before the Christmas premiere of the actress’s first Oscar-winning performance in Dangerous (though her award has always been regarded as a compensation prize for her failure to win the Oscar for the previous year’s Of Human Bondage, which Kino, btw, has just issued in a Blu-ray version).
Six years later, Davis and Brent would be back for The Great Lie — a much bigger production and one prestigious enough to win a supporting Oscar for Mary Astor. By this time, Davis was a huge star but marginally less of an indentured slave to studio chief Jack Warner than she was at the time she made Woman, which, for all its jaded qualities, captures her in a slightly quainter era. Then again, newspapers now seem a little quaint themselves; it’s tough to imagine the shenanigans going on here occurring in the Internet-journalism milieu — if, indeed, they ever did.