Front Page, The (Blu-ray Review)14 Sep, 2015 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian.
I’m not sure if journalism students still get together for movie parties centered on the trade, or what they watch if they do — or, matter of fact, if there even are journalism students anymore and what the hell their instructors are possibly saying to them about a depressed profession. But in days not quite as olden as those of the screen subject at hand, some of us used to thread up the projector against a beer backdrop back in the 16mm days when, say, Bogart’s Deadline U.S.A. was a favorite viewing choice of many. And when classroom colleagues used to refer to certain aged but still irreverently grizzled professors of ours as being “out of” The Front Page.
But in these pre-VHS days, nobody actually got a chance to see Lewis Milestone’s early talkie of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage hit — and, if they had, it would have been via some dupey print monstrosity, which is how circulating copies of The Front Page have been rendered since perhaps the last time this Howard Hughes production was theatrically re-issued (1938, says IMDb.com). Of course, over the decades, this first screen version has been usurped by Howard Hawks’ grand sexual switcheroo of a remake (His Girl Friday) — though not Billy Wilder’s rather mortifying 1974 version, which is only one of two Wilder films, along with Buddy Buddy, that I can’t abide (though Fedora pushes it). What a bunch of us did watch at the time was the January 1970, airing of The Front Page in a rather lackluster TV version with the great Robert Ryan, who had recently also starred in a successful Broadway revival. As I recall, it seemed kind of forced, wheezy and remote (which certainly figured in the Vietnam era).
This Library of Congress restoration of the Milestone version puts the movie back in its comfort zone, which is to say the same general time span in which the story takes place — a time when reporters existed on a booze/sandwich diet and a hangman’s gallows could exist directly outside of a municipal pressroom. Page, in fact, begins with someone testing the strength of the rope, which (if some ethnic slurs in the script didn’t do it by themselves) would be probably enough to get the picture a TV-14 rating and politically correct authority figures everywhere to shield children’s eyes from the screen. The prisoner who sparks all this is the killer of a black policeman; the reporters want the former executed on a schedule that synchs with their deadlines, while the crooked politicians (the only kind that exist in this story) want the punishment to take place closer to the election, so as to take advantage of the black vote. (Did someone say, “cynical”?)
Competing for the story in a pool of leeches is Chicago editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) and his ace reporter (Pat O’Brien), who spends the entire picture trying to wed, resign and go work for an advertising agency to placate the wishes of his intended (Mary Brian). Page is often cited as O’Brien’s screen debut but wasn’t quite. In an event, Menjou steals the picture all the way, though his role is fairly small given his top billing. He and Milestone both got Oscar nominations, and the director (then coming off All Quiet on the Western Front) had already won the top award twice even though the awards hadn’t been around very long. The direction here is self-consciously showy at times but keeps the story moving, doing as much as it can (and it’s tough) to minimize the stage origins, which is one of several problems the Wilder version had. (His Girl Friday moves so fast that one doesn’t even have time to think about this.)
According to the LoC’s Mike Mashon on a supplemental extra here, the print source (from the early ‘70s) was an East German archive, the politics of which even he can’t decipher. I recall from an AFI screening of this print (or maybe another one from the Library) that the soundtrack sometimes dipped to perilously low levels, but either someone has done a little control room audio work or I’m misremembering the severity because it’s only an occasional problem (better to set your sound level a little higher than usual, though). Also included here are two radio adaptations (1937 and 1946, the first with Walter Winchell). The movie itself is kind of a relic but an amusing one — and even at that, it’s better than Norman Jewison’s cosmetically flashy 1969 film of Hecht’s newspaper memoirs Gaily, Gaily, which I thought as deadly on a review earlier this year than I did at the time.