A crusading newspaper editor tricks his retiring star reporter into covering one last case.A crusading newspaper editor tricks his retiring star reporter into covering one last case.A crusading newspaper editor tricks his retiring star reporter into covering one last case.
All the clichés about newspapers as portrayed on film originate with this work. Lewis Milestone assembled a great cast of character actors as the gang in the press room and the lines they toss back and forth at each other are priceless. Even better were some of the lines at the expense of the self important political and law enforcement figures they cover.
I suppose it's the nature of the job that makes newsmen cynical. But this group takes it to an exponential level. Frank Capra did something very similar in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When newly appointed interim Senator James Stewart arrives in town and they make him out a buffoon, Stewart goes around punching out all of them he can find. When he does reach the Capitol Press Room, the whole group of them Thomas Mitchell, Jack Carson, Charles Lane, etc. bring him up quite short. That group of correspondents could easily have been in the press room in The Front Page. I have no doubt that Capra was inspired by Milestone's work in The Front Page.
The casting of the leads is quite a story. Pat O'Brien had played Walter Burns on stage and someone in the Howard Hughes organization got their wires crossed and signed him for Hildy Johnson. O'Brien made the switch effortlessly though.
Lewis Milestone originally wanted Louis Wolheim with whom he'd worked the year before in All Quiet on the Western Front. But then Wolheim died suddenly right before filming was to start. Adolphe Menjou was hurriedly substituted and he proved to be an inspired choice.
When The Front Page was done on the Broadway stage the roles of Johnson and Burns were played by Lee Tracy and Osgood Perkins. I could see either of them in their respective parts. Both got to Hollywood, but too late to do either part for the screen.
The two female roles of note were Johnson's fiancé Peggy and the streetwalker who had befriended convicted killer George E. Stone who's execution the reporters are covering. Mae Clarke as the prostitute is just fine. A tough year for Mae, she jumps through a window here and gets slugged with a grapefruit later on in Public Enemy.
Mary Brian is the fiancé and in an underwritten part, she's dull as dishwater. Not her fault because the film is about the guys. But seeing this, no wonder Howard Hawks got the inspired idea to eliminate her, create THE Ralph Bellamy part and make Hildy Johnson a woman for His Girl Friday.
Of course The Front Page has the look and feel of the era that birthed it. But the portrait of newspapermen is still fresh and the issues raised about crooked politicians running on "law and order" platforms is probably even more relevant today than back then.
- Oct 19, 2005