The journalism satire “The Front Page”, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, had been the subject of a filmed adaptation several times before– once in 1931, and another time in 1940, under the title HIS GIRL FRIDAY (2). With the boundary-busting era of New Hollywood firmly under way, executives at Universal apparently felt the time was right for yet another version. They looked to director Billy Wilder– a fixture of Old Hollywood and classical filmmaking ideals– as just the kind of guy they needed: a seasoned professional firmly wedged between the pioneering generation of filmmakers and the recklessly ambitious upstarts who came to claim the art of cinema for their own. Wilder himself was intrigued by the idea, thanks to his own stint in the newspaper business in his youth– but whereas previous adaptations took place contemporaneously, he decided to set his own version of THE FRONT PAGE around the time of the play’s first production, 1928 (2). This wasn’t just because he was intimately familiar with the newspaper industry in the late 20’s, but also because he believed that print journalism was no longer the preferred method of news delivery in the age of television (2). Wilder had long produced his own films, but THE FRONT PAGE sees him passing along the duty to Paul Monash, so that he and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond could focus entirely on the screenplay (2).
THE FRONT PAGE reteams the classic comedy odd couple Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both of whom had worked with Wilder before on THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966). Set in Chicago during the height of the Jazz Age, the story finds Chicago Examiner reporter Hildy Johnson (Lemmon) on the eve of his retirement. The role is once again tailored to Lemmon’s upstanding, everyman physicality, which naturally gets put to the test when his attempts to quit and catch a train with his fiancée to a new life are sabotaged by his conniving and tempestuous boss, editor Walter Burns (Matthau). Burns will try just about anything to keep his best reporter in his fold, so he takes advantage of an unfolding crisis to lure Hildy into one last story: the search and capture of escaped death row convict Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton). Williams, whose only crime was sympathizing with some Italian anarchists, has managed to slip away from his handlers on the night before his execution, and has taken up sanctuary in the prison’s press room. When Hildy and Burns discover Williams hiding out there, they find themselves torn between their duty to report the news and to help out an innocent man. Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett also star– Sarandon as Hildy’s glamorous fiancée and Burnett as an outspoken prostitute.
THE FRONT PAGE was lensed by legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who also shot for the likes of such visual stylists as Ridley Scott and David Fincher in his lifetime. His first and only collaboration with Wilder sees a much more subdued execution, thanks to Wilder’s preference for performance and writing over visual flash. While a cursory glance over his filmography would suggest that he preferred to shoot in black and white, the entirety of Wilder’s post-60’s output was captured in color– a development that, judging by THE FRONT PAGE’s muddy, earth-toned palette, serves to suggest that his interest in image-making rested more with lighting rather than color theory. Cronenweth’s abilities in that arena serve Wilder well, but there seems to be something of a mismatch between the seasoned director’s compositions and his anamorphic 2.35:1 canvas. His subjects tend to be framed on extreme ends of the frame, leaving lots of dead space. This sense of visual sluggishness extends to the sedated camerawork, characterized by molasses-slow dolly moves. Even the film’s big car chase sequence is captured with a flagging sense of energy, thanks to an under-cranked camera producing a jerky fast-motion effect when played back at normal speed. To his credit, though, Wilder’s technique here feels consistent with his established tone and setting, recalling early silent films from the narrative’s time period.
Just as a flagging sense of energy marks the potency of THE FRONT PAGE’s cinematography, so too does it lessen the edge of the thematic explorations that inform Wilder’s artistic identity. While the narrative doesn’t quite get around to examining signature topics like class conflict and uniforms, the film does manage to keep a focus on characters that identify almost singularly with their profession– the backbone of Wilder’s artistic worldview. Like Kirk Douglas’ muckraking reporter in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)– Wilder’s previous foray into the world of journalism– the characters here are driven almost entirely by career considerations. Burns and his associates live for the glory of the Big Scoop, working themselves to the bone while ignoring their families and their personal lives– even when they’re off the clock. Hildy is the only one who endeavors to quit his job and live his life for himself and his new bride, and so he must spend the bulk of the narrative fending off his former partners’ machinations to pull him back into the fray.
Since the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, Wilder’s reputation as a mischievous provocateur has been steadily usurped by the culture around him. His 1972 film, AVANTI!, was the first to feel like his edge had been surpassed by the rapid growth of society’s acceptance of new social norms. With the Hays Motion Picture Code now firmly in the past, it becomes evident that a large portion of Wilder’s interest in sexual taboos lays in the challenge of dancing around limitations and censorship with wit and suggestion. Outside of Burnett’s character being a prostitute who’s unabashedly unapologetic about what she does for a living, there is very little content of a sexual nature required by the narrative. Instead of letting his characters unleash their inhibitions, he lets them unleash their mouths instead, peppering the film with abrasive language and fairly severe curse words (for the era, at least) in a bid to maintain his artistic edge.
As a result, THE FRONT PAGE fails to recapture Wilder’s particular brand of writerly magic, making for a fairly forgettable entry in the venerated director’s canon. The production process was apparently rife with disharmony between Lemmon, Matthau and Wilder, but not severe enough to keep them from ever working together again (despite their insistence otherwise)(1). Burnett was the most overtly critical of the finished product, going so far as to publicly apologize to a plane full of people after the film was screened on a flight– although Wilder himself later intimated to his biographer, Charlotte Chandler, that his own sentiments could’ve given Burnett’s a run for their money (2). The first movie of his to not make make a profit since IRMA LA DOUCE a decade earlier, THE FRONT PAGE premiered to utter indifference at the box office and mixed critical reviews that leaned towards the negative. The picture did, however, receive a few nominations at that year’s Golden Globes: Best Picture- Musical or Comedy, and a pair of nods that pitted Lemmon and Matthau against each other in the Best Actor- Musical or Comedy category. While THE FRONT PAGE is fairly enjoyable in its broad strokes, it can’t hide the fact that Wilder’s directorial power was quickly, and irreversibly, losing steam.
THE FRONT PAGE is currently available on standard definition DVD from Universal.
Produced by Paul Monash
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Director Of Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Production Designer: Henry Bumstead
Edited by: Ralph E. Winters
Music Arrangement by: Bill May
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002. ISBN 0-7432-1709-8, pp. 278-285