Friday, September 2, 2011


With the print industry dying a slow, strangling, agonizing death in the current climate of iEverythings, it seems not only fitting and nostalgic but grimly ironic to take a look at a story that has both lionized and demonized both the newspaper business and the crack journalists who work for The Fourth Estate. Written in 1928 by former Chicago writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page is as true in its cynicism as it is today, performed on stage almost constantly since its pre-Crash premiere and, without taking into consideration the numerous television versions, has been directly adapted for the big screen no less than four times.

The gist: The Front Page takes place on the day before poor Earl Williams, commie sympathizer or dupe and the alleged murderer of a black policeman, will be led to the gallows. Crammed inside the Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, reporters from most of the city big sheets play poker and make horrifically inappropriate jokes about the various horrors of the world as well as Earl’s big kick-off. Enter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, crack reporter from the Chicago Examiner, there to say goodbye to the gang. He’s off to get married and get a respectable job. More importantly, he’s looking to get out from under the Examiner’s tyrannical editor, Walter Burns, who’d commit murder to get that scoop-worthy headline. Suddenly, shots rip through the windows—Earl Williams has escaped! When the other hacks race out to the scene, Hildy stays behind to bask in the quiet. Through the window crashes Earl Williams—a meek little guy who’s been railroaded by the Chief of Police and the Mayor (a corrupt Chicago mayor? Such fancy!) for an election-week stunt. Hildy is faced with a dilemma. He can either leave with his fiancĂ©e, Peggy, as planned, and escape Burns and the soul-killing news biz forever, or he can stay behind, shelter Williams and write a piece that will exonerate him once and for all. But to do that, he’d need the help of the hideous con man, Burns.

Keppler: “This is my first hanging.”

Hildy: “Don’t worry kid, this is Williams’ first hanging too.”

The play’s first trip to the movies came about in 1931, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien. (Don’t “who?” me! Menjou was the original “Billy Flynn” in Roxie Hart, basis for Chicago. O’Brien was friggin’ Father Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces. “Who” indeed.) It played pretty close to the original script with very little action occurring beyond the press room.

Murphy: “Update on the Williams hanging: Sheriff Hartman's just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city against the Red Army, which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes. Bet a dime.”

Arguably the most famous and beloved of the adaptations is Howard Hawks’ near-perfect His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. (Spin the dial, so to speak, to one of the cable movie sections, guaranteed it’s playing on one of them this very minute.) Working from Charles Lederer’s script, Hawks flips Hildy’s gender and makes her the ex-wife of Walter Burns, which bringsWalter into the story earlier and adds not only the much-needed team-up but a bit of Hayes-approved sexual tension. It also stars the fastest-spoken dialogue in movie history.

Thus far, the last remake of The Front Page is an untidy and unpleasant little mess from 1988, starring Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner called Switching Channels, the setting a television news stage, rather than the press room. Mean-spirited and misanthropic rather than cynical, this movie reportedly suffered from the two leads’ mutual abject hatred of each other, which is reflected in the film’s energy. If it weren’t for Joan Cusak as a loony assistant, the movie would be a complete wash.

Between the sublime and the hideous is adaptation #3 which premiered in 1974. Starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Directed by Billy Wilder. With a script by Wilder and his astute partner I.A.L. Diamond. Gold, right? Sheer gold. Run with it, Duffy and let it hit the streets!

Well, gold plated, at least. Still a good value with today’s market.

Hildy: [to Sherriff Hartman] “You what I think, Hartman? I think you let Earl Williams out yourself so he could vote for you next Tuesday.”

By the ‘70s, Wilder’s career was faltering under the weight of his own greatness. Bitter at the Hollywood industry that he more or less owned in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Billy made some odd choices. For one thing, the snappy Hechtian/MacArthurian dialogue was “sweetened” by Wilder and Diamond, mostly to great effect, but so married were they to their own words that they forbade the rapid-fire overlapping delivery that made His Girl Friday such a hit. Even Lemmon and Matthau wanted to keep the furious pace, but Billy the writer wouldn’t hear of it, likely in direct opposition of Billy the Director.

Walter Burns: “Jeez, Hildy. why didn't you tell me? Kid, I woulda thrown you a little farewell party... “

Hildy: “Oh, no, no, no! I know your farewell parties! When Ben Hecht was leaving for Hollywood, you slipped a micky in his gin fizz. It took four of us to get on the California Limited.”

Walter Burns: “Ben Hecht! Used to be one of the greatest newspaper men I ever knew. Look at him now, sitting under palm trees writing dialogue for Rin Tin Tin.”

Secondly, given the freedom to not only use the spicy language of pre-code Front Page but also the saltier speech of the ‘70s, the use of profanity is almost constant. Not a big deal today, when Baby’s Day Out sounds like Scarface (hyperbole intended), but for a movie set in 1929, the language sounds incongruous, even if it is actually more accurate. All the “goddamns” and “bullshits” muck up the rhythm of the patter moreso than the line-then-next-line delivery.

Hildy: “I wouldn’t cover the Last Supper for you if you had it in the Pump Room of the Palmer House!”

Thirdly, when you go to see a Lemmon/Matthau movie, you expect the two of them to be in the room together for more than just the third act. By hewing to the original Hecht and MacArthur structure, Walter Burns (Matthau) is kept at the Examiner for far too long. Not that Lemmon (as Hildy) isn’t entertaining by himself (or surrounded by Charles Durning, Herb Edleman, a glib Harold Gould, a giddy Austin Pendelton), but the give-and-take that made The Odd Couple and The Fortune Cookie so wonderful and electric is held off to the point where the movie seems to slog along until the last forty minutes. Once Walter Burns finally shows up, things pick up steam again, but by then the meanness and the hysteria and the overacting (Carol Burnett and Vincent Gardenia) has worn a path through the audience.

Like Switching Channels later, Wilder’s The Front Page adds too many barbs to the wire. The cynicism doesn’t seem borne out of world-weariness on the parts of the newspapermen and the corrupt governing system, but out of some sort of utter hatred for the world. Some may find nihilism and fatalism funny, but here it crams the other elements against the wall. Wilder made his career revealing the skuzzy side of the world to the audience with black-humor. Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard spring immediately to mind when you think of cultural skewering and reversal of expectation. But towards the end of his career, Billy had started to see the world through smoked glass. That antagonism spilled into his work and literally weighed it down (just as it would in Fedora and Buddy Buddy).

For those like myself who believe that bad Billy Wilder is better than no Billy Wilder at all, The Front Page is hardly an appalling waste of time, but far from honorable satire. Maybe if Wilder had updated it to the decade in which it were made, the culture shock may have been lessened, the jokes seeming a little more biting with current issues addressed. But the idea of a “Red”, who’s reputation was made for sticking “Release Sacco and Vanzetti” into fortune cookies would have been too trite for 1929. In 1974, it was almost insulting and doesn’t adequately translate. (Although the idea that Williams got beaten up by a crowd of pimps for trying to get hookers to unionize is definitely funny.)

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “Tell me, Mr. Williams, were you unhappy as a child?”

Earl Williams: “Not really. I had a perfectly normal childhood.”

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with you mother.”

Earl Williams: [to Sheriff Hartman] “If he's gonna talk dirty ...”

Even Billy himself would admit that The Front Page was, despite its moderate box office success, a mild misfire. “I'm against remakes in general,” he said, (Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Charlotte Chandler, 2002.) “Because if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it? . . . It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of.”

It wasn’t the remake status that held The Front Page back. The themes are universal even today in the era of information saturation: political malfeasance and nonfeasance; reporters out for blood to smear across their headlines (or click-through links) and the weariness that comes from a slow loss of soul; equally bloodthirsty readers ready to form a pitchfork-bearing Simpsons mob at the slightest change of wind, seeing injustice in jaywalking and racism in Neopolitan ice cream.

Think what Hecht and MacArthur would make of today’s “journalism”? Live blogging from anywhere, just so you can say “First”. (“First” being the new scoop.) Letters to the editor morphed into virulant posts left on Yahoo! News, revealing the basest of all human traits as misanthropy spews across the screen. Aside from the technology, nothing has changed since 1928, certainly not human behavior when one thinks nobody is looking. 

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