Monday, 15 June 2009

The Front Page (1931)

And so another one bites the dust! As my readers know I have this famous not-so-little list of films that I really want to see and I finally got to view (courtesy of friend Richard) this original screen version of Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthurs's famous stage play. It's best-known incarnation is the role-reverse version "His Girl Friday" (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, which puts paid to the theory that remakes are never any good. I am also quite fond of the Billy Wilder remake using the original title from 1973 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the leads. There has also been a more recent and dismissable version set in a television studio. However the first adaptation from the early sound era has eluded me until now.

First off I must say that I was delighted to have the opportunity of viewing it in a relatively clean print, although the sound-track (very important for so verbal a movie) could have been better. The director Lewis Milestone used his skills with a swirling camera to make it seem less of a stage adaptation despite being locked largely into a single set. Both the director and the film were Oscar-nominated as was Adolphe Menjou in the lead role (although I'll be dipped if I know why) -- not that any of them won. Menjou plays the crafty editor Walter Burns and the Hildy Johnson part is taken by Pat O'Brien in his first lead role -- and far better a role than much of the minor movies which made up his long career. The script is very similar to the 1940 version, although one feeels in retrospect that Grant had rather more screen time, presumably because of the strength of his playing (and he wasn't Oscar-nominated!). The one difference is the pre-code inclusion of some swear words which don't jar overly in the machine-gun pace of the dialogue.

The movie also features a number of character roles for some long-lost faces and the showiest of these are given to Walter Catlett, Frank McHugh, and in a wonderful bit of casting as a fusspot (an image that haunted him throughout his career) Edward Everett Horton. The depiction of a newsroom set up at the scene of a would-be hanging is a wonder, as the various reporters embroider the actual facts to make their stories more readable -- much like today? And the pompous self-interest of politicians is also portrayed, making the screenplay as timely as ever. I guess on balance I would vote for the 1940 version as the best of the three, but one really needs to have seen this early one to fully appreciate the success of that film. So thanks again Richard for helping me enlarge my cinematic education.
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