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Tuesday 2 December 2008

The Front Page (1974)

Third time would normally be the charm for anything if Billy Wilder directed it, especially with a cast like the one he has here. However even Wilder's up against it with this version of this Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play, given the two classic versions that predate it. The original was one of the great precodes and one of the great early talkies, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. The remake was a Howard Hawks film and one of the best comedies Hollywood ever made, His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. There were other versions in between, even one with Sid James, but they don't matter too much. It's testament to the power of His Girl Friday and the original The Front Page that even this one can't stand up to them.

The story is like an old friend now. Hildy Johnson is a reporter and a damn fine one, but he's quitting the business to get married to a beautiful girl called Peggy Grant whose father is going to give him a position in his advertising agency. His boss at the Examiner, Walter Burns, doesn't want him to quit and does everything he can to keep him on the staff, stooping as low as visiting Peggy in the guise of Hildy's 'parole officer', all so that he can cover the Williams hanging, the biggest story in town. Earl Williams is a cop killer, though about as sympathetic as a cop killer could be, being manhandled through the judicial process by a corrupt sheriff and an even more corrupt mayor.

Billy Wilder put a stunning cast together for his version, led by Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns. They're both excellent (Matthau is better but Lemmon gets by far the most screen time), but they're aided no end by a serious set of supporting actors, especially Johnson's fellow journalists in the press room at the criminal court, hardly surprising as Hecht and MacArthur were newspapermen themselves. Like all journalists in the picture they're each gifted with wonderful dialogue, but they're good enough to make it sparkle: Charles Durning, David Wayne, Dick O'Neill and the rest.

In comparison Susan Sarandon gets very little opportunity to do anything as Peggy and Jon Korkes is annoying as the newbie Burns chooses to replace Johnson in the press room, well, to annoy him. Vincent Gardenia is memorable as the sleazy and incompetent sheriff, 'Honest' Pete Hartman, who put Johnson through a couple of appeals just so he could hang him right before election day, running on a law and order ticket, sinking as low as to send the man who arrives with a reprieve from the governor to a cathouse so they can hang Williams anyway. The other gem in the supporting cast is Austin Pendleton as Earl Williams. He doesn't get a lot of dialogue but he carries it all off very well indeed, even though this is very early in his career.

Also in the film, right at the very end, is a short appearance by Allen Jenkins, who appeared in the original run of The Front Page on Broadway, with Lee Tracy. Why he wasn't in the 1931 film I don't know, especially as his frequent cinematic partner in crime, Frank McHugh, was. I can only assume that he was very new to Hollywood at the time, with only one screen credit in 1931, his first year of many in the business. I first experienced his work as Officer Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons without having a clue who he was, only later becoming a big fan of his Warner Brothers work in the thirties and onward. When he made this film, he was 74 years old and this was his first appearance on screen in seven years. He died 11 days later.

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