Sunday 1 February 2009

Front Page Woman (1935)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Bette Davis and George Brent

There's nothing like a thirties movie from Warner Brothers to guarantee a fast paced ride with plenty of fast lines and a dash of social issues to boot. Bette Davis saw her career stuck in these films for quite some time but they're not usually as bad as you might expect. Admittedly they're hardly Oscar material but it's rare to find one that doesn't elicit solid response from the viewer on at least some level and this one is no exception, because of some blistering sarcasm, the sort of cruel jibes that often populated thirties newsroom stories for hard boiled reporters to shrug off.

The point here is for Bette Davis to address the concept of a female reporter, in the form of Ellen Garfield who works for the Star. She knows the business, not only by working for the Star but because her fiance is the ace reporter for the Express, Curt Devlin by name. He's played by George Brent and the pair of them play very well against each other, both as lovers and as professionals. They're both jovial and light hearted as they pursue their various stories, but Brent tries a little too hard on occasion. Surprisingly, given that the film is called Front Page Woman, there are long stretches that focus on him and not her.

We begin with her though, trying to prove that women can be newsmen just as good as the men by covering an electrocution. Of course she faints while reading her story down the wire to her paper, yet more proof in her boyfriend's eyes that she isn't cut out for the job. He's a shameless male chauvinist but then this was 1935 and so was pretty much anyone else. He still calls her 'tidbit' though and I can't help but wait for Bette Davis to belt him one. Luckily it's Ellen Garfield receiving the insult. To get past this impasse, both use a current case to outdo the other, each for their own agenda: if she wins, she gets to be as good a reporter as he is, but if he wins he'll persuade her to quit the business and settle down to be a housewife.

The case itself is reasonably basic, but neatly done with standard Warner Brothers panache. An apartment fire produces an extra story: a murder. Marvin Q Stone made it out of the burning building but is murdered soon after. Garfield and Devlin hop, skip and jump ahead of each other discovering each new clue: where he went, who he went with, where the girl is, where the murder weapon is, the real stories behind the case. Both characters are get plenty of shots in the battle and the real question is not who's going to win but what that means for the central angle of the film, the feminist angle.

Davis and Brent are solid, more Davis than Brent, whose always did a good job but who has been mostly lost to posterity while his co-star here became a legend. Best of all is Joseph Crehan, who is great as Spike Kiley, Garfield's fast talking city editor at the Star, and he had to be great to stay above the ever dependable Roscoe Karns stealing scenes every which where as Devlin's photographer. Other familiar faces include those of J Carrol Naish and J Farrell MacDonald, among others.

Really though the acting pales beside the film itself. It isn't a great work of cinematic art though director Michael Curtiz does a highly capable job and the writers of the dialogue (perhaps mostly Laird Doyle) go to town with their insults, including a jaw dropping scene with blistering lines aimed at what could only be described in modern parlance as a bull dyke. Times have certainly changed. What really leaps out of this film is what the newsmen get up to get their scoops. How far into blatantly illegal territory? How far to screw over the opposition, even when they're engaged to be married to that opposition? This is amazing stuff but I wonder how much of it is amazing for the reasons intended.

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