Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) is the top reporter on a Chicago newspaper during the 1920s. Tired of the whole game he's determined to quit his job to get married. His scheming editor, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), has other plans though. It's the day before guilty (but insane) murderer, Earl Williams, is due to go to the gallows and Burns tempts Johnson to stay and write the story.
When I was getting my journalism degree and before I learned that newsrooms are sad places where dreams go to die, I pictured/hoped that working as a journalist was like Superman (who wouldn't want to work at "The Daily Planet") the Ron Howard film The Paper or like one of my favorite classic films His Girl Friday. I wanted to work in the environment where everyone talks in quippy phrases, all actions are weighted with important consequences and everything went so FAST. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were great in His Girl Friday and it was directed wonderfully by Howard Hawkes that it has become one of my favorite screwball comedies from this era.
Why have I talked so much about my career aspirations and my love for a Howard Hawkes film in our series for Billy Wilder? The reason is simple, I used to not like The Front Page because I compared it to a film I loved in His Girl Friday. The Front Page was a remake of the stage play that was then turned into a film and then remade as His Girl Friday so this version is the 3rd movie of the same story.
Was it a movie that needed to be made? Not at all and that is where I always got off the train with the film in the past. There was no reason to remake it since they perfected it last time and it was always going to be in the shadow of the all time classic. Yet, I watched it again this time with fresh eyes and with a goal not to compare it to His Girl Friday but look at it within Wilder's career had taken him at this time. When I did this, I found the movie to be an amusing 1:45 of my time. It is not one of Wilder's greats or even on the tier below but anytime Lemmon, Matthau and Wilder team up so far I have had a good time.
This is another time where Matthau steals all the good moments and leaves poor Lemmon to always be the straight man. I love how Wilder uses Matthau, much like he did in The Fortune Cookie, as that loveable guy that you would never trust if he was in your own life. Watching Matthau scream into the phone with that exasperated tone always amuses me and some of the other journalists in the courthouse were fun little Wilder characters.
I also liked how this movie lets it be known that it is set in Chicago in the 20s and goes to town with the corruption of the city at that time and how jaded the reporters would have been to it all. I think this is also one of the better uses of color that Wilder has used because some of the settings and scenes popped.
Danny, is this an enjoyable movie and nothing more or am I now being too kind to the film?
I, too, was a journalism major for a time, but I can't imagine being very envious of the grinding madness on display here. Walter Burns is fun to watch, but working for him must have been a nightmare.
Wilder's nostalgia tour of his own life and career is certainly at play in The Front Page. Besides his own experience as a newspaperman in the 20's, we also get plenty of jazz infused hijinks that heavily recall Some Like It Hot, and the Matthau/Lemmon teamup we've seen once before and will certainly see again. To top it off, there's slapstick, gun play, and a rather noticeable amount of profanity. While he's made better movies recently, this is probably the most 'Wilder' picture we've gotten as of late.
As much as it tries to zip, though, I can't help but see the creakiness of the story shine through. This is the seventh filmed version of the stage play, and while Wilder opens it up (and adds in some fun psychoanalyst psychobabble), I could never shake the feeling that I was watching a stagy period piece. The Sting had hit it big just a few years earlier, and the film's colors and styling color this wholesale. Hell, they even share a few of the same actors!
Lemmon and Matthau are good here-- and, jeez, how young was Susan Sarandon when this was made?-- but I can't shake the feeling that there was far too much time of them spent apart. Oddly, when they stay true to the play is when the film slows down the most. Oh, also-- man, what was Carrol Burnett doing during this film? She only has two settings the entire time: shrill and shriller.
I think my biggest problem with The Front Page is that it's kind of a hollow movie. When all is said and done, what's the point? Considering the horrific nature of the newspapermen and politicians here, it's hard to believe it's aiming at any deeper meaning. I wish Wilder had found something deeper to imbue the movie with, because otherwise it's just a lark.
But not a terrible lark. I don't think you're being too kind, Ryan. Am I being too mean?
I can't believe it was the seventh filmed version of the play. At this time that play couldn't have been more than 40 years old and doing the same story that many times is crazy. You say it was nostalgia on Wilder's part but he also had to have a lot of hubris to think that his version was going to be so great to stick out from the crowd of films based on the same story. As good as the story and characters are, it is a heavy burden to its actors to try to make something done 6 times before fresh. I think this might be part of the problem with it being a bit creaky because the story needed years to rest. I have never cared much for The Sting but I do see the similarities between the movie and with that the freshness is now a step further away from the film.
I also agree with you with Carol Burnett because she was just laughably bad in this film. I would have loved to see Burnett have a different role in a Wilder film because the two should work so well together but her character her is just not in her wheelhouse. Did she panic when she couldn't get the role down and decide just to yell all her lines and overact? Never have I been so happy to see a character jump out a window.
I don't think you are being too harsh on the film and I think we see the same faults with the movie, I just happened to go with the flow the last time I watched it and had a good time watching some great actors do their things in a movie that would have been terrible without them. One last thing, how great was it to see that Wilder could still do a great ending line perfectly?
It was a great last line, it's just too bad that it was followed by that tired 'here's what happened to our characters after this' gag at the end. It's about as hoary as they come, and robs the film of any momentum or message it was striving for.
The Front Page is amusing if ultimately pointless. It was like when Wilder made Stalag 17: an easy way to make good box office and recoup some credibility. If we ended things here, I would even say he went out on more or less a high note. But we've got two more movies, Ryan. Two. More. Movies.
I have not seen the last two movies and I have heard bad things but I have been enjoying his last few films so I have hope for the end. While The Front Page and Avanti weren't his best I was not bored watching them. I have seen careers falter much worse in the end, hopefully Wilder can continue this decent run with Fedora and Buddy Buddy.