If you need proof that bromance in the movies is nothing new, you need search no further than the 1931 screen adaptation of The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone. Adapted from a 1928 play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the story is set about 15 years earlier, during Chicago’s circulation wars, when hired thugs working for the various papers used intimidation and violence to “persuade” newsstand owners to carry the paper they represented, and not those of their rivals. Although both the play and film are comedies, this rough side of the newspaper business is the context in which the primarily male cast members thrive.
Most of the action takes place in the Press Room of the Criminal Courts Building in a city clearly modeled on Chicago, although a title card says the story takes place in a “mythical kingdom” (a change required by the censors). The Press Room serves as a men’s club for journalists from Chicago’s seven dailies, who hang out, play cards, eat sloppily, strum the banjo, and use the free telephones provided to phone in news reports to their papers. They have no use for dames, other than in the girlie pictures that adorn the walls, and even the elderly cleaning woman is subject to harassment when she shows up with her mop and pail.
Indeed, it’s an all-male paradise, free of the domesticating influences of women, created not on a raft floating down the Mississippi River but in the midst of one of America’s largest cities. Each newspaperman is identified by broad characteristics and mannerisms, almost as if they were individual vaudeville acts, and collectively they form a band of brothers dedicated to preserving their little corner of paradise.
If these men as a group are bonded with each other, there’s one true bromance that outshines them all. That is the relationship between Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), editor of the Herald Examiner and his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien). But a serpent has crept into paradise in the form of Hildy’s fiancé, Mary Brian (Peggy Grant), who has bewitched him into thinking he’d want to marry her, move to New York, and work in public relations, rather than spend the rest of his life hanging out with his bros and churning out newspaper copy.
As the film begins, the newspapermen are awaiting execution of Earl Williams (George E. Stone), sentenced to death for shooting a black policeman in part because the mayor is courting the black vote in an upcoming election. The newspapermen are inconvenienced from time to time by bumbling authority figures, including the sheriff (Clarence Williams) and the mayor (James Gordon), but remain largely impervious to attempts to require them to acknowledge anyone’s authority but their own.
The main plot lines involve Burns’ attempts to win Hildy back from his bride, and of Burns and Hildy to scoop the other newspapermen on the Williams story. The real point of the film, however, is the fast-paced dialogue (some consider this the first screwball comedy) within the general atmosphere of boyish anarchy in the newsroom.
Milestone does an outstanding job opening up The Front Page, remaining true to the spirit of the original without making the film feel like a filmed play. Particularly in the first 20 minutes, many locations are used, including a rather daring shot of the interior of the bordello where another newsroom visitor, Mollie Malloy (Mae Clarke), is employed. Even when the film remains within the newsroom, Milestone uses camera movement and expert staging to prevent the film from feeling static. Despite what you may read in some film history books, directors quickly found ways to incorporate movement in films using sound cameras, and there’s a great deal to be learned about cinematography from watching The Front Page with the sound off.
The Front Page was released during the so-called “pre-Code” era, which lasted from introduction of the first talkies in 1927 to the creation of the Hays Code in 1934. Filmmaking in this era was governed by the Production Code of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors America (MPPDA), and censors generally worked from screenplays rather than the prints of films about to be released. That means that while many “bad words” had to be cut, along with direct references to forbidden subjects, photos of nude women on the walls could (and did) slip through as long as they weren’t mentioned in the screenplay. This approach to censorship also explains the tin can hanging over the entrance to a room just off the press room—when the MPPDA objected to the explicit portrayal of a toilet on screen, the producers hung up a can to signify the entrance to the “can”, or bathroom.
This release of The Front Page has been restored by the Library of Congress, using a print from in East Germany. The picture in general is outstanding, but the sound often is not. That’s a problem, given the importance of the dialogue in this film, and it’s particularly disappointing that no subtitles have been provided to help fill in the missing words when the dialogue is inaudible.
Extras on the DVD include an informative commentary by film historian Bret Wood and two radio adaptations of The Front Page: one from 1937 (60 min.), starring Walter Winchell, and one from 1946 (30 min.), starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien. The DVD jacket mentions a documentary about film preservation at the Library of Congress, but no such documentary was included in the disc I reviewed.