MUBI Movies: THE FRONT PAGE (1931)

A look at the first film version of an oft-told tale.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (playing on MUBI right now). While it was the first film to adapt the famous play, it has been way overshadowed by the onscreen adaptations to follow.

And I can’t even tell you it doesn’t deserve it. Not for its own lack of quality (it is outstanding), but for the sheer cultural force of those to come later. His Girl Friday is an absolute behemoth of classic cinema, a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring the likes of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In addition to all that genius came the idea of turning protagonist Hildy Johnson into a woman and making the dark workplace comedy an acerbically romantic battle of the sexes as well. The film is charm incarnate and totally deserves its axiomatic spot as one of the greatest comedies of all time.

So revered is His Girl Friday that it even dwarfs a later Billy Wilder adaptation starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. Such a thing should be unheard of. The combo of Wilder, Matthau and Lemon is the stuff of legend, and yet their The Front Page is a mere footnote next to the magnitude of Hawks’ film.

This is as it should be, but it also leaves Milestone’s original cinematic adaptation sitting in the dust, waiting for extra curious cinephiles to discover its greatness. The film can never achieve the acclaim of its successors, but that doesn’t mean it does not deserve examination.

For one thing, The Front Page is both a pre-Code film and one of the earlier “talkies”. On the former score, it’s not going to shock modern viewers in any way, but the cavalier attitude The Front Page shows toward death and sex and political corruption is refreshing and eye opening in the context of such an early film. It’s also severely offensive when it comes to its treatment of women. This is a comedy about “men” at “work” and its views on how women interrupt that are way out of date and crazy.

On the other hand, the film really doesn’t have a kind word for anyone. All versions of The Front Page are dark comedies, but this one is the meanest. For those unfamiliar with the general plot, Hildy Johnson is a hot shot investigative reporter on the eve of giving up the game to go get married in New York and live a respectable life, against the deep admonishment of his terrifying, powerful and totally immoral boss Walter Burns. The night all this goes down happens to also be the night an accused murderer is to be executed. The murderer gets free and Hildy has to resist the story of the century. Of course, he cannot.

Most of the film is set in a press room, filled with smoking, sniveling, complaining reporters who just want to get their copy turned in and go home, who cares if a man’s life is on the line. The Front Page has a curious respect for their profession, even while portraying newspaper men as near-crooked jerks. No one, save Hildy’s bride to be, is allowed the indignity of a kind word to another. The communication is always acidic, usually shouted. This appears to be how the world of The Front Page shows affection, and while bracing at first, it also feels like a precursor to the comedy of Veep and In the Loop.

Which is to say it’s hilarious. The quips come fast and furious (though perhaps not as fast as they do in His Girl Friday), and it’s a joy just to sit back and take it all in. It’s a cold, ugly world, but at least it’s being reported to us by equally cold and ugly people who are up to the task.

No, it’s not His Girl Friday, but this is a very special film all fans of the Hawks film (not to mention the incredible Billy Wilder version) should check out for themselves. It is cold, mean, and absolutely delightful. See it on MUBI now!

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