Oscar Vault Monday – The Front Page, 1931 (dir. Lewis Milestone)
This is one of those early transitioning to sound-era ceremonies where most of the films that were nominated for Best Picture are hard to watch by your average modern moviegoer. The technology was still catching up with itself and everything looks kind of raw. That being said, the stories were as great as ever. I chose The Front Page to discuss from this ceremony because its director Lewis Milestone was clearly trying to experiment with filming techniques regardless of the setbacks caused by the sound transition. The result is a film filled with really interesting camera movements and staging unlike most films made during this transitional era. Another interesting thing about this film is how many times this story was made into a film, this 1931 effort being the first. It’s based on a stage play of the same name by Ben Hect and Charles MacArthur, with the screenplay adapted by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Hect and MacArthur’s play was later adapted into Howard Hawk’s 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday – with a screenplay by Lederer, Hect and MacArthur, actually – and again in 1972 by Billy Wilder under its original name and a fourth time in 1988 under the name Switching Channels. The Front Page was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning none: Best Actor Adolphe Menjou, Best Director and Best Picture.
This was Lewis Milestone’s third nomination for Best Director. His nomination was for 1927’s Two Arabian Knights, for which he won Best Director (Comedy) (the only year that category existed). The second was for 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which won him his second Best Director Oscar, as well as winning for the Best Picture of the year. Milestone continued to direct films with moderate success until the early 1960s.
Adolphe Menjou is delightfully wicked as an unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns who will do anything for a scoop and is trying not to lose his star reporter to a horrible fate – marriage. Menjour received his only Academy Award nomination for his performance in this film, although he had a long career spanning nearly fifty years and 150 films. His role in the film is actually more of a supporting role, but at the time there was only lead acting categories. If this film had been made ten years later, he surely would have been nominated as Best Supporting Actor instead. In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant plays this role, but what makes Burns so much greater in The Front Page is the era in which the film was made – the Pre-Code era. Menjou’s Burns gets to play up the greed angle and this allows the film to keep the stage play’s biting social commentary.
Although Menjou wound up with the Oscar nomination for the film, it is O’Brien’s role as ace reported Hildy Johnson that is the film’s lead. Playing the role later gender-switched and famous by fast-talking Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, O’Brien gives a wonderfully energetic performance. Prior to this film O’Brien played mostly bit parts, but after the success of this film he continued for nearly six decades.
The film also contains a pool of wonderfully deceitful reporters, one of which is played by one of my favorite 1930s character actors – Edward Everett Horton. The whole crew of reporters who populate the pressroom are memorable in their owns ways, but Horton always manages to stand out from the pack.
Also different from His Girl Friday – and an example of the kind of racy things Pre-Code films could get away with – is the role of Molly. In this film she is clearly identified as a prostitute – something you couldn’t get away with in 1940. Mae Clarke is one of my favorite stars of Pre-Code era Hollywood. She is always great and her performance as Molly is no exception. She often pointed to this film as one of her favorites from her career.
I definitely think if you are a fan of His Girl Friday, or even if you’ve never seen it, that you should give this film a try. It is filled with such great criticism of the newspaper world and what a reporter or an editor will do for a scoop, for that big story to put on “the front page.” It’s a message that is in His Girl Friday, but gets kind of lost in the battle-of-the-sexes that rising from the gender-switching they did in that version.