The Front Page (1931) – reviewed by George

This is structured like a screwball comedy, but I only laughed once.
The corrupt mayor (played by James Gordon) and the corrupt sheriff (Clarence H. Wilson) of a large midwestern city have created a “press room”, complete with telephones for every newspaper in town, and desks and chairs for the assigned reporters, on the fourth or fifth floor of a building across the street from “The Death House” – the jail where condemned men wait to be hanged. Most of the film takes place in this press room while the reporters wait, stymied for something meaningful to do between now and tomorrow’s scheduled execution. So they do a whole lot of unmeaningful stuff.
While the executioners practice with a rope and a weighted bag, because the neck of the last man hanged didn’t break (so he suffocated slowly), the reporters sit around and whine about the 7 a.m. time for tomorrow’s hanging. They want it to be at 5 a.m. so they can make the first edition of the day. They’re an unsympathetic bunch, complaining about everything, cheating whoever goes for food out of some money, playing tricks on each other, insulting each other, using slurs for blacks and women (I’ve read that the play had so much bad language that cleaning it up for movie audiences was really difficult), and perhaps most striking, calling in phony news to get the banner and a byline!
The condemned man this time is Earl Williams (George E. Stone), who has an alibi backed up by a witness, but because Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke) is a prostitute, no one believes her.
The sheriff says, “A death warrant for Earl Williams is a death warrant for every bum, truant, and unAmerican Red in this town!” So Earl is actually a proxy for all the people the sheriff hates, but can’t identify and arrest. About halfway through the movie Irving Pincus (Slim Summerville) appears, with a reprieve for Earl Williams signed, sealed, and sent by the governor. The sheriff and mayor bribe Earl to disappear with the reprieve, so the hanging can proceed.
The stars of this mess are Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns, the managing editor of the Tribune, and Pat O’Brien as his star reporter Hildy (short for Hildebrand) Johnson. AND Mary Brian as Hildy’s girl Peggy Grant, and Edward Everett Horton as Bensinger, a reporter for another paper and one of Hildy’s smartest competitors. Bensinger is the one who, in his take-out order, asks for “Plain lettuce on gluten bread!” And yes, gluten, which is found naturally in several grains and is a mixture of proteins, used to be considered a health food, before allergies and celiac disease turned up. I first mentioned this as a question in my review of “What’s New Pussycat”, posted on 1-29-16, because of a line for Pauula Prentiss, in which she claims to be a health food nut when it comes to alcohol – she drinks a lot of vodka and gluten.
The one time I laughed: the sheriff has accompanied a professor of psychiatry to see Earl Williams and the prof thinks a reenactment is just what Williams needs. He tells the sheriff to give Williams his (the sheriff’s) gun, and asks Williams, “What did you do next?” There’s a second for the audience to get ahead of the script – and then Williams shoots the professor.
This film was directed by Lewis Milestone, and the credits say “By Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from the play. Adaptation by Bartlett Cormack. Additional Dialogue by Charles Lederer.”
There have been three remakes: “His Girl Friday” 1940 – Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, “The Front Page” 1974 – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and “Switching Channels” 1988 – Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve. Maybe you should see one of them; I wish I had.

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