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FRONT PAGE, THE(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: from the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur/I.A.L. Diamond; cinematographer: Jordan S. Cronenweth; editor: Ralph E. Winters; cast: Jack Lemmon (Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson), Walter Matthau (Walter Burns), Susan Sarandon (Peggy Grant), Vincent Gardenia (‘Honest Pete’ Hartman Sheriff of Clark County), David Wayne (Roy Bensinger of the Tribune), Allen Garfield (Kruger), Austin Pendleton (Earl Williams), Carol Burnett (Molly Malloy), Harold Gould (The Mayor/Herbie/Green Hornet), Martin Gabel (Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer), Cliff Osmond (Officer Jacobi), Dick O’Neill (McHugh), Jon Korkes (Rudy Keppler), Herbert Edelman (Schwartz), Charles Durning (Murphy), Paul Benedict (Plunkett), Doro Merande (Jennie the Janitor), John Furlong (Duffy), Allen Garfield (Kruger), Lou Frizzell (Endicott); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Paul Monash; Universal Pictures; 1974)
“Too much of it seemed stretched thin and unfunny.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the third time the 1928 Ben Hecht – Charles MacArthur play The Front Page was adapted into film and is the least inspiring version, with Howard Hawks’s version in 1940 called His Girl Friday being the best and the original version in 1931 by Lewis Milestone being the respectable second best. Billy Wilder (“Irma La Douce”/”The Spirit of St. Louis”/”Ace in the Hole”) vulgarizes the farce without any benefits added and adds a more colorful salty language from its production code day versions that gives it a more mod feel but can’t get it past feeling stagebound and lacking either conviction or any credible point in its overly loud cynical outbursts–futilely stuck trying to have fun with newsman who manipulate the headlines to sell papers and flame the emotions of the public. Though funny in spots thanks to the usual competent performances by Wilder regulars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, too much of it seemed stretched thin and unfunny.

Jack Lemmon is ace-reporter Hildy Johnson and Walter Matthau is his ruthless intimidating newspaper-editor Walter Burns on Chicago’s Examiner, in the late 1920s. On the eve of Hildy’s departure to Philadelphia to marry the widow movie theater organist Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon) and take a safe executive job in her relative’s advertising agency, Burns pulls every underhanded trick to keep him. The plot revolves around framed timid radical Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) set to be hanged for killing a “colored” cop a few days before the election in corrupt Chicago, and escaping when the dumb inept political hack sheriff (Vincent Gardenia) hands him a gun when the mad Viennese psychiatrist (Martin Gabel) insists on re-enacting the crime. Earl has been put through the ringer by the yellow press who falsely label him a Red Menace taking his orders from Moscow, when his most daring act was only to stuff fortune cookies with messages calling for the freedom of Sacco and Vanzetti and his only problem is that he’s demented. The governor has given Earl a last minute reprieve and then can’t be reached because he’s shacking up with his mistress; the crooked mayor (Harold Gould) ignores the stay of execution because he wants to get the “colored” vote.

What gives the film some needed spark was the Gentlemen of the Press (such as Charles Durning, Herbert Edelman, Allen Garfield), holding forth in the Criminal Courts Building’ press room and acting as a profane Greek chorus to the events and the ongoing battle of wits between Burns and Hildy. There’s one reporter from the Tribune ostracized for being so unmanly and prissy, played by David Wayne for laughs at the character’s expense as he’s put through a homosexual stereotype rigmarole that was tasteless but probably reflected the stunted humor prevalent in the 1920s and 1970s toward gays.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”