How does Adolphe Menjou do it?
How is he able to portray a manipulative, callous backstabber and still be likable? Why do you almost want to cheer for this cold-hearted lizard?
We marvel over this every time we see a Menjou film, but we’re really wondering about it since we’ve seen The Front Page, a 1931 comedy-satire about newspapermen covering an execution.
Now, you wouldn’t think a hanging would be the subject of a comedy, but this script actually uses humour for its sharp critique of social issues. Hollywood felt the gamble paid off: The Front Page was nominated for three Academy Awards.
The film opens as workers test the rope on the gallows at a city jail; they are arguing about the tension needed to hang a prisoner. Across the street is a waiting room for the press, where “the boys” are gathered in anticipation of the execution. They play cards, trade insults and holler at the jail workers every time the weighted rope plunges through the floor of the gallows.
There are many people who are keenly interested in the timing of this execution. The reporters want the accused hanged at 5:00 a.m. so they’ll have the story printed in time for the morning papers. But the politicians want prison officials to wait until the following Tuesday which is just before a civic election.
Back to Menjou. He is a newspaper editor/tyrant who is trying to prevent his star reporter, Hildy (Pat O’Brien), from quitting the newspaper racket and moving to New York with his fiance. Menjou convinces O’Brien to stay long enough to write the story of the execution. He tells O’Brien that when the story is finished he is free to marry his fiance and catch the train to New York. O’Brien, the poor sucker, believes him and agrees to stay.
Here’s an example of Menjou at work. Naturally, O’Brien’s fiance leaves for New York without him and he mourns her departure, saying a girl like that comes along only once in a lifetime. “You’ll sleep it off,” replies Menjou with a shrug.
This movie is deliciously set up with satire and social commentary, and even the minor characters are really interesting. What more could you want in a movie?
Nothing! You think the movie is fine just as it is.
Then the prisoner escapes.
Because this film is over 80 years old and has not been remastered (to our knowledge), the sound quality is rather poor in places. It’s a shame because some actors deliver their lines quickly and you can just tell – darn it! – that you’ve missed a real zinger.
But its age does not obscure the truly innovative cinematography. There are some really interesting shot compositions and clever angles. The movie basically takes place in one room but it doesn’t feel closed in, thanks to Lewis Milestone‘s direction.
(Side note: Director Howard Hawks would remake this movie in 1940, but with some significant changes. The popular His Girl Friday stars Rosalind Russell as a female Hildy, and Cary Grant as her editor and meddlesome ex-husband.)
The Front Page provides social commentary that is as relevant today as it was in the early 1930s. It’s worth a look – if not for the wonderful cast and witty script, for Menjou’s performance alone.
The Front Page: starring Pat O’Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian. Written by Ben Hecht. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1931, 101 mins.