Comedy

The Politics of the Front Page

Fools! Resistance is futile
Pat O’Brien (right) is no match for the calculating Adolphe Menjou (left).

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Politics of the Front Page

  1. I do tend to enjoy Alolphe Menjou although I recently saw Paths Of Glory and Stage Door so it is time again to see him in a comedy. I have seen His Girl Friday many times but haven’t watched this movie yet. I believe The front page was originally a stage play. Do you know if the Walter Mattahu Jack Lemmon movie is the same story? Thanks for another great post.

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    1. I think the Matthau/Lemmon version is the same story, but I haven’t seen it. They would be terrific! Yes, the original story was a Broadway play, and was a hit, too, apparently. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. The Front Page was one of the first films that I purchased on VHS — so you can imagine how long ago that was — and I still have not seen more than the first 10 minutes or so. I don’t know why — can’t help comparing it to His Girl Friday, maybe? Anyway, your post has made me determined to dust off my tape and check it out soon! Good stuff!

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    1. “His Girl Friday” is such a terrific film – Howard Hawks worked magic with the story. It’s just too bad “The Front Page” has some audio issues, but if you’re patient I believe it’s worth it. Thanks for the visit!

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  3. What’s even more amazing to me is that Adolphe Menjou was a last minute replacement for Walter Burns. Louis Wolheim was originally cast, but his untimely death left the door open for Menjou. In his autobiography Pat O’Brien said that the rest of the cast was prepared to hate Menjou because they were crazy about Wolheim. Really a tough position for an actor to be in, but Adolphe Menjou let everybody know he was a regular guy and they pulled off a wonderful, wonderful movie.

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  4. I sound like a total rookie here, but I had no idea His Girl Friday was a remake. It was the very first “classic film” I ever saw when I was about 10 years old. I watched it with my Grandmother, who was a HUGE Cary Grant fan, on PBS at her farm. That was the day I fell in love with old movies. It was a great day. 🙂

    So, all these years later, I am VERY excited to learn about The Front Page. I can’t WAIT to get a hold of this film. Thank you SO much for this post!!!! xoxoxoxo

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    1. Wow – that is quite an introduction to classic movies. “My Girl Friday” is such a great film! I didn’t learn about “The Front Page” until recently, either, so we’re in the same boat. 🙂

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  5. As usual, this is another wonderful and insightful post! I have never heard much about this film, while My Girl Friday holds a very special place in my heart. However, after reading your write up on this film, this is another picture that I am adding on my to watch list!!!

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  6. I have not seen this first version but like your excellent article, others I have read have said good things about it as well. I love HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Grant and Russell are superb. The Wilder version i saw way back in the 70’s and remember liking it but really need to catch it again to make a judgement. Hope this film gets the makeover it deserves.

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