Kino-Lorber’s classics division has released, on blu ray and DVD, a restored print of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play “The Front Page.” The film has been available on VHS, even 16mm film, years before this, but in very poor prints. This blu ray, mastered from top 35mm pre-print elements, is a huge improvement, with a sharper picture and crisper sound than any previous release.
The story deals with a group of fast talking reporters waiting to report on a hanging, and maintaining their narrative interest through a jailbreak, government intrusion, a main reporter’s romance, and the editor’s attempt to keep a star reporter on staff after he’s married. It is a fast-talking, witty, cynical look at crime, journalism, politics, and romance. And even after nearly 85 years, it maintains its impact.
It is difficult not to compare “The Front Page” to other screen versions of the Hecht-MacArthur play, especially the 1940 classic “His Girl Friday” which alters the story to have Hildy be a woman, adding a romantic element to the reporter’s relationship to the editor. The film was remade in a pleasant version featuring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and again, reworking its setting to TV news, as “Switching Channels” with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. The first is usually the best, and this 1931 version of “The Front Page” is certainly the most authentic screen version of the play.
Adolphe Menjou, Mae Clarke, Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, Walter Catlett, Mary Brian, George E. Stone, and Edward Everett Horton are among the welcome veterans filling out the cast. While the sharp, witty dialog crackles throughout the proceedings, there is an element of drama that permeates the underlying story. George E. Stone as the escaped convict, accused of murder but professing his innocence, does an emotional, creative turn in the role. Mae Clarke, as his moll, does an exceptional job with a character whose expressions waver from toughness to tenderness. O’Brien, a master at quick dialog, is solidly within his element in both serious and comical scenes. Lewis Milestone’s direction alternates between medium shots and long shots, with several hand-held camera sweeps that help facilitate the action.
As with most movies from the pre-code era, there are several historical elements to “The Front Page” that heighten its interest. It offers the framework that would be used for other newspaper stories on the screen. It shows the communication process among reporters and editors, relying on the phone and manual typewriters to get their message across. And it depicts crime and punishment, and the corruption of government officials, in a manner that might have been more difficult to put across once the production code was enforced a few years later. Since the last line of the play is “the son of a bitch stole my watch,” the last line of the film has the noise of a typewriter carriage drown out a portion of Menjou saying this line. Since this is a pre-code movie, some wonder if the line was dubbed out with noise originally. It was indeed. This is how the film played for movie audiences in 1931.
This Kino release also has several interesting bonus features. There is a fascinating documentary on how the Library of Congress preserved the movie, audio commentary by film historian Bret Wood, the 1937 radio adaptation starring Walter Winchell and presented by Cecil B. DeMille, and the 1946 radio adaptation with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien recreating the roles they’d played on screen 16 years later.
“The Front Page” is a classic pre-code feature with a great screenplay, excellent direction, and an outstanding cast. After a decades of readily available public domain prints that were all but unwatchable, having this important film available with such sharp, clear images on blu ray (and DVD) is most welcome.