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The Front Page (1974) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • As a tabloid newspaper editor tries to prevent his top reporter from retiring, an escaped death row convict shows up at the office trying to convey his innocence.

  • When Hildy Johnson, the top reporter of a Chicago newspaper announces that he is quitting to get married, his editor, Walter Burns desperately tries to change his mind. When denial, cursing, and luring don't work, Walter resorts to tricks. It's the day before a supposed communist is to be hanged, and all Chicago waits with baited breath. Meanwhile, each of the papers has a man on the story trying to get a scoop or angle for themselves. With a train to catch at midnight to join his fiancé, Hildy is at first not interested, but events and his own habits work against him as the day unfolds, and he can't help but get roped in, especially when the man to be executed escapes and then almost literally falls into his lap.

  • Hildy Johnson is the top reporter on a Chicago newspaper during the 1920s. Tired of the whole game he's determined to quit his job to get married. His scheming editor, Walter Burns, has other plans though. It's the day before guilty (but insane) murderer, Earl Williams, is due to go to the gallows and Burns tempts Johnson to stay and write the story.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Chicago, Illinois, 1929.

    Outside a criminal courts building, police build a scaffold and bleachers for the public hanging of Earl Williams, who has been convicted of killing a policeman. Upstairs, reporters play poker in the press room. Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) calls from the Chicago Examiner, looking for reporter Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson (Jack Lemmon) to put him on the story, but he's not there. Walter leaves word that Hildy should immediately come to his office.

    Later, Hildy wanders into Walter's office at a leisurely pace and informs the editor that he's in love. Walter tells Hildy he wants him to cover the hanging the next morning and snap an illegal picture of the hanged man with a hidden camera. Minutes after the execution, an ambulance will be waiting for Hildy outside so that he can type his story in the back and beat the other newspapers to press with a morning extra. Hildy tells Walter he's quitting to get married and move to Philadelphia. He plans to take an advertising job so that he can spend time with his future wife instead of continuing as a workaholic reporter. Walter resents Hildy for betraying him, insisting that he taught Hildy everything he knows.

    Determined to keep Hildy in town and on the Williams story, Walter tracks down Hildy's fiancee, Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon), an organist who works at a movie theater. Posing as Otto Fishbein, a probation officer, he tells Peggy that Hildy is on probation and cannot legally move to another city. Hildy then calls his fiancee, and, over the phone, realizes that Walter is playing a trick. Hildy explains to Peggy that Fishbein is actually Walter, and she sends him away.

    At the criminal courts press room, Hildy's replacement, Rudy Keppler (Jon Korkes), arrives and informs the others that Hildy has left the business. Mollie Malloy (Carol Burnett) arrives moments later, and yells at the reporters for writing lies about her, claiming she is Williams' girlfriend. Mollie confesses that she had befriended Williams but was not his girlfriend. Unlike the reporters, Mollie believes that Williams didn't intentionally kill anyone. As Mollie leaves, Hildy shows up with drinks to celebrate his new advertising job. Just then, the sheriff (Vincent Gardenia) visits the press room to hand out tickets to the hanging. Hildy accuses the sheriff and mayor of reprieving Williams twice so that the hanging would take place just before an election. The sheriff insists that Williams is a communist who is very sane and shot the policeman to make a political statement. Hildy disagrees, claiming that Williams is "just a screwball."

    At the jailhouse, Williams (Austin Pendleton), a diminutive, soft-spoken man, is escorted to the sheriff's office for his final psychological examination. Williams calmly explains to Dr. Eggelhofer (Martin Gabel) that he once sent a bomb to J. P. Morgan's office on Wall Street, then contradicts himself by saying he loves people and would never abuse anyone. Eggelhofer borrows the sheriff's gun to demonstrate his theory about why Williams shot at the police officer.

    Upstairs, Hildy's celebration is interrupted by gunshots. Sirens blare, more shots are heard, and the reporters realize Williams has escaped. Hildy gets on the phone to tell Walter the news. The editor laments that Hildy is no longer reporting, but Hildy promises he's "right on top of it."

    Downstairs, the sheriff tells reporters about Williams' escape, but insists he doesn't know where the prisoner got a gun. Hildy runs into Jennie (Doro Merande), the building's janitor, who overheard the incident. She tells Hildy she had better not reveal what she overheard, as the sheriff would fire her. Meanwhile, the injured Eggelhofer's stretcher falls out of an ambulance. As the stretcher speeds down the street, Eggelhofer yells repeatedly that Williams is a "fruitcake."

    Hildy phones Walter to tell him what he's learned from Jennie, that Eggelhofer used the sheriff's gun to reenact the crime, and Williams stole it, shot Eggelhofer, and made his escape. Hildy then informs Walter that Peggy is picking him up in 15 minutes and he can no longer follow the story.

    The Mayor (Harold Gould) addresses reporters in his office and tells them he has utter faith in the sheriff. After the reporters leave, the Mayor reprimands the sheriff for letting Williams get away. A man named Plunkett (Paul Benedict) arrives and delivers a reprieve for Williams, sent by the Governor. The sheriff receives a phone call that police have trapped Williams. The Mayor tells Plunkett that the reprieve is not applicable because Williams has escaped custody, but he may try to serve the reprieve again tomorrow. The Mayor then sends orders, via the sheriff, for the police to "shoot to kill," now that Williams is in their sights.

    Headed for a night train to Philadelphia, Hildy joins Peggy in a taxi outside the courthouse. However, when he realizes he left the wedding rings, he runs back inside. There, Hildy finds the rings moments before Williams falls through a window and points a gun at him. Hildy reminds Williams that he conducted an interview with the convict at his jail cell a few days ago. Williams then passes out, and Hildy drags him to the bathroom, draws the curtains, and calls Walter to tell him that he has Williams in his custody. Mollie shows up, and Williams emerges at the sound of her voice. Hildy sends Peggy to pick up their luggage while he finishes up some last-minute business.

    Hildy hides Williams inside a roll-top desk when the other reporters demand entry to the press room. The men suspect Hildy is hiding something. To cover for Hildy, Mollie claims to know where Williams is, then jumps out the window. The reporters run outside to see if she's still alive. As the room clears, Walter appears at the door. He orders a delivery truck and six large men to move the desk, with Williams inside, to the Chicago Examiner office. Hildy types up a story while Walter takes Williams' picture and sends Keppler to develop the negative.

    Just then, Peggy returns to find Hildy typing away with Walter at his side. Distracted, Hildy suggests Peggy go to the train station ahead of him, and she leaves, dejected. When he finishes the story, Hildy becomes frustrated with Walter's persistence and heads off to the train station. Before he can leave, however, the sheriff shows up with the other reporters, all of whom accuse Hildy of hiding something. A policeman holds Hildy, while the sheriff demands Williams' whereabouts. The sheriff finally realizes Williams is inside the desk. Police escort Williams away, and the sheriff arrests Hildy and Walter for hiding the convict.

    In a jail cell, Hildy blames Walter for keeping him from Peggy. In a neighboring cell, Plunkett, who has been arrested for drunkenness, overhears Walter and informs him that he has Williams' reprieve. The Mayor arrives at the jail, and Walter presents him with the reprieve, accusing him of ignoring it so that he could hang Williams before the election. The Mayor lets Walter and Hildy out, and Walter arranges for Hildy to be rushed to the train station to meet Peggy. Just before the train pulls away, Walter gives Hildy his pocket watch as a gift for service to his newspaper. After the train pulls out of the station, Walter (crafty and evil to the end) arranges for Hildy to be arrested at the next stop for stealing his watch!

    The film closes with a series of texts that say that some time later, Hildy returned to the Chicago Examiner to become Managing Editor. Walter retired, lecturing from time to time at the University of Chicago on the ethics of journalism. Williams, now freed, got married to Mollie, and the two run a health-food store together.

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