It may sound distinctly familiar to anyone who's seen one particular all-time classic screwball comedy called His Girl Friday, but because it's the same eternally ripe material by the same Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and because it's in the hands of one of the wittiest filmmakers of Hollywood's Golden Age, it all feels fresh. We escape right into the world of the Chicago press room of the 1920s where a few shy of a dozen case-hardened crime reporters lean on desks and play cards, snapping their suspenders and sputtering out the wet ends of their cigars. We are in a new generation of faces, look and style watching a movie made in 1974. But the talent in front of the camera includes the inimitable presence of Lemmon, Matthau, Charles Durning, Allen Garfield, Vincent Gardenia and Carol Burnett, as well as other duly fast-talking character actors. Were it not for the snappy energy and comic veteranship these performers bring to their roles, and Wilder's old-school deference to the primacy of the writing, The Front Page delivers virtually the same neat, fast-paced pick-me-up vibes as the quintessential classic wisecracking comedy and the quintessential classic picture about Chicago in the 1920s: About scoophungry police reporters, dishonest politicians, a fugitive who exhausts half the film hidden in a rolltop desk in the very press room where a parade of frantic folks are wearing out the subject of where he could be.
In His Girl Friday, Chicago was never ever named. In this version, Wilder reinstates direct inclusion of the Sheriff of Cook County, the Mayor of Chicago, the newspapers and so on. And there are no milquetoast newspaper fictions like the Chicago Globe. We are ingenuously stepping back in time and seeing all the real names, The Daily News, the Tribune, and actual front pages as well. I mean, sounds apt to me. Here, Wilder is a great storytelling pragmatist as always: The Front Page just couldn't be set in the present day. Journalism isn't like that anymore.
In those days, the days when Wilder himself was one of those half dozen or so stringers, he and they slipped any amount of bills, stayed up however many nights, punched however many keys it took to get a story, and never more so than in Chicago. I wonder if the Chicago reporters were more cynical because Chicago itself was more cynical and crooked. The nature of this breed of reporter is anchored in circulation wars and Hearst's yellow sins. The soul-crushing corruption and propaganda is ever present now, just more sophisticated, gentrified and spun well, where as in these times, it literally was a racket, and there probably wasn't a newspaper town in the country more aggressive and exhilarating than Chicago. This also gives the material leeway in pulling some pretty nifty little take-offs on fads of the time, such as Freudian psychiatry, as represented by the character of Dr. Eggelhofer, to whom everything seems to be a phallic symbol.
Wilder and his long-time screen writing partner I.A.L. Diamond sprinkle in a few allusions to other major scoops of the era, like the New York Daily News photos of Ruth Judd in the electric chair and the Leopold-Loeb case. Oh and of course the Chicago fire, which the gang of newspaper bloodhounds insist to their contacts isn't as big a story as the one about the escapee. But on the whole, Wilder and Diamond are careful what they change, and not much has been. The original basic structure of The Front Page is as sturdy as any drum-tight, bullet-paced farce. You can't change or even anachronize the death-row escapee hiding in the desk. Austin Pendleton's nebbishy version is no better than John Qualen in His Girl Friday, just an inimitable variation.
And when there are changes, like the addition of a bullied baby-face rookie reporter, we realize we're not watching a farce of the same economy and crispness like those in the time of Hawks and McCarey. It's such a more modern touch to add this figure simply to underline the veterans' contempt for the naïve collegians that it's almost like peering behind the magician's curtain. Regardless, we are watching Wilder and Diamond handling Hecht and Macarthur, and the razor-sharp exchanges, the tempo and the structure have been upheld. You could sum up the whole gist of the movie in the most transitory moments, when the flock of correspondents dashes to the windows, searchlights seek and sirens screech, and the reporters dash back to their candlestick teleophones and bark the tried and true standbys: "Give me city desk!" "Stop the presses!" "Tear up the front page!" "We've located Williams! This time for real!"
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