Key to the 1930s newspaper comedy is the disjuncture between the hermetic bubble of the press room, where typists fire away at their machines and local stories get barked back and forth, and the vast, abstracted, presumably filthy world that lies outside it. The Front Page, the film that many credit as the subgenre’s catalyst, puts this internal/external split front and center. Lewis Milestone’s direction emphasizes the closed-off quarters of the Chicago news office to such a stifling degree that the camera almost never leaves. On the rare occasion that it does, a preponderance of frames within frames—shots through car windows, compositions that place concrete walls all around the subjects—underline the idea that the newspapermen who work in this ’round-the-clock industry can never really escape it. In a telling shot that gets repeated throughout, the team of fast-talking reporters reacts to something on the street below their elevated office and Milestone tracks from inside to outside, at which point the men are seen boxed in by the window frames. (Point-of-view shots, if they’re provided at all, are correspondingly partial and inadequate.)
Milestone’s commitment to this visual insularity represents an admirable stab at approximating the existential prison in which his characters, in some cases self-deceptively, reside. Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), a high-strung newsman with a bad case of work/life imbalance, talks a big game about his prospective marriage to his sweetheart, Peggy (Mary Brian), and relocation to New York, but the minute a potential headline opportunity arises, he’s ready to drop everything. His domineering editor, Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), captured early on in a proto-Kubrickian backward dolly shot that gives the man a monumentalizing angle to match his self-worth, maintains a calm façade, if only to conceal the professional manipulations he practices as second nature; putting vice grips on his best employees, he believes, ensures the success of his paper. The irony in all this is that real news, the kind worth reporting, isn’t prone to waft up into the press room unaided, so the reporters—all competing for attention from a phantom audience, yet ever-so-willing to loudly bat around ideas anyhow—have to invent or embellish stories.
Thus, the joke of the script is that Hildy and Walter miraculously do get a break when an escaped death-row inmate, played by George E. Stone, finds his way into their office and presents tantalizing indications that he may not be guilty after all. Sensing the potential for a readership, but still unsure of an angle to take, they hide their subject in a desk to stall for time. In every adaptation of The Front Page, it’s business as usual with a strong undercurrent of unresolved psychological sparring from this point on: Howard Hawks, in switching Hildy’s gender, took the opportunity to tease out screwball romance brewing beneath Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s borderline antagonistic collaboration in 1940’s His Girl Friday, while Billy Wilder, as was his wont, located the bitterness at the heart of Hildy and Walter’s symbiosis in 1974’s The Front Page. Milestone simply watches in awe as Menjou’s suave schemer tricks O’Brien’s weak-willed dreamer into lying to himself about his true aspirations. In the film’s most electric scenes, Milestone and cinematographer Glen MacWilliams orchestrate speedy 360-degree dolly movements around the table in the center of the press room as Hildy and Walter verbally brawl—the former proclaiming his love for Peggy, the latter breaking down the benefits and costs of his various potential courses of action. From our vantage point, the exchanges have small stakes (with his tactical finesse, Walter could surely recruit another writer for the story, and Hildy’s ideal path is paved by a beautiful woman), but the camerawork dredges up the tragicomic undertone that these are the decisions around which these reporters’ universes orbit.
Much of The Front Page, however, lacks this dynamism, a point largely attributable to the fidelity with which Milestone treats Hecht’s verbose screenplay. Where Hawks would search for something more musical in the rhythms of Hecht’s words with overlapping voices and offbeat inflections, Milestone cultivates a nasally, top-of-the-lungs shout almost uniformly across the cast and respectfully gives each performer their chance to finish their lines before the next one speaks. The result is a paradoxically static atmosphere despite all the gregarious banter, one in which the cast members, in the more rote instances, seem unconnected to one another emotionally, instead simply waiting for their cue to open their mouths. Furthermore, Milestone’s direction is only sporadically inspired. Several clever uses of layered deep focus, in which cast members pop into the foreground or suddenly crowd the background, and occasionally exuberant tracking shots are far outweighed by a reflexive use of the camera as a mere recording device (some group shots run minutes without any signs of life in the blocking). In these instances, it’s easy to see why Hawks applied the shock paddles to the material just nine years later.
Decent home-video versions of The Front Page are so scarce that even a botched transfer by Kino Lorber would have been welcome, but thankfully they’ve handled the job charitably by dusting off an old 35mm master print from the Library of Congress and returning it to clarity. The Blu-ray offers a sharp, fine-grain, but fairly low-contrast image in which the textures of the sparse sets have become newly visible and subtle changes in facial expression can be seen without layers of dust and dirt obscuring them. Unfortunately, the audio track couldn’t be resuscitated to quite the same degree. It still sounds like the whole movie was recorded in a small tin can, with the boom operator failing to sustain fixed mic placement over the course of a scene. Even at peak volume levels, the film has some lines of dialogue that won’t cut through the atmospheric din that inevitably accompanies living-room viewings.
The Front Page’s centerpiece supplement is a short documentary on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, the government-funded institution responsible for excavating and polishing the source print for Kino’s disc. A welcome look into the operation, if not a particularly comprehensive one, the video is composed of interviews with two of the senior staff members of the archive and B-roll from around the facility. For those who can’t get enough of The Front Page’s story, the disc also includes two radically condensed radio plays (one from 1937, the other from 1946) aired by CBS, the latter of which features Menjou and O’Brien doing comparatively stiff reprisals of their roles in the film they starred in 15 years prior. Topping it all off is a commentary track by film historian Bret Wood, who mixes the expected behind-the-scenes tales, material histories, and American cinema tie-ins with sharp formal attentiveness.
The Front Page is a fitfully shrewd piece of early sound filmmaking that’s had the tough luck of being overshadowed by two superior remakes, and Kino’s sterling visual transfer at least allows classic film buffs to assess the movie’s place in history without fighting through material wear and tear.