Monday, January 31, 2011

1930/31 - The Front Page

I am writing this post from Las Vegas, the third city I have visited in as many posts. The last few days have been spent preparing for the opening of Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion, the comedy show in which I'll be performing for the next month. You may not think there would be any need for rehearsals for an improvised show, but believe it or not, we have found plenty of things to work on, not the least of which is promoting the show to our potential audiences. While the show opened earlier tonight, we have a small rotating cast, so I participated only as an audience member this evening. My first performance on stage will be tomorrow night.

Last night, I made the most of some down time by watching another in the Academy's race for Best Picture of 1930/31...

The Front Page
Lewis Milestone
Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer
(based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur)
Adolphe Menjou, Pat O'Brien, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett, George E. Stone, Mae Clarke, Slim Summerville
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Top reporter Hildy Johnson (O'Brien) is packing in the Chicago news scene to run off to New York with his fiancée Peggy (Brian), much to the annoyance of Hildy's editor, Walter Burns (Menjou). As Hildy says his goodbyes to his colleagues in the court press room, a big story begins to unravel that he simply can't resist. Convicted murderer Earl Williams (Stone) escapes and, while all the other reporters are out looking for him, he stumbles right into Hildy's lap. With a scoop like that, how can he possibly leave town? Walter is happy, but Peggy is not, and Hildy can't string them both along forever.

There is an immensely fun and vibrant quality about The Front Page, which is almost entirely on account of the snappy dialogue. The fast-paced conversations, clearly the product of a stage adaptation, are delightfully droll and occasionally risqué (the restrictive Production Code was not quite in force just yet). A lively ensemble of sarcastic characters keep the story moving at an exciting pace.

Of course, as is the case with such wordy pieces, the static staging can seem a bit tiresome at times. Fortunately, the witty barbs come with such frequency that the lack of movement goes largely unnoticed. Besides, the latter half of the picture features more action which alleviates any monotony. In fact, the film's second half is more engaging for other reasons, too. Whereas the opening scenes feature a whole bunch of subplots, albeit related, the second half is satisfyingly cohesive, concentrating on the main narrative.

As mentioned, the ensemble cast ensure the sarcasm is delivered with appropriate speed, led by Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou, a Matt vs. the Academy regular. Also of note are Frank McHugh, whose infectious laugh I noted while reviewing Going My Way, Edward Everett Horton, a prolific character actor of early Hollywood, and George E. Stone, fresh from another 1930/31 contender, Cimarron.

Unsurprisingly for a film that is 80 years old, The Front Page suffers a little from a lack of video and audio quality. For example, the rapid-fire dialogue is often difficult to comprehend. However, only a month ago, the National Film Preservation Board added the film to its National Film Registry, so hopefully, it will undergo a much-needed restoration soon.


  1. I had a very difficult time watching The Front Page. It wasn't due to the quality of the movie, but rather the quality of the source. In my case, I had to resort to a VHS presentation recorded in extended play mode. The chief culprit was the audio, which was close to unlistenable, and with The Front Page, if you can't decipher the dialogue, you are missing the essence of the movie. Adjusting the volume made its audio track go from mumbly to shouting.

    Another disadvantage was the inevitable comparisons to its remake, His Girl Friday, which is the only version I had previously seen. Frankly, it is not up to Friday's standard, but its sarcasm, wit and pace will easily make it the least dated feeling of the 1930/31 roster of films.

    The ensemble cast was very good. Pat O'Brien never quite made it to star status, but he gave us some good performances, particularly in the thirties. My only criticism of the ensemble isn't really the fault of the acting. The writing seemed to emphasize the reporters individually rather than collectively - the lines rotated around so each had a quip to say, then wait until it started all over again. It seemed a bit unnatural to me, but familiar in a group sit-com way. Maybe it needed a touch of The Aussie Improve Comedy Explosion.

    My Oscar comment of the day. I don't think I have ever seen a year with such a disconnect between the critics awards and the guild awards, with the former overwhelming for The Social Network and the latter for The King's Speech. There always some overlap in the past. I'd have to switch my prediction to The King's Speech in light of this recent development. On a personal level, since The Social Network was my favorite of the year and The King's Speech my second favorite, I'd be happy with either one winning. I just hope it isn't a sweep year.

  2. Yes, it's been interesting seeing the sudden turnaround from critics to guilds. I think I would place The King's Speech above The Social Network on my favourites list, but, like you, I'd be happy with either one winning.

    And it's nice when the two frontrunners are in separate Screenplay categories. That way they both have a chance at recognition, which looks like the scenario this year.