Out of the Past: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Billy Wilder’s chief motives in making the third film version of the 1928 Hecht–MacArthur Broadway smash were plain, and he admitted them: he wanted a box-office hit, badly, and this had all the elements for a 1974 killing. It’s a buddy story, a nostalgia piece, a celebration of crusading newspapermen—Woodward and Bernstein, Prohibition-style. Add leftover sets from The Sting for good measure and another re-teaming of the odd couple, Lemmon and Matthau, the latter in a role tailor-made for him. How could it fail?

But it did, thumpingly. Why? I’d suggest the very reason that made it such a good movie, so much more than the remake of the remake of the film of the hit play. Everyone said it was a perfect vehicle for Wilder—he did himself—but this is to ignore one crucial difficulty. The Front Page is a lovely old play, and it really is extremely modern. So how does an auteur as strong as Wilder adapt it with the respect it deserves without submerging his own personality? No one could want, after all this time, to see a Billy Wilder film where Billy Wilder simply translates 46-year-old jokes, however good, into celluloid terms. At the same time, no one wants to see a film of The Front Page which ignores the splendid original. The trick was to find an element personal to Wilder within that elaborate framework, and this he did. And this is why the public stayed away, just as they had done from Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie and even The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (which, for me, is Wilder’s masterpiece). For most of  Wilder’s later films tend to be about loneliness, despair, desperation (this is even true, to an extent, of the sunny, romantic and very beautiful Avanti!), and these things are at the forefront of his version of The Front Page.

It’s an example of what Wilder, referring to Sherlock Holmes, has called “a love story between two men … nothing to do with homosexuality.” But, one way or another, both films have got something to do with homosexuality, at least indirectly. Certainly, there is not the slightest truth in the implication about Holmes and Watson, but it is important that the spectre is raised. Most “male love stories” of the cinema get very uptight about invariable suggestions of homoerotic themes lying beneath the surface; the “machismo” (more usually routine sexism) of such films as Easy Rider or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is sufficiently superficial for a whole lot of creative nervousness to be discernable. In recent films, The Bean has a wife and Freebie a girlfriend; Gould and Blake in Busting make derogatory remarks about fags; Lion in Scarecrow doesn’t even notice the proclivities of his nasty fellow-convict and gets messily assaulted for his pains. Nothing complicated. This isn’t necessarily artistically invalid; but the buddies syndrome that has so afflicted the American cinema in the 1970s is a disturbing one, suggesting to an outsider that the U.S. is in one hell of a sex crisis. Wilder, unlike more modern filmmakers, doesn’t ignore the questions he raises in his own work. The male friendships in his films are made more convincing by the existence of ambiguities, by our being forced to examine other possible interpretations of the relationships.

So it is in The Front Page, and it is worth stressing that this is all Wilder’s doing. The “love” relationship between ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) and unscrupulous editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) is actually a love–hate relationship, Hildy trying with all the desperation of Oedipal George Segal in Where’s Poppa? to sever the umbilical cord that ties him to boss Walter and the Chicago Examiner. Lemmon was 49 making the film and one has to say, unchivalrously, that he looks every day of it on the screen. Hildy in the play has no specific age, but can’t be much over 30; he’s said to have been a dozen years in the newspaper game, and one can’t imagine him doing anything else (certainly not advertising, the job he intends to take up after marriage). Peggy, his girlfriend, is a pretty beanbrain fresh out of finishing school, or suchlike, in the play; in the Wilder–Diamond screenplay she is a widow (as Hildy is a divorced man who devoted too much time to journalism) and is forced to play the organ at the Balaban & Katz moviehouse to make ends meet. Neither is much of a catch, and we’re left in no doubt that Hildy is marrying chiefly to escape to a hoped-for security he has never known. His bitter tirade about the vicissitudes of journalism is a lot sadder and longer than it is in the play, for this Hildy knows more and is closer to being the drunken hack “bumming cigarettes off the errand-boy” that he talks about. Walter Burns, the ogre, the tyrant, needing no woman (Wilder and Diamond leave out his soulful line, “Listen, Hildy, I was in love with a woman once … she was my third wife”) and carried along by the dizzying oxygen of his job, does everything to shatter this fragile relationship.

His methods, more extended than in the play, have elaborate sexual overtones. He poses as a probation officer and accuses Hildy of flashing at choirboys; he bribes a tart to pose as Hildy’s abandoned wife, complete with children. The homosexual subtext becomes more manifest in the pressroom at the Criminal Courts Building, where most of the film and all of the play are set. Wilder’s pressroom is not only even seedier than Hecht and MacArthur’s, it is much seedier because its denizens are a less personable crew. The other reporters don’t just turn upon their old pal once they smell a scoop brewing—Hildy is seriously threatened with castration. When Molly, the condemned man’s streetwalking inamorata, helps Hildy secrete her beloved in the famous rolltop desk, the arrival of the other journalists forces Hildy, humiliatingly, to pretend that he’s just enjoyed Molly’s favors atop the table. No one questions this, obviously because their own sex-lives are of a similar sleaziness. Women are for screwing, or for beating up; after they have turned viciously on Molly (“Five men against a girl—let me know if you need any help!”), she leaps suicidally from the window. The only comment any of the scribes makes is a potential headline: “Shady Lady Leaps For Love!”

Except for the (unsuccessful) suicidal leap, all the aforesaid is the film’s invention. But it is the refashioning of the rolltop desk’s owner, Roy V. Bensinger of the Tribune, that makes Wilder’s motives clear. In the play Bensinger is merely a fastidious old hack with pathetic delusions of grandeur (he tries to write in “sort of a Jack London style” and drops a little schoolboy French to show his culture); in the film, as played by David Wayne, he is an outright old queen, not just fey but nasty, woman-hating and hypocritical. It is he who rounds most bitterly on Molly, he who promptly seeks to ingratiate himself with Rudy Keppler (Jon Korkes), the idiot cub sent by Walter to replace Hildy. Once again Wilder brings latent themes out into the open—out of the closet, one might say. But there is more to this change in Bensinger’s character than a little post-censorship gay-bashing. When Bensinger first makes overtures to Rudy he places his hand caressingly on the youth’s shoulder; when Walter, anxious to gain “the scoop of the century”, encourages Hildy to keep typing and ignore Peggy’s entreaties to leave the building, he not only rebuffs the girl callously but also repeats Bensinger’s gesture (which he has not witnessed) exactly.

Thus, Hildy’s drive is not toward a better life but, more exactly, away from the dubious arrested-adolescent “chumminess” of the pressroom. He is a middle-aged man whose life is as disordered as a schoolboy’s (something made plain by our brief glimpse of his pigsty of an apartment, which neatly contrasts, via juxtaposed shots, with the decorum of Peggy’s surroundings), but his flight is doomed to failure. He is one of nature’s newshawks and no sweet girl can change this. In shattering the romance between Hildy and Peggy (and the film, unlike the play, makes it plain that they do split up in the end), Walter Burns is motivated only by selfishness: but it is a necessary thing anyway. She is, like Hildy, not in love, but looking for safety; their undoubted fondness for each other isn’t going to be enough. We are introduced to her with a classic misogynist gag—the marquee of Balaban & Katz’s announces The Phantom of the Opera CUT TO Peggy playing the organ—and our first closeup of her comes whilst the cinema audience is singing along with the chorus of “Button Up Your Overcoat,” Peggy enunciating the song’s punchline, “You belong to me.”

There is enough sympathy in the performance of Susan Sarandon for this to be sad but, as ever, Wilder’s world is a tough one and his Chicago is a more corrupt place than was Hecht and MacArthur’s. Their one incorruptible man, the reprieve-server Silas F. Pincus, has vanished, to be replaced by a greasy type named Plunkett (Paul Benedict), only too happy to forget the reprieve and go off for a “Chinese sandwich” at a brothel. The irascible, appalling Walter—a man who clearly would sell his grandmother into white slavery for the sake of a story—is still in command, and Peggy’s parting remark that he’s not really as bad as he seems is obviously nonsense. Matthau’s performance is hugely funny, but we are not meant to find him congenial; not for nothing is one of his stupendous curses word-for-word the same as a famous utterance by a Watergate heavy. Thus, just as the “happy ending” of Hildy and Peggy going off together is denied by a brief caption amongst several serving as a kind of epilogue, so our exhilaration on leaving this slambang, raunchy, joke-laden morality tale is tempered by the characteristically caustic and clear-sighted common sense of its director, who once again finds plenty to smile about in our wicked world, but, unmissably, doesn’t let that smile hide the pain that’s just underneath.

THE FRONT PAGE (1974)
Direction: Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, after the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Cinematography: Jorden Cronenweth. Production design: Henry Bumstead. Editing: Ralph E. Winters. Musical arrangements: Billy May. Production: Paul Monash.
The players: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett, Susan Sarandon, David Wayne, Charles Durning, Jon Korkes, Vincent Gardenia, Allen Garfield, Austin Pendleton, Dick O’Neill, Herb Edelman, Harold Gould, Martin Gabel, Cliff Osmond, Lou Frizzell, Paul Benedict, Joshua Shelley, Doro Merande, Allen Jenkins, Noam Pitlik.

© 1977 Pierre Greenfield

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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