[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The Front Page may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas The Front Page, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.
I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. The Front Page seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.
Walter Burns, after all, is much more than the Whiplash Willie Gingrich of the newspaper game, but that’s the extent of Walter Matthau’s interpretation. No suggestion here of the real intelligence, the unaccountable elegance, the stout immoral fibre of the man—just a gross clown without charm, excitement, or dangerousness. The pressroom gang has been cast from some working equivalents of the character boys who sat around His Girl Friday‘s city hall, yet, save for David Wayne’s Bensinger and Jon Korkes’s tyro reporter (omitted from the Hawks film), these guys play it naturalistically compared to the brilliantly stylized turns of Karns, Hall, Truex, Toomey, Edwards, and Jenks. The result is that Hecht-MacArthur’s exhilarating workaday oddballs come off as a bunch of homely clerks without an office supervisor to worry about. Not that Wayne’s work rates comparison with that of Truex (Friday‘s Bensinger) or any other member of that inspired cast, but it’s a measure of Wilder’s lazy opportunism here that he presents Bensinger as a flaming queen (the play contains the germ of a suggestion, and Hawks’s film toys with the notion covertly in the context of the movie’s forceful sexual dynamics) and blocks Bensinger’s scenes so blatantly that all the self-defensive laughers will know when to guffaw.
There are also Watergate jokes (Wilder’s films are often miniature time capsules, so fond is he of topical zings), movie jokes (casting doubt on the film’s period—1927? 1930? 1931?), even Dr. Reuben jokes. There is also Carol Burnett (unlisted in the opening credits, if I remember rightly) for shock-it-to-the-TV-watchers casting as Mollie Malloy: her performance is as ill-advised as her presence in the film. Jack Lemmon is disturbingly puffy-looking in a young (or at least younger) man’s role, and nothing is made of this. Only Austin Pendleton, as Earl Williams the convicted cop-killer, comes up with anything like the hardened lunacy of the original. Jorden Cronenweth wraps the whole thing up in that kind of pearly nostalgic lighting that makes everything look like one huge box of almond candies. Joe Pettibone, where are you with that reprieve?
THE FRONT PAGE
Direction: Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, after the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Cinematography: Jorden S. Cronenweth. Musical arrangements: Billy May. Production: Paul Monash.
The Players: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon, David Wayne, Jon Korkes, Charles Durning, Allen Garfield, Dick O’Neill, Herb Edelman, Carol Burnett, Austin Pendleton, Vincent Gardenia, Harold Gould, Doro Merande, Cliff Osmond.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson