His Girl Friday (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) should really be listed as a double feature, for the “bonus” movie—a new edition of the original screen version of The Front Page, adapted from the snappy, cynical, double-barrel Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—is not just a home video debut but a major discovery.
The Front Page (1931) stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled everyman than rabble-rousing radical. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams, then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.
Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists.
The Front Page (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – The original 1931 screen version of the rapid-fire newspaper comedy written for the stage Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stars Pat O’Brien as the crack reporter Hildy Johnson, ready to leave the beat for marriage and an office job, and Adolph Menjou as the crafty editor who pulls every trick to keep Hildy on the job to cover a breaking story: the execution of a convicted killer who is more addled political radical than murderous felon. The film opens on a test drop from the scaffold that is to hang Earl Williams (George E. Stone), then the camera glides over to the reporter’s room where the thick-skinned gentlemen of the press prove that they are no gentlemen.
Is this the stuff of comedy? It is in the hands of Hecht and MacArthur, former newspapermen with plenty to say about the cutthroat tactics of journalists. These guys are equal parts con men who will do anything for a story, hard-boiled professionals jaded by the job, and public servants out to dig up the hidden dirt of corruption and crime (even if they have to commit a few themselves along the way). And they knew the dirty game of Chicago politics. Though the film never explicitly says so (the opening titles put this in “a mythical kingdom”), this is set in the cradle of Chicago politics, where everything is a matter of power and public appearances, including the impending execution of a socialist who has been railroaded to placate the voters. When he escapes—using the Chief of Police’s own gun!—Hildy and Walter become conspirators in hiding the felon until they can get their scoop and blow the lid off the mayor’s scheme.
[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1980]
Junior high-school memory (Art class? English? Doesn’t matter): “art = form + content.” Sez who? Sez the teacher, who does not want to be bothered with picky questions about art, won’t say anything about form that she can’t test you on via the multiple-choice method, and wants to read essays only on what the poem is about.
Does style come into this anywhere? Oh, sure. Somewhere, vaguely, grudgingly. “The author’s style”—that is, his way of doing things; sort of a signatory manner. Nice to have, but apparently not so necessary as form and content. Consoling words, form and content: art sounds evanescent, indefinable, but form and content smack of industry and consumerism. Style is something extra, a conversation piece, maybe even frivolous, like a car cigarette lighter or power windows. You could get where they wanted you to go without it—to the pragmatic, this-will-be-good-for-you-and-prepare-you-for-life meaning (or “message” as the student mind, quick to psych out the priorities, swiftly translates it). A piss-poor destination, to say nothing of how it scants the pleasures of the trip.
Huge title card: “THEN—”. Followed by: “Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience.” Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content—the junior-high equation trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading experience extends in time. “Content” is not content; “the meaning” is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, stripmining through “the story” to get to “the themes.” “The meaning” is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon’s gravity. Content is what happens, from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one’s life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.