The first of three film versions of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play, 1931’s The Front Page presents a sharp, insightful look at journalism of the day. Watching the film more than eighty years after its initial release, it’s both sad and amazing how much the depiction of sensationalism and corruption resonates today.
Reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is an investigative reporter about to be married and looking for a more lucrative profession. Johnson’s managing editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) is none too pleased when he learns that Johnson plans to take a job in an advertising agency in New York City. However, things take an unexpected turn when an accused murderer (George E. Stone) escapes from custody, Hildy sees the chance for the story of a lifetime. However, when he finds the criminal, he learns that the man might not be guilty. With the help of Walter Burns, Hildy tries to stash the convict in a roll-top desk in the prison pressroom, all the while trying to uncover the conspiracy that convicted him, and write the biggest story of his career.
Directed by the sure-handed Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), The Front Page doesn’t waste a second of its 100 minute runtime, with witty dialogue and a brisk pace that would become the standard for countless comedies that followed. The story’s stage origins are evident in the films basic sets. While this would be a detriment in many cases, the performances of Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Mary Brian as his fiancée are so strong, and the tale of political corruption so engrossing, that the props surrounding them are essentially an afterthought.
Remade by Howard Hawks in 1939 as His Girl Friday, once again by Billy Wilder in 1974, starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett, and most dreadfully in 1988’s Switching Channels,” 1931’s The Front Page remains most faithful to the play, and the best film of the lot. In 2010, the 1931 version of The Front Page was added to the National Film Registry.
Mastered in HD from 35-mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress, this has to be the best The Front Page has ever looked. Presented in the 1.32:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p presentation displays fairly solid clarity, displaying a surprising level of detail. Contrast is secure, and some texture is evident. Given its age, sources issues—scratches, spots, a few chemical marks–aren’t surprising. Delineation is nice, and despite the issues stated, nothing detracts from the viewing experience.
The 2.0 LPCM mix shows a bit of wear and tear, with hisses and pops throughout the audio track. Levels are a bit inconsistent, with noticeable dipping at times. Dialogue is a bit thin at times, but nonetheless legible. Music is a bit muffled, but still has some definition. While some damage is present, given the films age, it’s all fairly minor.
There are no subtitles included.
The following extras are available:
- “Lux Radio Theater – 1937” (58:45) a performance of The Front Page, featuring actors Walter Winchell and James Gleeson, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille.
- “Academy Award – 1946” (31:44) a second radio adaptation, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien.
- “On Film Preservation: The Library of Congress” (HD, 7:16) a brief but informative visit to the “cultural institution,” where we meet some of the employees in charge of acquiring and preparing titles for preservation, working on Blu-ray releases. A discussion of The Front Page is included, with a print acquired from East Germany in 1970.
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