Directed by Howard Hawks
Reporter Hildegard ‘Hildy’ Johnson visits her once newspaper editor and ex-husband Walter Burns to announce her engagement to another man, prompting Walter to use every trick in his sneaky little book to both prevent the marriage and keep Hildy on staff.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play ‘The Front Page’ had already found its way from stage to screen under the direction of Lewis Milestone when Howard Hawks phoned Hecht with the suggestion that the role of Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson be changed from a man to a woman. Ben Hecht reportedly thought this was a wonderful idea, and so screenwriter Charles Lederer changed Hildebrand to Hildegard, giving birth to one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s best female characters, deftly handled by Rosalind Russell in this poignant and funny tale of lost love and slow justice.
From its opening the film makes a clear yet tongue in cheek statement about how it feels about journalism with an art card displaying the following statement: “It all happened in the ‘Dark Ages’ of the newspaper game –- when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press today. Ready? Well, once upon a time -- “
For buried here underneath this story of wise-cracking Walter Burns [Cary Grant] and Hildy Johnson [Rosalind Russell], his equal in every conceivable way, the narrative poses yet never answers questions about man’s position in society and what this modern life is doing to his moral center. The plot is driven by events surrounding Earl Williams - a man who lost his job, grew desperate, and took a shot at a police officer who happened to be ‘colored’ who now finds himself on death row. Even as Walter maneuvers events around to keep Hildy from catching the train to Albany that night where she plans to be married to the tepid yet sweet Bruce Baldwin [Ralph Bellamy], the reality of Earl’s impending, potentially unjust execution colors the humor and keeps us reflecting back to that opening statement whether we are conscious of it or not.
In ‘The Front Page’, the action was focused on Earl Williams and his case – the love affair and loss of a newspaper’s greatest reporter came second. Here the love affair comes first – with Earl’s plight just being another way to coax Hildy to stay longer. The morality of what both Walter and Hildy do in order to get that story is hinted at and questioned in rapid-fire dialogue that hits and runs, leaving us breathless. Walter tells copy editor and right hand man Duffy [Frank Orth] to promise the Republican Governor his paper’s full support in exchange for Earl’s reprieve. When Duffy balks, reminding Walter theirs is a Democratic paper, Walter’s ‘after we get the reprieve, we’ll be Democratic again’ tells us more about the man and the world he lives in than pages of expository dialogue could ever have done.
This somewhat self-reflexive indictment of the characters is echoed in moments throughout the movie, being nowhere as powerful as in scenes when Mollie Malloy [Helen Mack] confronts the newspapermen in the pressroom. In her first appearance, Mollie strives to set the record straight as a first-rate ensemble cast of male reporters ask her pointed questions about what they consider to be her lurid affair with Earl Williams. From outside, the sound of policemen testing the trap door in the gallows echoes, reminding all of Earl’s impending doom. Frustrated, in tears, Molly keeps asking ‘Why won’t they listen to me?’ as Hildy escorts her from the room. Astonishing for its emotional power, it is compounded by the choice to keep Hildy from returning for what seems like forever as the newspapermen busy themselves around the room. When she does return, her firm yet quiet ‘Gentlemen of the Press’ does more to call their moral fiber into question than any moment of explosive emotion ever could.
Yet this moment of quiet judgment is shattered by the ringing of the phone. Answering it, Hildy learns that Bruce has been arrested. The film often balances pathos with clever humor that requires the audience pay attention to what is said and done. Shenanigans ensue as Bruce finds himself arrested for mashing and use of counterfeit money while Walter dodges Hildy’s accusations. Earl escapes, and as the media circus goes into full swing Molly reappears and reunites with him for a moment. This woman, who only ever showed him kindness and not of the lurid ilk that the reporters would like to think, keeps his whereabouts a secret as they latter barrage her with questions. ‘Now you want me to talk?’ she asks, dumbfounded – before she shockingly pulls focus from Earl by jumping out the window. The moment shocks us for it is so extreme, yet an extreme violent reaction seems the only natural choice when faced with the pressures of this news machine that cares nothing for the individual, or the truth.
The moral center aside, Cary Grant is at his charming best even as he enlists ‘Diamond Louie’ [Abner Biberman] in one scam after another to derail Hildy’s plans. Though he says over and over that she’s the only one available who can writer, and what a great reporter she is, one can see it’s more than just his business sense that is inspiring him to keep her around – he wants her there with him. This comes out in non-verbal moments that define his inner character. The news of her engagement puts him off balance for a moment, something he experiences and then corrects in a private moment between himself and the audience as he grabs a carnation and puts in his buttonhole. Between casual puffs on many a cigarette over a lunch complete with rum in their coffee, Grant pushes Russell’s buttons to which she responds with sharp kicks to his shin under the table. This man cannot reach out to Hildy and tell her how he feels anymore than she can do the same to him.
Yet desperate to keep her around, Walter offers to buy a large insurance policy in return for Hildy conducting an interview with Earl on the eve of his execution. When she visits Earl, an additional layer of social commentary comes out in the narrative in their discussion of ‘production for use’. Here, and peppered elsewhere, are hints of a growing ‘red scare’. Earl won’t plead insanity for he insists that he isn’t insane, so Hildy, in search of any other possible way to impart that Earl was not in his right mind, uses socialist rhetoric as probable excuse for Earl’s actions. Earl finds some sense in this, as he insists he is not guilty – ‘it’s just the world’. So Hildy guides him by asking whether he’s heard the men in the park discuss ‘production for use’ and draws a parallel between that argument and his decision to use the gun when he encountered the officer. Earl is a tragic figure who has grown so tired by the time he’s discovered in his dramatically clever hiding place that he doesn’t even care what happens to him anymore.
Yet here there is justice. The corrupt politicians in the form of the Chief of Police and the Mayor, having sent a messenger armed with Earl’s reprieve away with the promise of a well-paying job, find themselves hoisted by their own petard when the messenger returns just as they are arresting Hildy and Walter for obstruction of justice. The choice to veil these power hungry men, callous newspapermen and social injustice
behind a curtain of lightning fast dialogue and electric interaction between characters actually allows the film to step into territory that might otherwise be taboo were it a straight drama. Whether scripted or no, there are at least two lines of dialogue that point to the actors in the movie themselves – as when Walter tells Diamond Louie that Bruce looks like that actor, Ralph Bellamy and Walter later starts telling a story about poor old Archie Leach – pointing to Grant’s real last name. Reportedly, studio head Harry Cohn objected to these inside jokes but was convinced to leave them in and was ultimately rewarded by huge laughs from audiences of the time. Watching the film now, these moments make you aware that you are watching actors, not real people, which seems to further support our ability to laugh when Earl just asks them to get it over with because he’s ‘tired’. There’s an excellent ticking clock on both fronts – Hildy marries Bruce tomorrow and must catch the nine o’clock train while Earl faces the hangman at 7:00am the next morning [though those ever so gracious gentlemen of the press try to get it moved up to 5:00am in order to make the morning edition]. Both deadlines fuel the dialogue that in turn inspires the action and keeps the audience riveted to the end. As Walter espouses his well-worn words of love for Hildy in the opening scenes, she counters with an auctioneer-inspired build ending with a resounding ‘sold American!’ timed so well one wonders at the magic of it all. Up to ten people at a time overlap each other in excited spurts of dialogue when Earl breaks free from prison, and yet we are able to follow it all. Here is a film that believes its audience is smarter than the average bear, and able to keep up, if not get ahead of it. Highly recommended material for all.