Front Page, The (1931)

The Front Page (1931), directed by Lewis Milestone.

A day in the life of wise-cracking, hard-drinking, cynical newspaper reporters as they wait for an execution. Holy smokes: the prisoner got a pistol from the sheriff, shot his shrink and escaped!

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson is fed up and wants to depart on his honeymoon. Will his wily publisher be able to keep him in harness for one last sensational story?

Vivid, witty writing and some pre-Code hilarity. Remade several times, including as a screwball comedy: His Girl Friday (1940). Cynical as it may be, it is also a tribute to a golden age of newspapers, already a fading glory when the picture was made.

The most amazing thing about this film is the camera work: we have long tracking shots, 360 degree panoramas around the newsroom, another complete circle around the reporters' table, and other clever tricks. The newsroom has four real walls, unlike the standard movie set. I can't recall anything else like it from that year.

This was Lewis Milestone's last picture for Howard Hughes. His direction became more conventional after.

Its age and pre-Code nature give us elements not seen again for a long time (and even this was toned down from the stage play):

For the male lead, producer Hughes rejected James Cagney ("that little runt") and Clark Cable ("his ears look like a taxi-cab with both doors open"). Both men survived the snub.

Available on Blu-ray from Kino. No subtitles, which is unfortunate because the sound is really rough in spots. This is the nature of the title: all the sound was recorded live while filming. No audio editing in those days. So all the effects (banjo, gunshots) are being done just off-camera at the time. For dialogue the mic is sometimes out of position. Maybe worse in the first reel, or maybe I just got used to it.

The disc does include a detailed and helpful commentary track.