Billy Wilder’s 1920s period piece, The Front Page (1974) tells the tale of Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon), a top-flight Chicago-based journalist who seeks to escape his job for greener pastures–a new life together with his fiancé. On the eve of the execution of Earl Williams, an alleged murderer and communist sympathizer, Hildy’s managing editor, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) pulls every trick out of the book to keep Hildy in town and on the job. The film is one of many adaptations of a 1928 play of the same name, including Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940).
The source material plays perfectly into Wilder’s hands. Wilder was a writer at heart, and the film works as a hilarious satire of the media. The press is presented as outlandishly sensational, purposefully inaccurate, and completely ruthless in their efforts to attain a story. Hildy is stuck in the middle, as his fiancé looks on in shock and horror at his inability to walk away from his attempt to tell Williams’ true story in the face of his unscrupulous peers. The satire runs deeper, however. The Chicago political machine takes a beating, with both the police and the Mayor’s office painted as completely unjust while shamelessly pandering to the public for votes. Additionally, the film takes a swing at the institutional reaction to the Red Scare of the 1920s, with one man’s freedom (and life) hanging in the balance in the hopes of keeping communism at bay. It all adds up to a cynical farce, perfect for and typical of Wilder.
Matthau and Lemmon are both perfect in their respective roles, displaying the same chemistry and comedic timing that made them a legendary cinematic pairing. This is not particularly surprising. The real surprise in the cast comes from the talent amassed for the supporting cast. Famed comedienne Carol Burnett took on the role of Molly Malloy, a prostitute defending Williams’ honor. Hildy’s fiancé, Peggy, was played by Susan Sarandon, a little known actress at the time still carving out her place. Charles Durning played Murphy, one of the fantastically unethical journalists on press row.
The Front Page takes a while to gain steam, slowed down slightly with details in the middle of the film. Once it finds its footing, the humor and satire rings through loud and clear. It’s a bit unfocused at times, spending so much energy skewering so many facets of the criminal institution that the movie bogs down. And to be completely honest, I’ve never seen or read the play, nor have I seen any of the other film adaptations. It’s impossible to know when and where to give credit for the writing and any liberties that Wilder may or may not have taken. That said, I’d heard that a lot of Wilder’s later work was lacking the edge of his classics. If that’s true, it’s certainly not true of The Front Page, which was sharp, snappy, and hilarious. Astoundingly, it bombed with critics upon its release. It’s certainly not his best, or even one of his best, but the combination of Matthau and Lemmon coupled with the supporting cast and the satire make The Front Page hilarious, a very enjoyable and worthwhile watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars