Based off of a 1927 play of the same title, The Front Page is merely the first adaptation of the story of newspaper man Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson; other versions include a 1974 rendition with Lemmon and Matthau, and of course His Girl Friday, which has Hildy portrayed as a woman. But it was the original 1931 adaptation from Lewis Milestone that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Hildy (Pat O’Brien) is a reporter in Chicago, and soon to be an ex-reporter. He has promised his fiancee (Mary Brian) that he will quit the paper and move with her to New York, where he has a job waiting as an advertisement writer for greater pay. Leaving the paper isn’t easy, though, as editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) is known for employing devious schemes to keep his reporters from quitting. On the eve of Hildy’s departure, he finds himself faced with a big scoop as a convicted killer breaks out of jail the night before his execution.
Just when you think you’re out…
The movie is a comedic piece with several funny moments in it, thanks to the different personalities that are involved. Although Hildy is the main character, the characters who might otherwise be considered bit parts are nevertheless important for maintaining the pace and humor in the film. Hildy’s fellow reporters are a sharp-witted, sarcastic, and cynical bunch, firing one-liners back and forth at each other as they attempt to track down various scoops. The sheriff (Clarence Wilson) is a self-important bungler who seems more suited for accountancy than running a jail… and of course, it’s his ineptitude that leads to the convict escaping in a hilarious failure of common sense. The escapee in question, played by George E. Stone, is a worrier who isn’t even entirely sure why he’s escaped, as he’s weary of life anyway. And Hildy’s editor is the epitome of a bad boss, manipulative and downright cruel with the stratagems he employs to get his way. Pat O’Brien and Mary Brian play their affianced couple as the only sane people among the madness… with O’Brien as Hildy constantly on the verge of sanity slippage as he gets caught up in the idea of one last scoop.
The film’s origins as a play are evident in the setting. In the central hub of the courthouse press room it’s possible for all these characters to come together and interact in a single logical setting, and the film hardly ever departs from the one room. This doesn’t hurt the film in the slightest; rather than feeling small, it acquires a feeling of familiarity. Even as different characters shuffle in and out, the near-constancy of the press room acts as a reminder that the other characters will soon be back.
As with some other comedies, it’s difficult to go into a lot of detail about what works and what doesn’t with the plot and the humor, because much of the humor comes from a sense of absurdity about the situation — which is to say, although it doesn’t necessarily require surprise, it benefits a great deal from it. Many of the film’s funniest moments work because they are not a rational outcome to the situation. At the same time, though, these aren’t wild twists; they are believable because of the personalities established for these characters. The result is a film that is a lot of fun to watch as Hildy finds himself sinking faster in the lunatic quicksand of his press corps peers.