Laughs lost in translation

Classic comedy remake loud, dull, unfunny

Published: Jul 13 2013, 06:41:pm

Monday, January 7, 1975
THE FRONT PAGE. Co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, based on the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Music adapted by Billy May. Co-written and directed by Billy Wilder. Classifier's warning: some swearing and coarse language. Mature entertainment.

THE MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENT among the [1974] year-end openers is The Front Page, a film that had everything going for it and yet ends up being loud, dull and, worst of all, unfunny. The third movie version of a classic newspapering comedy, I fully expected it to be a solidly entertaining, five-star final.
    The ingredients were so right. To begin with, there was the subject matter. In the wake of Watergate, reporters — real reporters, not a bunch of photogenic, cap-toothed broadcasters, but honest-to-God newspapermen — have re-emerged as popular culture heroes.
    The Front Page, a story set in the halcyon days of the headline, was written by a pair of Chicago circulation-war veterans, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. An original stage play, it premiered on Broadway in 1928.
    Set in the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, it was "opened out" in two subsequent film versions. In 1931, it was filmed under Lewis Milestone's direction as The Front Page. Howard Hawks later remade it as His Girl Friday (1941).
    Wise-cracking and cynical, the Hecht-MacArthur vehicle seemed a perfect project for a witty cynic like Billy Wilder. For one thing, Wilder had actually worked as a newsman, reporting in Vienna and Berlin before becoming a screenwriter in pre-Hitler Germany. When, in the early 1930s, Wilder relocated to Hollywood, he was joining a community of ex-reporters that included Hecht, MacArthur and Citizen Kane co-writer Herman Mankiewicz.
    As a director, Wilder is best known for his fast, funny social comedies, films such as Some Like It Hot (1959), One, Two, Three (1961), and Irma La Douce (1963). Less well remembered is his previous look at newspapering, 1951's Ace in the Hole, a tough, uncompromising drama about a ruthless reporter (played by Kirk Douglas) who manipulates a mine disaster for the sake of a self-serving story.
    Making his success with The Front Page seem assured was his choice of co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Lemmon has given some of his best comic performances — in Some Like It Hot, The Apartment (1960), Irma La Douce and Avanti! (1972) — under Wilder's direction.
    As well, he and Matthau make a great comic team. Outstanding in Gene Saks' adaptation of The Odd Couple (1968), they had first been paired two years earlier in Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966). It really looked as if The Front Page couldn't miss.
    But it does. In its latest edition, it is a comedy that has lost touch with its period and purpose.
    The entire action takes place in June 1929, during one long shift in the jailhouse press room. Reporters from the major Chicago dailies are maintaining a death watch over Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton), a pamphleteering anarchist who had the misfortune to accidentally kill a cop in a street scuffle during an election year.
    Walter Burns (Matthau), hard-driving managing editor of The Examiner, expects his star reporter Hildy Johnson (Lemmon) to get an exclusive angle on the execution. Johnson has other plans. Announcing that he is engaged to be married, he cuts off further discussion with a curt "I quit."
    Unfortunately for the bride-to-be, Johnson is bidding goodbye to his buddies in the press room when the prisoner escapes. While everyone is chasing false leads, the real story literally falls into Johnson's lap, and Burns hatches plot after plot to keep his man on the job and under his thumb.
    The Front Page is set in a time long past, those days in which newspapers were the public's only real source of information and individual dailies had distinct personalities. The competition for readership was intense, with six editions a day part of the routine. "Flamboyant" described both the product and the producers.
    In his remake, Wilder commits sins of both omission and commission. Most annoying is his attempt to "update" the play's original language, a tactic that serves only to undermine the period flavour. Where Hecht wrote "go to hell!", Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond substitute "screw you!", thus bringing their production into line with movie usage circa 1964.
    What he omits is any solid frame of reference, presenting a series of heavy-handed caricatures without the necessary sense of perspective. It's not that he doesn't know how. His 1969 visit to 221b Baker Street (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) was a delightful evocation of time and place.
    The director could get away with such omissions in fare such as One, Two, Three, his cold war comedy set in Berlin and released to co-incide with the building of the Berlin Wall. There the comic jibes needed no translation.
    Here, they often do. Watergate notwithstanding, front-page journalism is no longer topical, something director John Howe understood in his recent Why Rock the Boat? (1974). Howe defined his situation, something Wilder doesn't bother to do.
    The result is a picture peopled with grotesques who variously growl, grunt, snarl, scream, bellow, wheeze, wince, mince and moan at one another for no obvious good reason.
    Of the over-loud, underdeveloped lot, only Austin Pendleton, best remembered as the philanthropist foundation director in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up Doc? (1972), registers well. His lightly screwball anarchist makes an impression by being ingenuously natural among so many hard-boiled phonies.
    This newest Front Page was something that I really looked forward to. Now that it's here, I wish that someone had managed to get to Wilder in time to yell "stop the presses!" 

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

AFTERWORD: Throughout 1974, enthusiasm for the reportorial arts was palpable. The work of investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was being credited for bringing down Richard Nixon; applications at U.S. journalism schools reached an all-time high. Released just four months after the president's resignation, Billy Wilder's Front Page sounded a particularly sour note, a Bronx cheer in the middle of a civic celebration. Instead of being playfully comic (which would have been true to the mood of the original), he chose to be downright nasty. Then 68, Wilder had lost touch with the mass audience and his directorial career never rebounded. He made just two more films, the largely forgotten Fedora (1978) and a final box-office bomb, Buddy, Buddy (1981), a remake of the 1973 French comedy L'Emmerdeur.