Monday, April 9, 2012
Against The Tides Of Injustice
After a recent night of Billy Wilder films on TCM which included the documentary BILLY WILDER SPEAKS this seemed like the right time to immerse myself in some of his films, maybe as a way to get some inspiration on an idea I’m mapping out. Which doesn’t mean there’s a good reason why I grabbed my DVD of his version of THE FRONT PAGE from the top of a pile, but maybe it helps to know that sometimes even Gods like Billy Wilder are imperfect. Released in 1974, his version of the classic play came after the flops of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and AVANTI! so the idea of a Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau reteaming in the thick of a post-THE STING environment probably seemed like a sure thing. The thing is, since Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were working from a text that was already pretty famous the act of inserting their own dialogue into the structure makes the result a somewhat odd hybrid and it never really takes hold the way it should. There are occasional laughs throughout THE FRONT PAGE but mostly I watch it with a smile on my face, enjoying the actors and the dialogue while waiting for the frantic pace that never quite comes. Running 105 minutes the film feels a little lumpy, never quite achieving the needed manic feel and that combined with a few pieces of miscasting makes THE FRONT PAGE feel like something that is pleasant, nice to have around, but not very much more. Of course, lesser Wilder is still better than no Wilder at all so I try to keep that in mind.
Writing a summary of this plot seems a little silly because, after all, how do you not know the plot of THE FRONT PAGE by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, classic of the American Theater? Anyway, here goes: In June 1929 just as convicted cop-killer Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) is about to be hung for his crime, Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) star reporter for the Chicago Examiner informs his editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) that he is quitting, leaving town for Philadelphia that night to start a new life and marry movie theater organist Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon). Walter is desperate to do whatever he can to get Hildy to stay but when circumstances cause Earl Williams to attempt an escape Hildy, visiting his old press room at the courthouse, finds himself in the middle of it all and he may be the only one to get the story that Walter desperately needs.
Although previously filmed in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, the most famous version of THE FRONT PAGE on film is of course the spin brought by Howard Hawks to the material when he made HIS GIRL FRIDAY in 1941, turning the Hildy Johnson character female and it may even have been an improvement on the basic material. The result is still one of the funniest, fastest movies ever made and certainly one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. Out of necessity it omits the famous closing line of the play (“The son of a bitch stole my watch!”) but everything about it works tremendously well with the pairing of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell proving almost perfect. Restoring the specifically male editor-reporter dynamic THE FRONT PAGE ’74 feels like an attempt by Wilder to make a more faithful version of the original while at the same time rewriting most of the dialogue, jerry-rigging the narrative into a Lemmon-Matthau vehicle in a way that never seems entirely right, particularly since the character of Walter Burns doesn’t even turn up at the story’s primary location until pretty deep into the film. With much of the narrative packed out of necessity into a tight time frame any version of THE FRONT PAGE needs to move fast, lightning speed rapid fire dialogue all over the place, but for whatever reason Wilder either avoids this or never quite gets the pace going at the right tempo so his film never picks up the head of steam that it badly needs. The lack of overlapping dialogue, even when all the reporters are barking what’s happening into their pressroom phones, that is so ingrained in the basic material (such a conceit is not only all over HIS GIRL FRIDAY it’s part of the stage directions in the original play) has often been seen as the primary flaw in the film but this never seemed to be a problem in the second half of Wilder’s own ONE TWO THREE as James Cagney barked nonstop orders at a never ending stream of new characters without catching a breath (like that film, Wilder does get a laugh here from the repeated use of people saying, “No comment”). Here it just feels like an issue of pacing from the get-go—at times when the film cuts from one shot to another the pause between words couldn’t be more evident—and the lack of speed makes the whole film run several minutes longer than it probably should. At least. There’s a vibrancy to it all that is somehow missing and even if it would be unfair to call THE FRONT PAGE an old man’s movie it still feels just a little too staid.
But having said all that THE FRONT PAGE isn’t at all badly made, with colorful dialogue throughout and may even look the best of any of the films Billy Wilder made in color—Jordan Cronenweth’s anamorphic compositions have an undeniable richness to them and Henry Bumstead’s sets are extremely detailed with the newsroom of the Examiner in particular such a good set that it’s a shame more of the film couldn’t have been set there. Even some of the additions to the basic material are strong, particularly a psychiatric evaluation of Pendleton’s Earl Williams by a strict Freudian (Martin Gabel) as Vincent Gardenia’s sheriff looks on. A few of the best touches in the film, like the early headline reading, “Cop Killer Sane, Must Die” are clearly the work of Wilder-Diamond and to give it a few more points there is a definite sense of camaraderie displayed in these men that feels genuine, where you can feel the love Wilder has for these reporters, this profession, particularly as they all join in on a chorus of “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine” to bid Hildy farewell. Another nice musical interlude is organist Sarandon singing along with a bouncing ball on “Button Up Your Overcoat” as a movie theater audience joins in with her is a sweet moment, even if it doesn’t have much to do with anything. But there is also a crass undercurrent of unpleasantness in the film, some coming from dialogue that feels a little too coarse for even Wilder, as well as a touch of homophobia—“Never get caught in the can with Bensiger” is Hildy’s warning to a rookie about the mincing reporter played by David Wayne and it’s maybe a little too nasty.
On the other hand the treatment of the film’s women, which you’d expect to be somewhat problematic coming from Wilder just a few years after the ex-wife character in THE FORTUNE COOKIE, is actually more interesting—there’s no judgment felt towards Carol Burnett’s hooker Molly Malloy (Burnett’s performance is another matter entirely) and while it’s easy to say that the film has no interest in Hildy’s fiancée Peggy it’s also true that Susan Sarandon is given just about the only actual close-up in the film, right at the moment she realizes just how much a part of this (men’s) world Hildy really is and how she will never be a part of it. There’s at least a sliver of affection evident for her character, more than there is even in the original play, but there’s nowhere to really go with any of this subtext since the plot has to take precedence. And the more I look at the film the more impressed I am in the way Wilder maps out scenes—he frames much of the film in wide Scope shots, often letting the actors play out the scenes together but this approach is deceptively simple as well—when Hildy is finally being confronted by Peggy it involves some of the sharpest staging in the film, subtly using the angles to both present Hildy’s fire coming back and to separate her in the framing from the two men. In jumping into the story already in progress and never looking back it’s as if he wants to make this look at the past play with as little sentiment as possible, almost as if the events are being unfurled in the style of a news report. Maybe the idea was to provide a counterpoint to the nostalgic approach of THE STING (a few anachronisms also turn up, like a James Cagney impression done a few years too early) even if he part of Wilder’s attraction to the material was based in his roots as a reporter back in Vienna—some of that nastiness certainly makes sense coming from the director of ACE IN THE HOLE and the two would actually go well together on a double bill. Those roots are felt throughout anytime we hear these reporters playing a little loose with the facts as well as during the opening title sequence showing the type for a headline make up leading to the presses rolling, which feels so affectionate (even how the type is seen in reverse feels like it resonates with the themes of truth being presented) and I imagine it made Sam Fuller smile as well but the rest of the film doesn’t offer that feeling. I wish that feeling was there a little bit more and things at the end are wrapped up a little too easily as well, with a ‘What Happened to…’ closer that feels like the studio was worried the ending as it was played a little too spare (the famous closing line is there, so at least there’s that). There are pleasures found in THE FRONT PAGE and I certainly can’t say that I dislike it but the end result is not only undeniably slight it may be the one Billy Wilder movie that isn’t really all that essential, there isn’t much for him to really say here that hasn’t already been said either in his own films or in the original text of the source material for that matter. Maybe part of the problem is that the basic material is so perfect that unless you’re going to put a definite spin on it, like HIS GIRL FRIDAY did, it’s simply a case of adjusting something that hasn’t been broken. And Billy Wilder was better than that.
Walter Matthau is, little surprise, pretty much perfect as Walter Burns, ideal casting and ready to spit out a new line or insult whenever he can, totally unwilling to quit no matter how hopeless things seem. Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson works the words in the script as hard as Matthau, although maybe playing the basic drama of the situation more at times than the farce of it all. Still, he gives the material what little emotion that can be found here—the moment when he says to Matthau “You know I wouldn’t do that,” at the very end does feel heartfelt—but it’s also a basic problem in that Walter Burns is supposed to be the older guiding hand to the younger Hildy Johnson so casting two people that are obviously peers kind of messes with that, as much as they try to make Lemmon seem younger than he is. As Peggy, Susan Sarandon is left slightly stranded by her role, that one close-up aside, but she displays a huge amount of charm in her scenes and looks so much like she belongs in an actual 30s movie that it seems kind of a shame there wasn’t more of a part for her to play. Carol Burnett is pretty terrible, screeching like in a sketch on her show, the one element here more than anything that seems tonally off and it doesn’t feel like she’s getting any direction to bring it down. Apparently when the film once was shown on a plane Burnett was actually on she got on the intercom to apologize to everyone for her performance. The terrific supporting cast of reporters and others who wander into the press room includes Charles Durning, Allen Garfield, Herbert Edelman, Dick O’Neill, Harold Gould, Paul Benedict, Cliff Osmond and Vincent Gardenia, particularly funny as the corrupt sheriff especially when he whines, “Why is everybody picking on me?” With dead-on comic timing as the condemned killer Austin Pendleton, always a personal favorite, probably walks off with the whole film and makes the way he slyly tosses off his dialogue seem effortless.
One other version of THE FRONT PAGE that I haven’t brought up yet is 1988’s SWITCHING CHANNELS (directed by Stan Dragoti and starring Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve) which moved the whole concept into the cable news world, bringing back the Hildy Johnson-as-female spin. I actually took a look at it for the first time in years not too long ago and realized that while it’s pretty terrible the film is also surprisingly faithful to the basic FRONT PAGE/HIS GIRL FRIDAY template. It just shows that as much as I may have issues with the Wilder version it’s clearly not something where thought wasn’t put into the approach and its best moments are indicative of what a master he was, even when working in a minor key such as this. Plus it’s impossible for me to completely dislike a movie where writers, willing to claw and scrape and lie as much as everyone else around them, are the heroes. It’s also a nice reminder in this modern computer age that the clacking of a typewriter is sometimes the most wonderful sound of all, almost as wonderful as hearing dialogue that comes from Billy Wilder.