Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Front Page (1974) – Cinematic Cover Song

Back in November, I took the train up to Hollywood to see the preview of the TCM/Bonhams classic movie auction. I was only in town for about 4 or 5 hours before I had to jump the train back to San Diego. Whenever I'm up there I like to stop at Amoeba Records, a huge music store. Normally, when I'm there, I spend the entire time looking for music, but they also have movies upstairs. This was the first time I'd ever gone upstairs. 

I ended up buy six DVDs, three of which were from one my favorite directors, Billy Wilder. Of the three, two were later films that they rarely show these days, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and the subject of this post, The Front Page (1974). I just got around to watching The Front Page about a week ago.

Before I go on, I want to cover the genealogy of The Front Page. The Front Page was originally a hit play on Broadway, co-written by  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was considered one of the better plays of 1928 and has been adapted to film four times:

  • The Front Page (1931) – Though not extremely well-known today, this version, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien, was nominated for three Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and one nomination for Adolphe Menjou as Best Actor (lost all three)
  • His Girl Friday (1940) –  Easily the best known of the remakes today, with the key difference being having the reporter Hildy Johnson be a woman (Rosalind Russell) and the ex-wife of the editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant).
  • The Front Page (1974) – This version directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the lead roles goes back to the original play with Lemmon as the reporter and Matthau as the editor.
  • Switching Channels (1988) – This version draws from both The Front Page and His Girl Friday and stars Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds, and Christopher Reeve. I haven't seen this version and didn't even know it existed until I started researching for this post. The film was considered a failure, and was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards, Burt Reynolds (Worst Actor) and Christopher Reeve (Worst Supporting Actor). Now, that I know of it, I really want to see it despite it likely being very bad.

Of these adaptations, there's only one I really know well, His Girl Friday. I'm sure I've seen it easy fifty to a hundred times. I can recite bits of the dialog word-for-word. Before last week, I can't say for sure whether I had seen 1931 version of The Front Page. I probably saw the 1974 version as a kid, when it was shown on TV a year or two after it was released, but if I did, it didn't make a big impression on me, at least, not like other Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau movies, anyway.

About a week ago, I sat down and watched the 1974 Billy Wilder remake of The Front Page (I also watched the 1931 version as well). Wilder didn't consider it one of his better films and is probably right. For me though, as I watched it (either for the first time as an adult or possibly the first time period), it struck me that this was like listening to a really cool cover version of a song you really like.

I love cover songs. I have hundreds and hundreds of them. In the days of dollar used CDs bins, I often buy albums by a band I barely know because I notice a cover of a song I really like. I think the problem with cover songs, when they go awry, is that they fail to distinguish themselves from the original. Who wants to hear the song played with the same arrangement with only a different singer or more distortion on the guitar solo that is note-for-note the same as the original. Sometimes, it doesn't take very much to make it work, like a singer with a different timber to his voice or female vocals on a song you know from a male singer. My favorite covers are always the ones where the artist takes the song in a completely different direction, like Joey Ramone's version or the Louis Armstrong hit, "What a Wonderful World."

The dialog in the two versions of The Front Page and His Girl Friday is 80% to 90% the same, so seeing the 1974 Billy Wilder version, where I can recite the lines from His Girl Friday by heart, was like hearing a song I love with a different singer who just nails it. 

Billy Wilder didn't like remakes of films, saying "... if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it?" It appears that he agreed to do the remake because he had once been a newspaper man himself and thought it was a glamorous profession. Personally, I have a feeling that he went back to the original play rather than His Girl Friday, because he wanted to distinguish his film from the better known version. In that respect, it really works. Knowing Hildy Johnson, as tough dame, hearing her words from a man works in the same way hearing the lyrics from a song you love coming from a singer of the opposite gender.

The cast is awesome. Screen teams just don't get much better than Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Is it their best work together?  Frankly, no, but some of it comes across brilliantly. Seeing Susan Sarandon in only her fifth film role as Hildy's love interest (remember, Hildy is a man in this version) is a treat. The part of Mollie Malloy is played by none other than Carol Burnett, and it was great to see her in something real and not just a 10-minute bit from her TV show, though the part consists of about the same screen time as one or two of her TV sketches. 

Left to right: Dick O'Neill, David Wayne, Charles Durning, and Allen Garfield
The rest of the cast is almost a who's who of 1970s character actors, Vincent Gardenia as the Sheriff, Harold Gould as The Mayor, and Charles Durning, Herb Edelman, Lou Frizzell, Dick O'Neill, and Allen Garfield as reporters. If you don't know these names, you will surely recognize the faces. Rounding out the cast is David Wayne as Roy Bensinger (the reporter whose desk murderer Earl Williams hides for much of the third act). Aside from the gender switch or switchback if you prefer, one of the few changes is to make the character of Bensinger, gay. Possibly this is in the original stage play, but unless I missed it wasn't even hinted at in The Front Page (1931) or His Girl Friday.

In retrospect, is Billy Wilder's 1974 The Front Page as good as His Girl Friday? No, not even close. Is it as good as one of Wilder's other better films (I can rattle off about a dozen without cheating)? Again, no, not even close. But here's the thing with really great artists, even their bad stuff is well worth a look. That's definitely the case here.

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