The Front Page
BEN HECHT and CHARLES MACARTHUR 1928
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page is a play that is considered responsible for defining the modern stereotype of a reporter as a hard-drinking, hard-boiled journalist intent on uncovering truth even in the face of danger. The comedy was a smash hit from its premiere in Broadway’s Times Square Theatre on August 14, 1928; it ran for 276 performances.
The Front Page was controversial at the time for its use of profane language and references (to such things as sex, prostitutes, and peeping toms) unfit for a decent audience. Modern critics assert that The Front Page paved the way for the use of such language in the theater.
Drawn from Hecht and MacArthur’s careers as journalists in Chicago in the 1910s, the play is set in the pressroom at Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building and concerns a group of reporters covering a controversial execution.
The Front Page has been revived regularly over the years and is regarded as a quintessential American play. Although modern critics deride its outdated language and ideas, it is still valued as an important landmark of the American theater scene.
Hecht was born on February 28,1894, in New York City, the son of Joseph and Sarah Hecht. When he was six years old, his family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where he resided until moving to Chicago in 1910.
In Chicago Hecht began working for the Chicago Journal and eventually become a successful journalist. His interests were not limited to reporting; he also wrote a newspaper column, poetry, and plays. By the early 1920s, he was also a celebrated novelist.
Hecht’s reputation as a playwright was established in the 1920s. Though he had a play produced as early as 1917, his first Broadway show was The Egotist (1922).
His most popular plays were written in collaboration with Charles MacArthur (see below), a fellow Chicagoan with a newspaper background. Their most successful collaboration was The Front Page (1928), which drew on both their newspaper backgrounds and established a stereotype of reporters repeated on stage and screen.
In 1926 Hecht launched his Hollywood screenwriting career at the invitation of friend and already established screenwriter, Herman Mankie-wicz. Although he wrote more than seventy scripts and was highly respected for his work, he considered scriptwriting as strictly a source of income, not an artistic endeavor.
Hecht directed and produced a number of his own films—several in collaboration with MacArthur. By the 1950s, he also worked in television after being blacklisted for his anti-British activities in the post-World War II era. He was a firm Zionist and supporter of Jewish causes, including independence for Israel. He died on April 18, 1964, in New York City.
MacArthur was born on November 5, 1895, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of William Telfer and Georgeanna MacArthur. He spent his childhood in Scranton, but his family moved to Nyack, New York, while he was a teenager.
He enrolled in the Wilson Memorial Academy in order to prepare for a career in the clergy like his father. Realizing that he wanted to be a writer, he moved to Illinois and began his journalism career at his brother’s paper, Oak Leaves, in Oak Park, Illinois.
Between 1914 and 1923, interrupted only by a brief stint in the armed services during World War I, MacArthur was a hard-drinking reporter at some of the best papers in Chicago, including the Chicago Tribune.
In 1923, MacArthur’s life changed dramatically when he moved to New York City. His first produced play was Lulu Belle (1926), a commercial hit written with Edward Sheldon.
After a chance meeting with Hecht on the streets in New York City—they were acquaintances from Chicago’s newspaper scene—the pair collaborated on what became their defining play, The Front Page.
Although MacArthur wrote several plays on his own and in collaboration with a few other writers, his most successful stage works were written with Hecht. Like Hecht, he also had some success as a solo screenwriter.
Hecht and MacArthur also wrote and produced four films together, including The Scoundrel (1935). MacArthur returned to journalism in 1947 when he became editor of Theatre Arts magazine, a post he held until 1950. On April 21, 1956, he died of an internal hemorrhage.
The Front Page opens in the pressroom of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. Several reporters are playing cards, waiting for new information on a major story: the hanging that night of a convicted cop killer, Earl Williams.
The reporters talk about one of their colleagues, Hildy Johnson; though rumor has it that Hildy has quit the newspaper business to get married, none of the reporters can believe it.
Another reporter, Bensinger, calls his boss and reports that Williams will be examined by a psychiatrist before his death. McCue, one of the other reporters, calls his office to report that the Governor is on a fishing trip and cannot be found to give a stay of execution.
A cop, Woodenshoes Eichhorn, stops by for a visit. He tells the reporters that Williams told his Page 85 | Top of Articlepriest that he is innocent; he admitted he killed the cop, but believes that he is being executed because of his radical beliefs. The reporters send Woodenshoes to get hamburgers.
Hildy enters and informs his boss, Burns, that he is quitting his job and going to New York City with his fiancee, Peggy, and her mother that night. Hildy tells the other reporters that he is going to work in an advertising agency. After he leaves to say goodbye to others in the building, the reporters express their jealousy over his good fortune.
Mollie Malloy, a hooker who has been romantically linked to Williams, enters. She is angry about the lies the newspapers have published about her. The reporters throw her out of the office.
Sheriff Hartman enters and predicts that there will be no stay of execution. He leaves as Hildy and Woodenshoes return.
After avoiding another call from Burns, Hildy packs and says his final good-byes. His leave is interrupted by the news that Earl Williams has escaped. Hildy decides to work on the story, even though it means trouble with Peggy.
Twenty minutes later, the reporters reveal that Williams escaped by shooting the psychiatrist. Hildy calls Burns and tells him that Sheriff Hartman gave his gun to the psychiatrist to be used as a prop in his psychological exam.
Peggy enters, angry with Hildy for always putting his job before her. Peggy’s mother, Mrs. Grant, comes in; she has been waiting in a cab downstairs during the argument. Hildy tells them to go ahead to the station—he will meet them later.
In the meantime, the Mayor enters and refuses to make a statement on the escape. The Sheriff announces that they know where Williams is hiding; the reporters rush to the scene.
The Mayor asks the Sheriff why Williams escaped. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Pincus, a man from the Governor’s office, who has come with a reprieve for Williams. The Mayor bribes Pincus to say that he never delivered the document. Pincus accepts the bribe and the men leave.
Hildy returns to the office. Suddenly, Williams falls through the window into the room. Williams
gives Hildy his gun while he explains his actions. Hildy hides him in the bathroom and calls Burns.
Mollie enters, happy to see Williams. They hide him in a reporter’s desk. The disappointed reporters return and call their editors with new information: Williams was not in the house; and tragically, another man was shot in a case of mistaken identity.
Another reporter, Schwartz, theorizes that Williams is still in the building. The reporters decide to look for Williams. Hildy suggests they each take a floor. Before they can leave, Mrs. Grant enters, and reveals that Hildy has caught Williams. Hildy denies it, and the reporters do not believe her.
To deflect attention from Hildy, Mollie claims that she knows where Williams is. To avoid the insistent reporters, she jumps out the window. While the reporters rush out to pursue Mollie, Burns comes in and Hildy tells him that Williams is in the desk. Mrs. Grant sees this; to keep her quiet, Burns has an associate, Diamond Louie, take her to a safe place.
Hildy tries to leave to meet Peggy, but Burns will not let him; he convinces Hildy to finish the story while he smuggles Williams out in the desk. While Hildy writes the story, Peggy returns. She Page 86 | Top of Articleaccuses Hildy of not wanting to get married. She leaves and Hildy declares that he loves his job.
Five minutes later, Hildy is still writing as Burns makes arrangements to smuggle the desk and Williams out of the building. Burns reads over what Hildy has written and makes him rewrite it.
Bensinger knocks at the door. Burns lets him in, and before he can get to his desk, Burns hires him to work for the Examiner and sends him to the office. Hildy regrets choosing the newspaper over Peggy.
Hildy’s musings are interrupted by the appearance of Diamond Louie. He tells them that there was an auto accident while they were transporting Mrs. Grant. Louie does not know what happened to her. Hildy worries that she is dead and starts calling hospitals.
Hildy calls Burns a murderer. More people appear at the door: the Sheriff, two deputies, and several of the reporters. They will not let Hildy leave to find Mrs. Grant. The deputies discover that Hildy is in possession of Williams’ gun. The Sheriff tries to arrest Hildy and Burns.
Mrs. Grant appears at the door. She accuses Burns of kidnapping her, and reveals that Burns and Hildy are hiding a murderer. It is revealed that Williams is inside the desk, and the Sheriff drags him out. Burns and Hildy are handcuffed.
Pincus returns and tells the Mayor that he does not want the bribe; instead, he delivers the reprieve. Hildy questions Pincus and discovers the truth about the Mayor. Peggy returns.
Hildy quits, and assures Peggy that he will change. Burns gives Hildy his pocket watch as a wedding present. Hildy and Peggy leave for New York. Burns calls a man and arranges for Hildy’s arrest a few hours later for stealing the pocket watch.
Bensinger is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He is the owner of the big, ornate desk; later in the play, Williams hides inside of it. Bensinger is a neat freak, a quality that the other reporters constantly violate by leaving garbage all over his desk.
Walter Burns is Hildy’s boss at the paper. Desperate to keep his star reporter, he will go to any lengths to entice Hildy to stay. When he finds out that Hildy is hiding Williams in the press office, Burns helps to keep the convict hidden so that Hildy can get the exclusive story.
Burns is a cold, calculating man; he is willing to break the law to get an edge. When Mrs. Grant realizes the truth about Williams, Burns kidnaps her. When the truth is revealed and Williams is found, Burns is able to talk himself out of trouble.
Although he encourages Hildy to leave with Peggy at the end of The Front Page—he even presents him with his prized pocket watch—he arranges for Hildy to be arrested for stealing the watch.
Diamond Louie is a local thug. He works for Burns as a circulation manager. He helps kidnap Mrs. Grant.
Regarded as inept and slow, Woodenshoes is a police officer. He believes that Williams has a duel personality and that the convict is hiding out with Mollie Malloy. He tries to share his information with the reporters, including Hildy, but they are dismissive.
Endicott is a police reporter for the Post.
Mrs. Grant is Peggy Grant’s mother. She is suspicious of Hildy and his commitment to Peggy. When Hildy does not appear at the train station right away, Mrs. Grant is the one who reveals that Hildy is hiding Williams. Though Hildy convinces the other reporters that she is confused, she eventually sees the convict hiding in the desk.
In order to keep her quiet, Burns has Diamond Louie drive her to a secluded place; en route, there is an auto accident and Hildy fears that she has been hurt. When she returns at the end of the play, Mrs. Grant discloses what has happened to her and Burns is almost charged with kidnapping.
A strong and popular girl, Peggy is engaged to Hildy. Frustrated because he puts his work before their relationship, she constantly asks him to make a true commitment to her. Although Peggy questions if he really loves her, they do leave together at the end of the play. It seems that she has won the battle, if not the war.
Peter B. Hartman
See The Sheriff
Hildy is a star reporter for the Chicago Herald-Examiner. He is ready to leave his job and start a new life when he gets caught up in the story of Earl Williams.
Hildy is engaged to Peggy Grant; later that afternoon, he is supposed to go to New York City with Peggy to get married. After the wedding, Hildy is planning to work at an advertising agency.
Yet before he can leave the pressroom and get on the train, he becomes very involved in the Williams case: he hides the convict in the pressroom; lies to Peggy and her mother; and deceives the other reporters in order to get an exclusive story.
In the end, Hildy realizes that he really does want to marry Peggy and move to New York City. There seems to be some question if he has really left his old life behind or whether he will eventually return to it.
Kruger is a reporter for the Journal of Commerce.
Mollie is a prostitute in love with Williams. She berates the reporters at the beginning of the play because she believes they published lies about her. To protect Williams she jumps out of the window. She survives the fall, but her fate is unclear at the end of the play.
The Mayor is the corrupt leader of Chicago. There is an election in three days and he wants Williams to be executed to improve his chances of being re-elected: Williams murdered a black cop,
and he figures his death will ensure many African American votes.
To that end, the Mayor bribes Pincus to not deliver the reprieve. Later in the play, Pincus changes his mind and delivers the reprieve. To save his own skin, the Mayor removes the cuffs from Burns and Hildy and grudgingly implements the reprieve.
McCue is a reporter for the City News Bureau. He is eager and enthusiastic.
Murphy is a police reporter for the Journal. He is cocky and contemptuous towards everyone, except reporters. He physically throws Mollie out of the pressroom when she begins to cry.
Pincus delivers the reprieve for the execution of Earl Williams. When the Mayor offers him a bribe to not deliver the reprieve, Pincus agrees. Later he Page 88 | Top of Articlechanges his mind and delivers the reprieve. He exposes the attempted bribery to the reporters.
Schwartz is a police reporter for the Daily News. He is the first to speculate that Williams was hiding in the building.
The Sheriff is the primary law enforcement officer in The Front Page. Not particularly respected, he tries to get along everyone, including the reporters, but his efforts often make him look soft. Because he furnished the gun for the psychological exam, he is also viewed as somewhat inept at his job.
Williams is the cop killer and anarchist in The FrontPage. He killed an African-American cop and has been sentenced to die for the crime. He escapes by stealing a gun during a psychological exam; he hides on the roof of the Criminal Courts Building, then in the pressroom. After hiding in a desk for much of the play, his reprieve is finally delivered by the end of the play and his life is spared.
Wilson is a police reporter for the American.
Choices and Consequences
Hildy Johnson has to make several hard choices in the course of The Front Page—the most important choice being his old life or a new one. His new life means that he must leave his career behind in order to move to New York City with Peggy and her mother, get married, and work at an advertising agency. His old life is in the pressroom reporting the news.
This choice results in many humorous situations. Hildy repeatedly puts off Peggy and her mother in order to pursue the Williams story. He almost loses his future several times because of this choice. At the end of The Front Page, Hildy chooses his new life over the old one by leaving with Peggy to go to New York City.
Because he makes this choice, Burns gives him his pocket watch and later arranges for Hildy’s arrest for stealing it. Thus the choice leads to an unexpected consequence.
Loyalty is a recurring theme in The Front Page. Despite their constant complaints, the reporters are loyal to their newspapers and their jobs. They do what it takes to get a story, and are content with their way of life. Even Hildy is loyal to his paper and Burns when the chips are down.
The criminal, Williams, is in trouble out of loyalty. A diehard anarchist who killed a police officer when the cop tried to take down his red flag on Washington’s Birthday, he does not mind dying for his cause. He believes it is the right thing to do. Mollie Malloy is so loyal to Williams that she jumps out of a window rather than compromise his hiding place in the press room.
In contrast, the Mayor and the Sheriff are loyal to their own self-interests. They believe that Williams’s execution will win them the African-American vote in the upcoming election (the officer he killed was black). They are so determined that when a reprieve is issued to stop the execution, they bribe the messenger, Pincus, to say it was never delivered.
All of these loyalties define the characters and their values. Hecht and Mac Arthur also use these loyalties to inspire humor and drama.
Several characters in The Front Page participate in deception. The primary example is when Williams hides in the pressroom. Hoping for an exclusive story, Hildy helps him.
First, Hildy puts him in the adjacent bathroom, then inside of reporter Roy Bensinger’s desk. Then Mollie also helps Williams by jumping out of the window, nearly killing herself. When Walter Burns arrives, he does everything he can to keep Williams’s location a secret.
The Mayor and the Sheriff conspire to keep Williams’s reprieve a secret by bribing Pincus, the governor’s messenger. Although both of these deceptions ultimately fail and the truth is revealed, these incidents show the lengths each side will go to achieve their agenda.
Politics and political beliefs play a large role in The Front Page. Williams is a confirmed anarchist and is convinced that he is to be executed because of his radical beliefs.
The Mayor and the Sheriff conspire to make sure Williams will die so that they will win the upcoming election. When a reprieve is issued, the Mayor views it as a political move against him.
The reporters are not particularly political in the same sense. They use politics and politicians to create good press. They want to expose corruption and exploit it to sell newspapers.
The Front Page is a comedic melodrama set in Chicago. All of the action is confined to one place (the pressroom) and one time (around 8:30 p.m. on Friday night).
The room is rather bare and dirty, with a few tables, chairs, garbage cans, and telephones. There are several windows that overlook the Cook County jail and an adjacent bathroom. The largest piece of furniture is an ornate desk.
By confining all the action to one location, Hecht and MacArthur emphasize the importance of the reporters; after all, it is there that the truth is eventually discovered.
For Williams, the pressroom symbolizes sanctuary from his pursuers. It serves a similar purpose for the reporters; they avoid their wives, their bosses, and the problems of everyday life by hanging out there. Even the Mayor and the Sheriff are able to talk privately there.
For Burns and Hildy, Williams is perceived as a symbol of the corruption of the current political administration. Burns and Hildy want to use Earl as a means of exposing this corruption to the world.
To that end, Earl is hidden in the only nice piece of furniture in the room: the ornate black walnut
desk. Ironically, the desk was once the property of a Mayor of Chicago, Fred A. Busse.
This complex symbolism could be interpreted a number of ways. The desk could symbolize the greater power of the press over politics. The Mayor’s desk is the property of the reporter—like the Mayor is meant to serve the public.
The actions of Burns and Hildy, no matter how selfish their agenda, lead to a reprieve for Williams. This reinforces the idea that the desk ultimately represents the power of the press.
Dialogue and Language
Throughout The Front Page, Hecht and MacArthur employ overlapping dialogue, especially in the scenes that feature several reporters. In other words, there are several conversations going on in the pressroom at once. Reporters also constantly interrupt and contradict each other. This kind of dialogue gives a speedy edge to the play and makes it seem more realistic.
What the reporters are saying is also important. They speak in a vernacular appropriate to their Page 90 | Top of Articleprofession and they say whatever they have to in order to get the story.
During the 1920s, America emerged as the world’s major economic and cultural force. Under the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, big business flourished. One such business was the automobile industry; by 1930, twenty-two million cars would be on the road. Roads connecting cities were being built. The proliferation of automobiles and roads allowed better transportation and more efficient movement of goods and services.
Skyscrapers were going up in many major cities. Indeed, the first air-conditioned office building was opened in San Antonio Texas in 1928. With such obvious symbols of prosperity and progress, President Hoover believed that the end of poverty was in sight.
Yet all was not well: the economy showed signs of instability; fluctuations in the stock market foreshadowed the crash in October of 1929; government corruption undermined public confidence; and racial and ethnic conflict increased as the differences between rich and poor intensified.
Lynchings of blacks were still common throughout the United States. Schools were segregated, especially in the southern regions of the country. Many homes in rural areas did not have electricity or indoor plumbing.
In 1920 a constitutional amendment prohibited the distribution of alcohol in the United States. (It was repealed in 1933.) Prohibition was hard to enforce, and in 1927, the Prohibitions Bureau was created. Approximately 75,000 people were arrested for violations in 1928.
For women, the decade signaled some positive changes. In general, women received a better education; more women attended college in 1928 than a decade earlier. They had more opportunities, especially for employment.
Entertainment options increased during the decade. Radio became the dominant form of entertainment and information. Radios played more music and serial dramas (the precursor to the television series), and coverage of the first sport events aired. Many people had radios in their homes.
There was an increase in the number of mass circulation magazines. Tabloid papers were introduced and were growing in number. In all of these mediums, advertising became a key source of revenue and the advertising industry exploded.
Television was in the experimental stages, and the first license for a television station was granted in 1928. It began broadcasting in May 1928.
When The Front Page first opened in New York City in 1928, the play’s critical praise was qualified by a controversy over language. Many reviewers considered it harsh and inappropriate.
J. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times summed up the controversy. He asserted, “The Front Page, which is one of the tautest and most unerring melodramas of the day bruises the sensitive ear with a Rabelaisaian vernacular unprecedented for its uphill and down-dale blasphemy.”
Still, Atkinson found much to praised. “Hilarious, gruesome, and strident by turns, The Front Page compresses lively dramatic material into a robust play.” Atkinson closed his review with this qualifier: “Quite apart from its authenticity, which may be disputed, it adds a fresh peril to casual play going for the purposes of entertainment.”
An unnamed colleague of Atkinson’s at the New York Times came to a similar conclusion. The reviewer maintained: “Wrangling at poker, leering over the political expediency of the execution, abusing the Sheriff and the Mayor insolently, they [the reporters] utter some of the baldest profanity and most slattern jesting that has ever been heard on the public stage. Graphic as it may be in tone and authenticity, it diverts attention from a vastly entertaining play.” These issues of authenticity return repeatedly in later years.
A few critics considered what The Front Page said about journalism and America in general. Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, a reviewer for the Catholic World, claimed that “The Front Page, as an example of American stagecraft is spectacular, as an example of open-hearted coarseness of speech it is outstanding.”
She continued, “[T]hough its basic morals are quite sound and its vulgarity lacks innuendo, the
words used are neither nice nor seemly. The humor, however, is thoroughly American and spontaneous.”
While The Front Page did not have a long run, the play has been revived regularly over the years. The controversy over the language basically died down, and many critics debated how the play had aged.
Reviewing a popular New York revival in 1969–70, John Simon wrote in his book Uneasy Stages:
This 1928 play is full of the least attractive ideas of its time: American chauvinism, contempt for culture, condescension to the intellect, sentimental affection for crooks in and out of government. And, vilest of all, the notion that newspapermen are the toughest, shrewdest, meanest and ultimately cleverest guys in the world.
Yet many critics have found aspects of The Front Page timeless, if not contemporary.
Walter Kerr maintained that the play aged well because it was not about a specific time. In his book God on the Gymnasium Floor and Other Theatrical Adventures, he contended that “The Front Page isn’t really faithful to the early twenties or later twenties or to anything in particular. Its authors admitted that at the time.”
Alan Brien of Plays and Players, viewed the script as the reason for its agelessness. “It still works, like an ancient nickelodeon, because of the craftsmenship of its authors.”
In 1986–87, The Front Page was revived on Broadway. Critics noticed how the play echoed contemporary America. Robert Brustein of The New Republic asserted that “Mosher believes The Front Page to be the finest American play ever written. I’m not prepared to go that far with him, but the Lincoln Center production certainly makes the case with persuasive eloquence.”
Later in his piece, Brustein maintained that “for all the double crosses, good-nature chicanery, and idiomatic wisecracks, the play provides a glimpse of the seamy side of American politics and press practices that is ferociously contemporary.”
Similar assessments were made about a 1994 revival at Canada’s Shaw Festival. Michael A. Morrison of The Village Voice points out that “At times the play shows its age. The misogyny of the reporters and references to the black citizens with the N-word grate on the ear, but the play’s satirical flogging of political correctness (half a century before the phrase was coined) is engagingly contemporary.”
Similarly, John Bemrose of Maclean’s writes “Anyone who thinks that current TV programs such as The Simpsons—where crude putdowns are the rule—represent a disturbing new trend in American life should consult The Front Page.”
In this essay, Petrusso examines the role of women in The Front Page.
In recent reviews of The Front Page, several critics have contended that the play denigrates the role of women. For example, John Bemrose of Maclean’s maintained that “the air is perpetually blue with profanity and verbal attacks—some of them directed against blacks and women.”
John Simon argued that the reporters “have contempt at best for women lovers, whatever doesn’t jibe with their grimy, grubby, ecumenical smugness.”
I assert that the negative attitudes towards women in the play are not this simple. While The Front Page certainly has sexist elements, the female characters play key roles: defining standards and even saving their male counterparts on occasion.
There are two kinds of women in The Front Page: those who work (Jennie and Mollie) and those who marry (Mrs. Schlosser, Peggy Grant, and Mrs. Grant). Though the two types of women are treated somewhat differently by the reporters and the authors, each plays a vital part in maintaining standards of decency. Sometimes their words contradict their actions, and what the male reporters say about them undermines their efforts. Yet each woman triumphs in her own way.
Jennie is the building’s cleaning woman, and a relatively minor character. The stage directions call her “slightly idiotic” but when she enters, “[s]he receives an ovation” from the reporters. They tease her, but they appreciate the fact that she keeps their office clean.
Although the reporters believe that Jennie is sometimes in the way—such as at the beginning of the second act—they appreciate her persistence and hard work. She does her job despite Murphy’s complaints that she is in the way; this proves that she is not intimidated by his words.
Mollie Malloy plays a much more vital role in The Front Page. She is a known prostitute who is
treated with derision by the reporters. When she comes into the office, she is angry that the reporters have published lies about her relationship with Earl Williams, the convict.
Mollie asserts: “I never said I loved Earl Williams and was willing to marry him on the gallows! You made that up! And all that other crap abut my being his soul mate and having a love nest with him.”
She tries to explain that she only invited him up to her room because it was raining the day before the shooting. She felt sorry for him, and they only talked. Mollie yells at the reporters,’ I was the only one with guts enough to stand up for him! And that’s why you’re persecuting me! Because he treated me decent, and not like an animal, and I said so!”
Mollie has touched on something very profound about the play. She realizes—before anyone else—that the reporters use people like her and Williams to sell newspapers. They do not really care about their fate—unless it makes a good story. The actions of Walter Burns proves this point later in The Front Page.
Yet the truth is that Mollie does have feelings for him. When Hildy hides Williams in the pressroom, Mollie sacrifices everything for him. She does everything she can within her very limited power to protect him. One reason Mollie does this is because Williams admits he likes her. He tells her “Yeah, I think you’re wonderful I said you were the most beautiful character I ever met.”
So when the reporters become suspicious and insist on answers, Mollie makes a bold decision. She jumps out of the window with the words, “You’ll never get it out of me I’ll never tell! Never!” This succeeds in deflecting attention away from Hildy and the desk for a long time.
Mollie’s actions are heroic compared to the rest of the characters in the play. She does not die, but her self-sacrifice says more than enough about the nobility of the female character in The Front Page.
The “married” women are not nearly as dramatic; instead, they represent oppression and respectability. The first woman introduced in the play is a minor character, Mrs. Schlosser. She is the long-suffering wife of a reporter, Herman, who works for the Examiner. She is angry because she believes that he is out drinking.
Several reporters try to appease her and cover for Herman. She forces them to reveal that he has gone to a Turkish bath. After Mrs. Schlosser leaves in a huff, several reporters berate her behind her back. Endicott muses, “I don’t know what gets into women. I took Bob Brody home the other night and his wife broke his arm with a broom.”
These reactions reflect the general attitudes of men towards women—and women towards men—depicted in the play. These attitudes are a recurring theme of The Front Page. In this case, Mrs. Schlosser is only placated when she talks to Herman’s editor, Walter Burns, on the phone and he agrees to deal Page 94 | Top of Articlewith the paycheck situation to her benefit. Mrs. Schlosser gets her way in the end.
After Mollie, the two most powerful women in the play are Peggy Grant and her mother. Mrs. Grant functions as Hildy’s conscience throughout the play; she realizes the truth and threatens to reveal it. This knowledge makes her so dangerous that Burns feels compelled to kidnap her to keep her quiet. She only goes because she is taken forcibly by Diamond Louie.
The subsequent automobile accident and Mrs. Grant’s disappearance from the scene underscore the choice Hildy must make. It forces him to confront questions about why he is pursuing this job and what he wants to do with his life.
Later, when Mrs. Grant reappears, she exposes Burns and Hildy in front of the authorities. She also reveals Williams’s hiding place. She proves that women are not pushovers.
The woman who affects the most change is Peggy. Through her ultimatum, she causes Hildy’s dilemma: he is forced to choose between his love for her and his love of reporting.
Hildy finds that it is a difficult decision. He is happy with his old job: he loves the excitement, the camaraderie, and the attention. Yet the prospect of moving to New York City, working in advertising, and making more money appeals to him. Peggy realizes how difficult it will be for him to leave his old job; she knows the powerful attraction it still holds for him.
So she is proactive in order to get what she wants. When Hildy does not arrive at a farewell party, she calls while he is saying his good-byes in the building. When Hildy gets on the phone with her, he is contrite and promises her that he will be there. Eventually she has to show up herself. This happens repeatedly throughout The Front Page: Hildy makes a promise, does not keep it, then Peggy has to come to confront him.
When Hildy lies to her—like about spending their wedding money on a lead for the story—Peggy keeps him straight and makes him tell the truth. Peggy’s actions make Hildy face up to his responsibilities. He cannot lie to her.
Later, there is a showdown of Burns versus Peggy: tyrant versus wife, bad versus good. Burns wants to control Hildy while Peggy wants to make him face himself and his choices. She accuses him: “You never intended to be decent and live like a human being! You were lying all the time!” Though the argument ends with Peggy leaving in tears, Burns pushes Hildy too far. He realizes what he truly wants: Peggy.
When Peggy returns at the end of the play, Hildy has made the choice to be with women instead of men. Though Burns tries to get him to come back to the paper, Hildy tells her:
Listen Peggy, if I’m not telling you the absolute truth may God strike me dead right now. I’m going to New York with you tonight—if you give me this one last chance! I’ll cut out drinking and swearing and everything connected with the God damn newspaper business. I won’t even read a newspaper.
While Burns may get the last word in The Front Page by arranging for Hildy’s arrest, he has lost the war. Hildy will probably not want to come back as a reporter after such a stunt.
The women in the play have fought hard for what they want; in many ways, they each get what they want. They play an important role in the course and outcome of the play.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Brustein reviews a 1987 revival of Hecht and MacArthur’s play at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York. Finding that the play’s potent message has endured, the critic offers a favorable review of The Front Page.
Yet another revival of The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play about Chicago newspapermen covering an execution, would not appear to be a particularly original theatrical idea or an especially bold choice to open Gregory Mosher’s second season at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. The play has already enjoyed three movie versions—one of them macerating this hard-nosed farce into a gender-reversed romantic comedy, with Rosalind Russell as a female Hildy Johnson and Cary Grant doing one of his incomparable comic turns as her editor-lover, Walter Burns. It is, besides, a regular feature of resident theater schedules in this country, and in 1972 it was even memorialized by the National Theatre of Great Britain in a version that, stretched to three hours and groaning under labored American accents, was treated with as much reverence as the Wakefield Mystery Cycle.
This new production under the direction of Jerry Zaks is far from reverent. It lasts for two hours that sweep along like one. From the moment the lights came up on Tony Walton’s massive rendering Page 95 | Top of Articleof an improvised press room, with its parquet floors, twirling fans, broken-down chandeliers, overstuffed wastebaskets, old Royal typewriters, and upright telephones—all backed by the silhouette of a Chicago courthouse—I was captured by the show, refreshed as if by a new play. This is one of those happy occasions in the American theater when a familiar work of secondary reputation asserts its claim to classic status. Mosher believes The Front Page to be the finest American play ever written. I’m not prepared to go that far with him, but the Lincoln Center production certainly makes the case with persuasive eloquence.
The Front Page doesn’t have a soft bone in its body. We are told that the authors originally conceived the work as a satire on ruthless reporters and sensationalistic journalism, only to end up with a valentine to the whole newspaper profession. I’m not so sure. These reporters certainly have their engaging side—so do the hack politicians and corrupt cops who serve as foils for their banter. But for all the double crosses, competitive dodges, sardonic backbiting, good-natured chicanery, and idiomatic wisecracks (expressed in that special urban argot that O’Neill kept trying, unsuccessfully, to create), the play provides a glimpse of the seamy side of American politics and press practices that is ferociously contemporary. Earl Williams, an anarchist in an age of “Red Menace” hysteria, is going to the gallows because he has jeopardized the mayor’s bid for re-election: he has shot a black policeman, and the “coon” vote in Chicago is crucial. When the governor sends a reprieve in the last days of the campaign—God knows what his motives are—the mayor bribes the messenger to say he never delivered it. When the prisoner escapes, the mayor orders him shot on sight.
The fact is that nobody gives a damn about Earl Williams—not Walter Burns, who only wants an exclusive for the Examiner; not the reporters, who tailor the facts to suit their purposes; not even Hildy Johnson, who helps to hide him in a rival reporter’s desk. Aside from Mollie Malloy, the sentimental hooker who jumps out of a third story window rather than testify, Williams has no value for anyone except as an opportunity for greed, ambition, vanity, or worse. For the press, the highest premium is “the great big Scoop”: the reporters want Williams hanged at five in the morning instead of seven, in time for the city edition. For the politicians, whose only motive is perpetuating themselves in office, ideology, conscience, even human life itself are hostages to expediency. The Front Page dramatizes
Darwin’s survival theory with a breezy sangfroid equalled before only by Ben Jonson and John Gay, and only by Brecht and Mamet in our own time.
Under Zaks’s meticulous direction, the play zips along like a hound dog with cans on its tail. Obviously, Zaks responds to plays with an edge (he is equally good with Durang), and this is a remarkable recovery after the blatant audience-fondling of House of Blue Leaves. He has cast the newspapermen with performers in the tradition of [1930’s] character actors—Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Edward Binns, the old broken-nose school of working toughs—who lounge at their desks playing poker or hugging phones, “sitting here all night waiting for them to hang the bastard.” They recall a livelier time in American life, when it was energy not efficiency that flowed from ruthless careerism.
The casting of the major roles (with one debatable exception) is also impeccable: Jerome Dempsey as the rotund, orotund mayor, equipped (by the costumer Willa Kim, whose period designs are characterizations in themselves) with tailcoat and fez, bouncing languorously about the stage like a huge beach ball on the surface of a pond; Richard B. Shull as the persistently deflated Sheriff Hartman, a Klaxon-voiced pol with a permanent sore throat; Bill McCutcheon as Mr. Pincus, the messenger with the reprieve, a sleepy little pink mouse with a passion for peanuts; Jeff Weiss as Bensinger, the fastidious hypochondriac who sprays his telephone receiver for germs; Paul Stolarsky as the pathetic goofball Earl Williams, appealing vainly to be recognized not as a Bolshevik but as an anarchist; Jack Wallace as Woodenshoes Eichorn, the bullheaded Page 96 | Top of Articlecop with phrenological theories of crime; Julie Hagerty as Peggy, the girl who competes with Walter Burns for Hildy’s affections, a thin, nervous, high-pitched hysteric in a cloche hat; and, of course, John Lithgow as Walter Burns.
This is surely one of Lithgow’s finest opportunities as a character actor, and although he doesn’t enter until late in the second act, he makes the part, if not the play, his personal property. Bearing himself like a Junker general, with a brush moustache and military haircut, he towers over Hildy with the authority of one accustomed to absolute power (at one point, he wraps Hildy’s head under his arm and pulls him around the stage like a cowboy breaking a steer). Lithgow offers a considerably more ruthless Walter Burns than did his predecessors in the role (Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Walter Matthau)—menacing and dour for all his charm. His passion for his newspaper leaves him indifferent to any weaknesses that aren’t exploitable. To an ailing reporter he shouts, “To hell with your diabetes, this is important.” “I was in love once,” he tells us in an uncharacteristic moment of Sir Andrew Aguecheek tenderness, only to add “... with my third wife.” Like the play, he has a cartilaginous heart, and by the time he barks the play’s famous last line—“The son of a bitch stole my watch!—he has created a comic scoundrel unique in the annals of deception.
The casting flaw is Richard Thomas’s Hildy Johnson. When he first appears on stage, a slight, youthful figure in a camel’s hair coat, it looks as though a stripling has been called in to do the work of a man. Paradoxically, however, Thomas ends up contributing one of the most detailed performances in the production, precisely because he has been miscast. Like a repertory company actor challenged by a part for which he has to stretch and transform, he builds his character piece by piece, and with such commitment that he proves he understands the role, even if he doesn’t finally claim it. His hair slicked down, his accent washed with a Chicago rinse, dancing about the stage like a cocky young torero making passes, Thomas brings a crackling energy to Hildy that almost makes you forget he lacks the seasoning and the grit. He’s the only alloy in an evening of tempered metal. In the way it takes a beady look at human corruption, The Front Page suggests how soft we have since become as a people and as a culture.
Source: Robert Brustein, “Headline Hunting,” in the New Republic, Vol. 196, no. 1&2, January 5 & 12,1987, pp. 25–26.
While finding some fault in the casting of the lead roles, this critic still contends that The Front Page has endured as a powerful dramatic work, one that is borne out in this 1986 revival.
Whenever The Front Page is revived, reviewers feel an obligation to apologize for liking the play, and I am no exception. It is indeed a ramshackle affair, flung together with more scaffolding than structure and containing more funny lines than clever ones, but there is also at the heart of its pretense of heartlessness an air of youthful, ignorant high spirits that we cannot fail to find endearing. If its authors, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, had known more about writing plays, they would surely have written a worse one; like two literary Elizas, they keep leaping from one shaky ice floe of plot to the next, always in peril of their lives and yet always laughing. Walter Burns, the second-most important character in The Front Page, doesn’t make his appearance until the play is two-thirds over—an error that any proper teacher of playwriting would birch his pupils for committing. Nevertheless, our untutored authors have done exactly right by doing wrong: Burns, the dreaded cynical, ruthless managing editor of the Chicago Herald-Examiner, would be hard to put up with for an entire evening. As for the chief character, Hildy Johnson, who is the star reporter of the Examiner and Burns’s slave, he is a vain, noisy, drunken, and unscrupulous lout, and would also be hard to listen to for long, but again ignorance triumphs: Hecht and MacArthur, seemingly unaware of how expensive a big cast is, fill their stage with such a host of characters—twenty-five in all—that we are never given an opportunity to lose patience with any individual among them. Though reputedly drawn from real life, they are without exception one-dimensional; whenever they get a chance to speak, they nearly always say what they said before, or a close variation of it. This economy of language is applied throughout the play without regard to whether the speaker is a slovenly newspaperman, a crooked politician, a bedevilled prostitute, a middle-aged housewife, or a condemned murderer.
If the play is the cobbled-up comic claptrap I have described, how does it happen to have survived so successfully for sixty years? To me, the answer is an unpleasant one, so a second apology is in order for liking the play; this time the reason is not its faulty craftsmanship but the point of view that lies behind its knockabout melodramatics and is Page 97 | Top of Articlethe unexamined source of its energy. Which is to say that The Front Page is a classic embodiment of the still prevalent American male fantasy about the nature of paradise: a place—whether a pressroom, a locker room, or a club—where men can sit around and drink and tell adolescently dirty stories; a place where a woman, if she should make the mistake of entering it, would be abused and ordered away (when the prostitute in The Front Page attempts suicide by jumping from a window of the pressroom, the reporters present feel neither sympathy nor interest: a prostitute committing suicide is not news); and a place, finally, where even the love that boozy middle-aged men may wish to offer one another is expressible only in terms of vulgar pranks.
Having offered this indictment of the construction of the play and of what I see as its lamentable cultural provenance, I am obliged to add that The Front Page delights every audience before which it plays—audiences at least half of which are made up of women. (Why women are amused to see themselves depicted as stereotypes—virginal girlfriend, good-hearted prostitute, mindless mother-in-law, and the like—would require a parenthesis far longer than this one.) The audiences at the Vivian Beaumont measure up to the usual standard—or perhaps ought to be said to exceed it, because the production they applaud is not a very good one. The two main characters are radical examples of miscasting. Richard Thomas plays Hildy Johnson as if in imitation of James Cagney playing George M. Cohan, with a cocky strut and a high-strung manner that make it difficult for us to believe in him as a charming, hard-drinking reporter desperately in love with a pretty girl and eager to abandon his career on her behalf. As for John Lithgow as Walter Burns—Mr. Lithgow is a marvellous actor, but a venomous misanthropy that would make Iago blanch is evidently beyond his capacity to depict. Jerry Zaks has directed with an exceptionally heavy hand. Richard B. Shull is funny as the bumbling sheriff, and so is Jerome Dempsey as the crooked mayor, but Mr. Zaks has made no effort to curb their too obvious pleasure in squeezing more humor out of their roles than the roles possess. When Bill McCutcheon, in a small but crucial role as a virtuous nitwit, struggles to understand the simplest instruction, one can almost hear him counting the beats before he changes expression; telegraphy on this scale of obviousness has long been obsolete on any stage.
Also in the cast of The Front Page are Jeff Weiss, Julie Hagerty, Mary Catherine Wright, and Jack Wallace. The welcomely realistic set—the pressroom of the old Criminal Courts Building in Chicago (the building has been preserved, though the pressroom has vanished)—is by Tony Walton, the costumes are by Willa Kim, and the lighting is by Paul Gallo.
Source: Anonymous, “Low Life in Chicago,” in the New Yorker, Vol. 62, December 8, 1986, pp. 134–35.
Jeffrey A. Smith
In the following essay, Smith probes the transformation of lead character Hildy Johnson from a male role to a female role by film director Howard Hawks.
Clearly central to the task which director Howard Hawks sets himself in adapting Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page into his own film, His Girl Friday, is the need to reformulate the central character, Hildy Johnson. Hawks has both begun this reformulation and compounded its difficulties by opting to present Hildy as a woman rather than a man. To bring to fruition this initial switch, while retaining the broad outlines of the stage play’s plot, Hawks must justify his new Hildy in terms of the demands levied by Hildy’s role in the original play. Specifically, he must make his female Hildy believable as what her opposite, Walter (Cary Grant), dubs her in the film: “The best newspaperman I know.” At the same time he must establish her as a recognizable, 1940 romantic lead. Hawks seems to aim at building his essentially new comedy around the special irony of a Hildy who is both. That the resulting character may prove to be of a type—the sophisticated, strong-minded career woman Rosalind Russell often portrayed in such films—will only confirm Hawks’s success. It is no argument against the peculiarity of the problem to this situation. Hawks, producer and director on His Girl Friday, inherits a stage plot turning upon the irreconcilability of professional and romantic life for its (male) Hildy. To transmute that story into romantic comedy on film, he must retain a measure of conflict but finally cause romance and professional obligation to converge. Hawks saw that a female Hildy might accomplish this fusion—but once brought into being, she must do so for the comedy to work at all. Thus arises Hawks’s central task.
To assess his approach to it, we naturally would look for scenes that focus intimately on Hildy’s character. One such scene ensues when Hildy seeks out the condemned man, Earl Williams, for an interview in his prison cell. Hawks’s great success in this scene is the creation of an integrated Hildy
who is credibly “a great newspaperman” precisely because she is female—and conversely one who, as newspaperman, is exactly the woman to succeed in the hard-bitten newspaper world, in Walter’s life, and in the pivotal role of Hawks’s newly forged romantic comedy. Stylistic analysis of the brief scene yields much insight, not only into Hawks’s particular strategies but also into the larger issues involved in adapting a theater comedy of one genre into a film representative of another.
The “cell” scene does not appear in the stage version. This fact itself, linking the scene with other important sequences written new for the film, makes it characteristic of Hawks’s transmutative work. Predictably, given the task as outlined, most of the new material occurs in the first, largely expository half of the film, when characters are established. The cell scene occurs at an important point near the end of this first half. Reasons for its appearance lie in the logic of Hawks’s new plot. The Hildy of The Front Page falls back into reporting by instinct, in a reflexive response to the crisis of Earl Williams’s jailbreak. Walter, to that point, has done nothing to persuade Hildy to come back to work. His incessant browbeating and his single attempt at trickery have earned only Hildy’s vow to “walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours.” Hildy first betrays reportorial instinct only some time after this exchange. By contrast, Hildy’s visit to Earl Williams in the film follows from Walter’s conniving. Hildy here shows more of conscious calculation than bombast and instinct. Also, of course, she appears manipulable, but this trait derives from her weddedness to newspaper work—and, implicitly, to Walter, who is altogether more visible to us in the film than in the play. As is quite opposite in the play, Walter’s influence at this point is that of newpapering. Hildy succumbs to both with the same act. The convergence begins.
On the face of it, therefore, the cell scene presents a conscious, more commanding Hildy, one who is on more intimate terms with Walter and thus subject to the grip of her profession through him. The “monkey skull” line does return later to remind us of the story’s central conflict. But an eventual resolution of that conflict, something we are not given on stage, has been hinted at in this interweaving of Hildy’s romantic and professional predilections.
Stylistically, the cell scene furthers these effects at deeper levels. Composed of eight shots neatly divisible into groups of four, with each half-sequence forming a unity in time, its central action proceeds by showing Hildy’s command of situations—her professionalism—and then integrating that commanding quality with compassion: a compassion derivable in part from the ability to command, and in part from Hildy’s distinctly “feminine” character.
The first four shots work principally to show her authority. Heretofore, the film has not shown her functioning as newspaperman, nor in any newspaper setting other than the office. But it is “on the beat” that Hildy will unfold as a reporter. (Significantly, the whole sequence takes place between scenes in the newspaper office and in the Criminal Courts press room. By embedding the scene solidly within these journalistic settings, Hawks underscores its key position as a setting for Hildy’s action in that world.) Hildy is discovered in the doorway to the prison foyer at the fade-in. She is already there, in our first view of this world, and, by implication, has been all along. Lighting from an off-camera window highlights her in contrast with the guard, Jacobi, who sits in shadow at his desk. She is prominent here; this is her natural element.
That the guard must turn his head from the side opposite Hildy to come to face her is also worth noting. As the second shot brings us in closer, he is about to turn away again, backside to her, as her interview request ends in her assured, perfunctory, “How about a little service?” The fact that her bribe forces him to turn around once more, unnatural though the movement has come to seem visually, shows us her magnetic hold on him—and implicitly, on the whole system. Hildy does not miss a beat during this bit, which occupies the rest of the shot. With virtually the same movement that brought her through the door, she lifts the bribe from her handbag, drops it, stoops to pick it up and, in the process, carries through the dialogue: “Oh, say, is this your Page 99 | Top of Articlemoney?” “Don’t think it is....” “Twenty bucks.” “Well, it just may be.” “That’s what I thought.” It is all one motion, a single, coordinated sentence. She has been certain from the moment she entered what to do, ritualistically, each second.
Hildy’s left hand still clutches gloves and a handbag, as it did the moment she entered. Thus, the same hand that just effected the bribe now pushes Jacob from his chair, and the words again coordinate: “C’mon, I’m in a hurry.” Her attitude is not the pushiness of one anxious or uncertain about getting her way; it is the total assurance of one so practiced as to be able to carry on automatically—with one hand, so to speak.
We must pause here before other elements that influence the larger comedy. The ease with which Hildy bribes Jacob underlines not only her strength, but the whole system’s weakness—particularly that of the yet-to-appear Mayor and Sheriff. The sweep of Hildy’s hand to the floor and back with the money just as easily sweeps aside the Sheriff’s authority (in this case, to keep her from seeing Earl Williams). Subtextual play and comic undercutting of this sort work importantly, we will discover, throughout this scene.
Also, we notice that Jacob is reading a newspaper when Hildy arrives. Newspaperdom, as noted, permeates the setting; that is the setting’s point. But the pencil in Jacobi’s hand further suggests what type of newspapering is involved. A good guess would hold that Jacobi has been busy with a crossword puzzle. The image will be repeated later in the press room, where a dangling newspaper in one reporter’s hand shows a comics page to the camera. Jacobi’s nonthreatening nature comes home to us as we spot this, but, more importantly, so does that of this whole world. However seriously it may present itself, even on death row the world of Hildy’s profession finally appears containable, “fun,” light-heartedly comic.
Moving through a barred door into the cell area in Shot Three, Hildy resumes the motion, only briefly interrupted by the inconvenience of the bribe. Her speech and tone are continuous with what has gone before: “Hey, Joe, open up here.” Waving aside Jacobi’s last protest, she strides in. Her movement up until now has been from right to left, an unnatural direction visually. Death row is an unnatural place. Yet Hildy shows no consternation; the surety in her step overcomes our visual difficulty, as her assured manner generally takes command of, even redeems, this otherwise alien world.
Shot Four develops this last theme. It is a high-angle shot embracing the whole cell room, and thus delimiting it to stand clearly apart from us. We see it from an unlikely angle that gives us a commanding, all-encompassing overview. The effect of the angle is our sense both of alienness and of the fact that this world can be encompassed. It sets us up, as have foregoing shots, to witness Hildy take command. Hildy’s ability to move, her efficacy, again overcomes a visually unnatural image, and her movement becomes firmly established as a metaphor for control. It stands in contrast both with the stark, unmoving angles and lines and the long shadows of the cell room—dominated by Earl’s cage-like enclosure—and with the severely circumscribed, inefficacious “movement” of Earl within the cell, or of the mechanically pacing guard in the background. Hildy moves assuredly where movement otherwise is absent or confined.
Her name, she tells Earl, is “Johnson,” a reminder of her professional, unmarried, pre-Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) condition. But she addresses her subject as “Earl.” Later, her personal touch will seem almost maternally patronizing. That there is in this attitude a contrast between herself and Earl, one as great as the difference in their respective abilities to move, is emphasized by Earl’s ironic assent to the interview: “I haven’t anything else to do.” Hildy, we are certain by now, has much else to do in this film. As proof, the first half-sequence ends with reminders of her composure, as we saw it at the outset. Still clutching objects in her left hand, Hildy executes another deft sweep with her right as she pulls over a chair. The shot fades with her again in motion, stepping toward Earl.
The second half-sequence continues to show Hildy dominate; but now, as the last shot presaged, it reveals her dominance as a force of quiet strength, enabling her to lend others her support in a sympathetic, “feminine” fashion. Her manner is thus distinguished from that of fellow “gentlemen of the press.” Hildy’s command becomes empathy, as she works to command Earl for his own benefit. This further elaboration of her character supplies an “equals” sign between her femininity and her capacity to be “a great newspaperman.” The sequence begins with a fade to a two-person close shot—the first close-up in the cell scene. Visually the tone has changed, quieted; Hildy’s movement, emphasized in the preceding series of medium and long shots, largely ceases. Despite the heavy cell wire between them, a clear sense of intimacy appears in this close view of Hildy and Earl. The two Page 100 | Top of Articleare visually pushed together by the solid cell door that frames them on the left. Molly’s picture in triangulation on the wall behind enhances this sense of intimacy and of a specifically personal bond, a bond based on feminine warmth. When she speaks, Hildy seems to have lost the briskness in her voice. She projects a nearly maternal sense of peace and reassurance.
Both other clues remind us that Hildy still commands the situation. Her profile stands in the foreground, fully lit, higher in the frame than Earl’s face, and prominent. It stands out against her own dark clothing. Earl’s downcast visage, by contrast, seems of a piece with his drab prison outfit. This is the first shot in the film to present Earl at close range, and everything in actor John Qualen’s appearance, right down to his little mustache, reassures us that he is harmless, no match for Hildy, and only comically conceivable as the “Red menace” the Mayor’s and Sheriff’s hysterics make him out to be. Earl’s eyes draw us downward to reveal, moreover, that movement still exists. Hildy’s hands finger a pack of cigarettes. As movement on her part has come to represent assurance and control, we here sense Earl’s awareness of that control—a reminder of it also for us.
In every respect, the dialogue that commences during this shot reinforces the irony present in visual signs of Hildy’s and Earl’s relative strength. It begins with Earl’s protestations to sanity, a self-characterization we would be the last to deny him. If anything, he is banal normalcy run riot, and every bit the “tough luck” character to find himself fired after twenty-two years on the same job. Hildy, who evidently has him all figured out, affirms this impression. When she asks, “You didn’t mean to kill that policeman,” she need not look at Earl to read an answer. She assumes it, like a forgiving mother toward a child who has misbehaved. In fact, throughout the scene she rarely lets Earl finish a sentence. Earl’s response, “It’s against everything I’ve ever stood for,” insists on the absurd premise that he has ever “stood for” anything. “It’s just—just the world.” (Earl, of course, begins to seem a parody of the Marxist the Major and Sheriff want us to believe he is. Here he offers a quasi-doctrine of social conditioning for crime.)
But above these contrasts, the intimate bond between Hildy and Earl draws certain equations between the two. Earl’s reference to “the world,” a world this scene has been exploring, may implicate Hildy even more than Earl. The suspicion rises that Earl is a “foil” for Hildy. We might reasonably expect it to rise further.
A first visual confirmation that it does so appears in the next shot, which simply mirrors the preceding. Earl comes into the foreground; Hildy’s face remains dominant, but the camera now has captured her in Earl’s world, through the bars. To cement the bond, Hildy and Earl exchange a cigarette through the cell wire. Had we begun viewing at Shot Five, we might not now know which of the two sat inside the cell. Nor does it finally matter. Earl will be free, and Hildy, in the end, will not be—or, she will realize her subconscious choice not to be. That choice is inescapable. She is “imprisoned” herself, though in a world that, as a prison, fails to be very threatening. As a tag to the shot, Hildy calls her femininity to mind again by apologizing for the lipstick on her cigarette.
The scene’s last two shots serve as a compressed re-emphasis of the themes thus far developed. Shot Seven, a visual return to Shot Five, makes circular the mini-sequence between Hildy and Earl, just as the final shot closes off the whole scene with another long view of the cell room. The “produced for use” bit completes Earl’s depiction as a parody of both a Marxist and a murdering gunman. It comically undercuts the hysteria that later will attend his escape. It is itself the victim of subtextual play focused on the cigarette, which the non-smoking Earl remembers to hand back to Hildy, who crushes it to the floor unused. Intimacy also culminates in Shot Seven in the admiring of Molly’s picture. As the first stimulus to animate Earl, this exchange suggests that the kindness of women is indeed his life and salvation.
As they rise in the final shot, we notice something we now expect: a visual mark of Hildy’s entrapment. She is framed against the barred wall afront the foyer, and even the chair she pushes back, again with one hand, is backed in a way that suggests “bars.” Earl’s line is, “Goodbye, Miss Johnson,” another reminder. Hildy is straight, and again brisk and deft, but her glance back at Earl before leaving shows that the bond remains. Her final line, “Good luck”—a favorite with Hawks—was the sort of farewell given aviators in World War One before they undertook dangerous missions. It indicates that the bond is one of collegiality; that, again, Hildy belongs in this professional world. A fade denies us the chance to see Hildy outside the cell room, since, the film says, her existence outside this world really is irrelevant.
Is Hildy not herself “produced for use”—her proper “use” being the newspaper business and married life with Walter? We are led to believe by this scene that she is as stuck here as Earl, and as at home in this incarnation as he comically seems amid his cell’s drab but human furnishings. But Hildy does more than passively fit. The composure, command, and compassion she lends the situation work redemptively on her world to make it a fit little “home.” If redemption themes are the basis of comedy, the cell scene, in less than three minutes’ total running time, has established a comic vision for the whole film. In its own composure and its concentration on two persons, the scene models sanity and humanness of a kind needed for this film, and altogether absent from the frenetic action of The Front Page. It discloses Hildy in the integrated wholeness of her being, thus rendering credible her character itself and her eventual reunion with Walter. It shows that the romantic and professional dimensions of her being each help realize the other. As a paradigmatic case of theatre-to-film adaptation, it helps soften and knead the unrelentingly caustic, crazy stage comedy into a proper romantic-comedy shape—exactly what Hawks meant the “feminizing” of Hildy to do in the first place.
Source: Jeffrey A. Smith, “His Girl Friday in the Cell: A Case Study of Theatre-to-Film Adaptation,” in Literature/ Film Quarterly, 1985, Vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 71–76.
John Mason Brown
Brown reviews a 1946 production of The Front Page, appraising the play as a “lusty” piece of writing that accurately captures the era it seeks to portray.
From the millions of words spoken as dialogue in new American plays during the last quarter of a century, a few sentences here and there refuse to be forgotten. Most of the others, even when they have done their nightly duty as flares, have been swallowed up in the darkness.
The lines I have in mind are different. Beauty is not their strong point. Neither is wit, eloquence, profundity, nor, as a rule, reverence. Yet they have stuck in the memories of playgoers. They have lodged there as summaries and as tags; as vivid reminders of past pleasures. What is more, they have hung on with the insistence of slogans.
Any theatregoer of fair constancy and of a certain age can place them at once. The stagestruck find them as readily identifiable as schoolboys do
such military nifties as “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” “Don’t give up the ship,” “Damn the torpedoes!” “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” “LaFayette, we are here,” or, as spoken at Bastogne, just plain “Nuts.” For that matter they are as spottable as such Presidential declarations as “Speak softly and carry a Big Stick,” “I do not choose to run,” “Too proud to fight,” “The return to normalcy,” or “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Many of the lines which ring bells immediately in the minds of playgoers are mere phrases. “Dat ole davil sea,” for instance. Or “Sign on the dotted line,” “I belong, dat’s me,” “The mountains of Nebraska,” or “It’s only Mother.”
Some—such as “Gangway for de Lord God Jehovah,” or (a long pause, please) “I may vomit”—served as memorable entrance cues. Others—such as “Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners. You get a good rest, too. Good night,” and “No! I’m going to be baptized, damn it!”—ended evenings of rare delight.
Among all such lines, I doubt if any have proved more adhesive than those which rang down the curtain on two of the twenties’ rowdiest successes. One of these was, of course, the ebullient, “Hey, Flagg, wait for baby!” with which Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson concluded “What Price Glory?” The other left audiences gasping and roaring when the late Osgood Perkins barked it into a Page 102 | Top of Articletelephone. It ran, (and still runs, because The Front Page has recently been revived), “The son of a bitch stole my watch!”
This last gun in Ben Hecht’s and Charles Mac Arthur’s newspaper comedy came as a jubilant climax to a merry melodrama. It capped the barrage of surprises which eighteen years ago had kept all of us laughing and startled for the whole of a noisy, fast-moving evening. It was a coup de théâtre; unexpected, and as hardboiled as the play. It showed us the true character of the managing editor Mr. Perkins acted to perfection. It was his trick to win back to Chicago newspaperdom the star reporter who had dared to fall in love, dared to go on a honeymoon, dared to think of becoming an advertising man in New York.
The editor had just given the newly married reporter the watch in question as a present. The two men, long friends, had, after squabbling sacrilegiously, enjoyed an almost sentimental moment of reconciliation before parting. Yet, no sooner had the reporter and his bride left for the station, than the editor stepped to the telephone. He had hesitated for an instant and heaved a huge sigh. Managing editor though he was, he was at least that human. Then he had proceeded to growl his instructions to his henchman.
“Listen,” he had said, “I want you to send a wire to the Chief of Police of LaPorte, Indiana.... That’s right. . . . Tell him to meet the twelve-forty out of Chicago. . . New York Central... and arrest Hildy Johnson and bring him back here.... Wire him a full description.... The son of a bitch stole my watch!”
Time is the best of all shock absorbers. It can turn a scandalized “Oh!” into an accepting “So!” within an unbelievably small number of years. The Front Page, when seen—and heard—today, remains a far, far better play than most. One of the proofs of its skill is that its excellences as a script cannot be obscured by the less than indifferent performance to which it is just now being subjected. It is stoutly built. And, what matters more, it is peopled by an entertaining group of characters; hardboiled members of the Fourth Estate who breathe to swear and swear at every breath.
To their authors these profane news-hawks are obviously the most glamorous of figures. They see them as D’Artagnans in modern dress; as King Arthurs whose scandal-dripping typewriters are their Excaliburs; as Robin Hoods defying the Sheriff, not of Nottingham but of Cook County, in the Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. Their lack of sentiment is what makes their creators feel sentimental about them. They are enchanted with their disenchantment. So, may I add, are we.
That these curmudgeons of the press use the language colorfully, no one can deny. Even so, the “tough-guy” speech, which they sport as romantically as Cyrano flourished his plume, no longer astonishes us. The intervening years have robbed the oaths of The Front Page of their novelty. The dialogue now tires us at times by its striving, instead of amazing us throughout by its daring.
If ever realism swaggered as romance, or romance masquerade as realism, it is in Mr. Hecht’s and Mr. Mac Arthur’s melodrama. The Front Page was the work—more accurately, the play—of two young men who were described by their original producer, Jed Harris, as “the Katzenjammer Kids of the theatre.” Their lightheartedness was the measure of their own youth and of the times in which they were lucky enough to be young. This is what Brooks Atkinson meant when, in his review of the present revival, he said, “Today it would be difficult for anybody to write anything so gay in spirit.”
As important to any creative work as what is included in it is what is left out. The point of choice is indeed the point where art begins. Darwin may have championed natural selection, but the creative processes depend upon a selection which, regardless of how inevitable it may seem in the finished product, discards irrelevances and chooses with a definite and quite arbitrary purpose in mind.
Often, in a piece of writing as lusty as The Front Page, there is more to the play than is captured in the dialogue or suggested in the action. The very omissions speak for themselves. Mr. Hecht’s and Mr. MacArthur’s melodrama is based on the assumptions and the attitudes of the Prohibition era. Its tone is tough with a toughness born of those times. Its spirit is jaunty, immature, untroubled. It is written with a lightness of heart which, tragically, may be no longer possible but with a worship of the “lowdown” which, fortunately, has become as dated as it is discredited. Though tamer than it once was, The Front Page has, as a script, outlasted the Page 103 | Top of Articledays of its writing. It has become a period piece only because it so successfully captures the feeling of its period.
It was George S. Kaufman who first staged the melodrama. He performed a difficult task with a drive which kept the play cracking like a snakewhip in action. The group scenes, where a stageful of reporters must be given their individual chances to talk “tough,” were timed with a precision calculated to win a Swiss clock-maker’s envy. Everything was kept moving at so insistent a rate that, until the text was published, no one could be certain how self-reliant the script would prove as a play when unaided by its staging.
One of the disquieting faults of the present revival is that it makes us realize the virtues of the writing merely by granting them no assistance. To those never fortunate enough to have seen The Front Page before, and who do not keep seeing and hearing Osgood Perkins and Lee Tracy in it now, the comedy may seem satisfying enough. I say “may,” though I gravely doubt it. I know only that I found this performance a dreary, inept affair; miscast, slouchily acted; and lacking, above all, in the fire and the precision needed to do the script justice.
In Mr. Tracy’s part of the incurable reporter, Lew Parker acts with more effort than effect. He manages to skid on a dry road. His characterization is smudged and blurred, when it cries out loud to be clean and definite. Arnold Moss is totally lost in Osgood Perkin’s shoes. Mr. Moss is an excellent classic actor. His Prospero in last year’s “Tempest” made this clear. Yet, as should go without saying, almost every characteristic of voice, gesture, and mind which distinguished him in Shakespeare is misplaced in his impersonation of a tough Chicago newshawk. The late Henry Van Dyke trying to write like Ernest Hemingway could not possibly have been more at a loss.
Much as I admire The Front Page as a newspaper play, in the presence of the current slow-paced and amateurish revival I found I had one wish uppermost in my mind. I kept wanting to rush to the telephone in the manner of their managing editor, and warn Mr. Hecht and Mr. MacArthur that someone backstage—I only said “someone”—had stolen their watch.
Source: John Mason Brown, “Gentlemen of the Press,” in the Saturday Review, Vol. 29, no. 43, October 26, 1946, pp. 24–26.
Atkinson, J. Brooks. A review in The New York Times, August 26, 1928, p. 1.
Bemrose, John. “Cynics and Sybarites: Attacking a Deficiency with First-Rate Drama,” Maclean’s, June 13, 1994, p. 45.
Brien, Alan. “The Front Page,” Plays and Players, August 1972, p. 35–36.
Brustein, Robert. “Headline Hunting,” in The New Republic, January 5 & 12, 1987, pp. 25–26.
Fethering, Doug. The Five Lives of Ben Hecht, New York Zoetrope, 1977, pp. 67–87.
Kerr, Walter. God on the Gymnasium Floor and Other Theatrical Adventures, Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 176–78.
Morrison, Michael A. A review in Village Voice, August 9, 1994, p. 86.
A review in The New York Times, August 15, 1928, p. 19.
Simon, John. Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–73, Random House, 1975, pp. 246–47.
——. “Satire is Dead in America!,” in New York, December 8, 1996, p. 113.
Wyatt, Euphemia Van Rensselaer. A review in Catholic World, November, 1928, pp. 211–12.
Epstein, Joseph. “The Great Hack Genius,” in Commentary, December 1990.
A critical biography of Hecht, including analysis of The Front Page.
Hecht, Ben. A Child of the Century, Simon & Schuster, 1954, 654 p.
——. The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur, Harper, 1957, 242 p.
An incomplete biography of MacArthur.
Martin, Jeffrey Brown. Ben Hecht: Hollywood Screenwriter, UMI Research Press, 1985, pp. 41–56.
Discusses The Front Page as a play as well as a movie. Also compares the play and the movies to other “newspaper” movies.
Zion, Sidney. “The Scoop from Helen Hayes,” The New York Times, November 16, 1986, pp. 1, 22.
Provides background on The Front Page.